NFP and Divorce Rates: More Research Needed

Did you know that last month the Catholic Church celebrated NFP Awareness Week?  NFP, or Natural Family Planning, refers to methods for postponing (or achieving) pregnancy based upon observations of a woman’s body that inform her of the fertile and infertile phases of her cycle.  Overlapping with the anniversary of Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, NFP Awareness Week is, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “a national educational campaign of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on the Catholic teaching on married love and the gift of human life. The annual campaign, which began in 2002, promotes awareness of Natural Family Planning (NFP) methods.”


NFP and Low Divorce Rates

Not surprisingly, in celebration of NFP Awareness Week, a number of Catholic websites and blogs featured articles and posts about NFP, many pointing out the benefits to married couples of using NFP.  One that I would like to discuss here is the frequently cited connection between using NFP and low divorce rates.  For example, on LifeSiteNews we find that one of the greatest benefits of NFP is its positive impact on marital stability: “An often forgotten feature of Natural Family Planning is that it strengthens both the spiritual and emotional aspects of marriage.  Couples who practice Natural Family Planning have a divorce rate of about 5%, markedly lower than the 50% divorce rate of couples who utilize contraception.” Similarly, in her essay Contraception: Why Not?, often mentioned in pro-NFP blog posts and articles, Dr. Janet Smith speaks of the low divorce rate as a major selling point of NFP:

What you need to know is that couples using natural family planning almost never divorce. This is the biggest selling point of natural family planning when I’m talking to college students. The fact is, young people hate divorce. Either they’ve grown up in divorced households and they know the pain of divorce very personally or their friends have. Even if a couple has been married for 25 or 30 years and they think they are never going to get divorced, their kids don’t think that. The kids know someone else at school who went home and dad was packing up or mom was gone and they think it could happen to anybody. And so they’re living in this very fragile world. “Yeah, I don’t think Mom and Dad are going to get divorced, but Kevin didn’t think his mom and dad were going to get divorced either and they did.”

Elsewhere, we can find the assertion that NFP acts as “marriage insurance.”


Clip from a parish bulletin during NFP week:





Examining Research on the NFP and Divorce

Given these assertions on the benefits of NFP, it is worthwhile to look at the research behind these statistics. Does practicing NFP lower couples’ chances of getting divorced?  The study cited by a number of articles discussing NFP and divorce rates is a survey that was sponsored by the Family of Americas Foundation entitled “The Practice of Natural Family Planning versus the Use of Artificial Birth Control: Family, Sexual and Moral Issues.”  In 2000, 505 women “who had taken NFP instruction at least three to over ten years ago” were surveyed (nonrandomly) with regard to a host of social issues, and their results were compared to representative samples of American women of similar age and to Catholic women in the U.S. of similar age.  Concerning marital stability, the study’s results show a much lower divorce rate in the NFP group compared to women of the general population.*

Significant to point out, however, is that the author, Mercedes Arzú Wilson, makes an important caveat.  While the purpose of the study was meant to “examine the impact of Natural Family Planning on a wide variety of family, sexual and moral issues,” she acknowledges that people should not confuse correlation with causation when it comes to NFP and divorce:

Further research is required in order to determine if this relationship is in any sense causal, