If abstinence (from sex) is painful, you’re doing it wrong. Over the years, my husband, Alex and I have heard married couples and singles alike comment on how painful it is to abstain. Singles like to think that married people have it easy, since their abstinence is only periodic. Married folks tell singles they have it much easier, since living with the person you love the most, even sharing a bed with them every night, makes abstinence that much more difficult. Can it be challenging at times, no matter what your state in life? Absolutely. And having been single and married, I’d say it’s especially difficult when a married couple really wants another baby, but they have to postpone pregnancy for good reason.
However, is abstinence painful? Here’s what is painful: labor, childbirth, kidney stones, broken femur, appendicitis, cancer, arthritis—shall I go on? But is abstinence? Not if you’re doing it right.
What is abstinence?
Here’s our perspective, and you’ll find it lines up with Saint John Paul II encyclicals. Abstinence is going to work, raking leaves, building snowmen, tending a garden, emailing, or leaving love notes. Abstinence is playing cards or board games, hiking, visiting a museum and shopping. Abstinence is baking a chocolate dessert to share, trying that new Thai recipe, or a new ice cream flavor, and spending time with your children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. Abstinence is going to Mass, making a holy hour, going to confession, or reading a new book. Abstinence is watching a movie, catching up with friends, apple picking, going to the beach, sledding, ice skating, kayaking, wine tasting, craft-making (candles, soaps, needlepoint, wood-working, metal-working). Abstinence is test-driving a new car, running, swimming, and playing sports (or watching them). Abstinence is dreaming up your perfect home—the layout, the number of rooms, the size of the yard. Abstinence is travel, learning new languages, going out to eat, or going out for that hot air balloon ride (personal favorite). Abstinence is dancing, singing, painting, or playing music.
None of these activities are painful, but they can be a lot of fun. These activities become fruitful when we allow them to further develop our relationships with family, friends, and significant others (especially our spouse).
I married my best friend. Ergo, we like to spend time together, no matter what we’re doing. Sure, it’d be easy to ignore the other aspects of our personhood, and reduce our relationship to one biological function. But we see people who do that all the time: they’re miserable! All of the time we spend together is quality, but that is an active decision that we have made from day one of our marriage, and we keep renewing that decision every day. There is so much joy and peace in that process. Sure, you may have to become less selfish in the process, and that can be painful at times, but what you have to gain is so much greater than what you think you’re giving up. Married people have to make the same decisions singles make every day in regards to chastity, and yes, even abstinence at times. If you think it’s easier to live chastely as a married person, let me remind you of the pain of divorce.
The idea behind abstinence isn’t a negation of sex or a denial of a good. Rather it’s turning your gaze towards other goods, which all contribute to the total person, and to our total experience as human beings. Yes, we’re all sexual creatures created with biological drives (women included!). But if you let those desires consume and enslave you, you’ll be miserable no matter what you’re doing. I think we can all manage our lives better with a little less misery.
If you’re not sure if these desires are controlling you, try turning to works of service. Usually in serving others we find our purpose and our true identity in life (becoming a gift). Try visiting the sick, the home-bound, the elderly, members of clergy, the poor, the homeless, the orphans (especially those in foster care). If you find that you’re still struggling, even after redirecting those desires with other positive actions, then you’re too attached. Please seek spiritual direction and possibly even counseling to regain control of your life. We want to see you living a happy, holy, and fulfilled life, even while abstaining.
All of God’s creations are good, including sexuality. However there is not one creation, including another human being, or any amount of pleasure on this earth that will take away our longing for Him. Often our mistake comes in substituting creations for the Creator. We will never be fully satisfied with any of the goods here on earth, until we rest in the ultimate goodness of His love. Remember that the love that conquered death is the love that can even make abstinence fruitful!