#969: “When spouses don’t agree about birth control.”

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve been reading your blog for awhile and just love it! Your answers and the community here are both awesome. So thanks. My question is really tough and I’m afraid your answer is going to be “there is no actual compromise possible here.” But I’m going to try.

My husband and I were both raised as extremely religious Catholics. When we were dating (courting??) we both agreed that we wanted to have lots of kids, like a dozen, and homeschool them all. Over eight years of marriage, we’ve both changed a lot. We’re both a lot more liberal and our kids are going to public school. After the third kid, we both agreed that we no longer wanted to have any more kids. But, being Catholic, there are only two allowed solutions: NFP (natural family planning, also known as Vatican Roulette), and total abstinence. We did that for a miserable year and a half and then, predictably, got pregnant with our fourth.

I cannot describe how horrible this has all been to me. Four kids is A LOT OF KIDS, especially given that the oldest is only seven. I loathe being pregnant with the fiery heat of a thousand suns. All of them have been high needs. I haven’t slept well since 2009. My husband is exhausted too; he cried like a baby when he found out we were having the fourth and I believe he is still depressed about it four months after she was born.

And I no longer see any point to this punishingly difficult lifestyle since I am no longer Catholic. Between kid 3 and kid 4, I did a lot of studying and am now entirely agnostic. My husband was really upset by my deconversion and mostly prefers not to talk about it at all. He’s become a lot more skeptical about his faith, but he does think it’s true and it worries him to think I might be going to hell. Meanwhile I now think that birth control is definitely the greatest thing since indoor plumbing.

Our birth control method now, given that NFP so obviously does not work, is abstinence. Every couple of weeks my husband can’t stand it anymore so we have non-PIV sex. Only there is zero communication about this. I think his perspective is that, if he’s got to “sin,” at least he’s not going to make it worse by premeditating it. The problem is that it’s obvious both of us want to take it further and I know from experience how hard it is to think clearly when you’re horny. I am terrified that sooner or later we’re going to get pregnant again. I cannot, CANNOT go through pregnancy again; I get the shakes just thinking about it. Meanwhile our sex life is completely screwed up from the NFP and then the whatever-this-is we’re doing now, so that neither of us is really enjoying it that much and we both kinda feel like roommates. It sucks and the thought of doing this till menopause is awful.

I want to go on birth control. He doesn’t even want to discuss it. He told me some time ago that if I did go on birth control, he’d continue to feel obligated to never have sex again because contracepted sex is a sin. I don’t want to do something unilaterally if it truly would upset him, but on the other hand I feel like his religion will make it impossible for him ever to agree to it, even if he WERE okay with it, because that would implicate him in the “sin.” So I can’t find out how he really feels about it. And then there’s the money issue … we don’t have insurance and all the really effective birth control methods are pretty expensive. With his cooperation we could easily save up the money for it in a couple of months, but since I’m a full-time carer for the kids, I don’t have much in the way of my own separate money. And it’s not like a couple thousand dollars are sitting around in the bank right now for me to just take and use … even if I would feel okay unilaterally spending that amount of money, given that normally all major purchases have to be okayed by both of us. And I have almost no one in my life who isn’t fanatically Catholic, certainly no one I could call on to drive me home from getting my tubes tied.

What, dear Captain, would you do? Can you help me come up with a script for “seriously, we need to actually TALK about what we’re doing and your Catholic guilt and denial are not helping”? I have been quietly waiting for the past two years or so for him to come around, but he hasn’t, and I feel our disastrous fourth pregnancy is my fault for agreeing to rely on the broken fire escape that is NFP instead of going behind his back and somehow getting an IUD. Yet I still hesitate to make such a big decision unilaterally; I’m equally scared to tell him (and face his hurt feelings) or not tell him (and have a big whopping secret looming over my head). And of course there are the practical issues.

Thanks for reading my lengthy novel,

Offred (Just Kidding) (Mostly)

Hi “Offred” (No Joke!):

When spouses don’t agree about birth control…the person with the greatest pregnancy risk gets to use birth control if they want to. If you were my friend and you wanted an IUD and your husband didn’t want you to have an IUD, I’d have you at that appointment today*, so I’m not sure that asking what I would do is the most helpful thing for you. Still, I’m really glad you wrote, so, hi!

This shouldn’t a surprise, but I’m firmly in the “Can the Pope get pregnant? No? Could any of the men who have ever been responsible for deciding and promulgating this doctrine (i.e. the literal Patriarchy) get pregnant? Mostly…not?? Can your husband get pregnant? Really unlikely? Do any of these people live in your body? Then their opinions about this are not the most important opinionscamp.

This doctrine in particular is one of the reasons I personally broke with the church. I respect people’s right to make their own reproductive decisions and their right to factor religious faith into those decisions. I also believe those rights stop at the borders of your own body, so I don’t respect the way this doctrine has made life harder for countless women and people who can get pregnant, and I don’t respect the Church’s political activism around making contraception harder to access. If you wanted a nuanced, neutral, “Well, religious doctrine is super important too, so, tread carefully!” answer, I’m 100% not your lady.

The good news is, enough Catholic families (I’ve seen numbers as high as 98% of sexually active practicing Catholic women have used contraception) are going to church and then also quietly going to the doctor and locking their birth control stuff down that I’d bet *someone* in your community would drive you wherever you needed to go (and/or trade off rides in the future). They’re just being quiet about it the way you are being quiet about it because they don’t want to wake the Patriarchy. The “everyone else does it” argument probably isn’t going to convince your husband, but I think it might help you to remind yourself that facts and precedent are on your side.

You are the only adult in your family who can get pregnant. To me, that makes you the only decider about whether you want to be pregnant and what steps and trade-offs you are willing to make to prevent pregnancy. The teachings of your husband’s church and his worries about sin and his hurt feelings do not outweigh your human right to make this decision for yourself or obligate you to keep gestating an Adorable Gift From The Vatican! every couple of years. You can love your kids without wanting more of them. You can love God without wanting more kids. You can love your husband and still draw a line about this. He can have unsettled feelings about this, but you have a right to bodily autonomy and a right make your own decisions about your own ethics and religious beliefs.

You say that this issue has been on the table for two years while you wait for him to come around. (Not incidentally, that’s two years during which you had an unplanned pregnancy that made you miserable). If you wanted to give him one more chance to “come around,” here’s a possible script:

Husband, I don’t want to get pregnant again, and I want to be able to have sex with you without that risk, so I am going to get an IUD** as soon as possible. I’ve done some research and the device and insertion will cost $X, so we need to start putting $Y aside from the household budget to pay for it. Until that’s handled, I don’t want to have any penetrative sex. I know you are uncomfortable with this decision, but this is the right decision for me and I need you to be on my team right now.

He’ll have some stuff to say and maybe some weird feelings about it. You can get the IUD anyway. 

Things might get really weird between you for a little while.You can get the IUD anyway.

He may try refuse to help pay for it. You can get the IUD anyway. Planned Parenthood and other organizations offer free or sliding-scale birth control. In searching for “free birth control” I also found this clinic locator. Chicago has this absolute treasure of a sliding-scale women’s health center, maybe there is something like this near you? Incidentally, one partner using finances to control another’s medical decisions or refusing to pay for the other’s medical care is not okay.

Your follow-up script can be “I’ve prayed about it, I’ve thought about it, and I need to do this to take care of myself. If you are uncomfortable, I understand, I’ve really tried to respect that and to give church-approved methods a chance, but it’s not working for me and my mind is made up.”

Warning: He may try (out of guilt, a desire for control, a desire for The Last Word, who knows) to keep having penetrative sex with you while you save up. THAT IS NOT OKAY. It is also the reason that you need the IUD. If you think this might happen, it’s also an argument for unilaterally and quietly taking care of it on your own. It sucks to keep secrets in a marriage and I understand why you don’t want to. I also think that unreasonable people who don’t give you a safe way to tell them the truth don’t get to be outraged if you choose to quietly prioritize your own safety.

Your husband doesn’t really want more children. He also does not want to commit to only non-penetrative sex forever (Exhibit: Baby #4). He doesn’t want to “sin” by using contraception, but he’s not the one who is going to get pregnant. Does he want to be scot-free of this particular “sin” so badly that he’s willing to risk your health, your life, your economic well-being (Four kids under 8 and no health insurance for you?? How did y’all pay for your pregnancy and delivery? None of my business, really, but that sounds REALLY, EPICLY HARD!!!???!!!)? Is he willing to risk the trust and closeness of your marriage to get what he wants?

There is a compromise possible here, it’s called: “You get the medical care you want and need, and he agrees to handle his complicated feelings about that without making them (literally) your problem to carry.”

Look at it this way: You getting an IUD inserted doesn’t obligate him to have sex with you. If penetrative sex with a woman on birth control is really and truly too much of a sin for him to even contemplate, then he has the option of continuing with the non-penetrative kind of sex once you are on birth control so that his conscience will be 100% clear. Does that sound like a deeply unrealistic path for him? YES, OF COURSE IT DOES THAT’S WHY YOU HAVE THIS PROBLEM (AND A FOURTH BABY).

If he can’t be on your team about this,  I do not think you are a bad person or a bad wife if you quietly take care of yourself around this and present him with a fait accompli. You don’t need his permission. Family money is your money, too. Ideally spouses would make these kinds of decisions together, but when the chips are down, the person with the pregnancy risk gets to make the final call.

Signed,

Jennifer Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, Abortion Is Necessary Healthcare, and Planned Parenthood Is A National Treasure Captain Awkward Leigh Peepas

*If you live in or near Chicago, email me?

**Substitute whatever birth control method you and your doctor choose, including tubal ligation.

Moderation Notes: I do not want to moderate a discussion about this today. If the Letter Writer wants community input or to find a local-to-her-ride-to-the-clinic, the forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com might be a good place for that discussion.

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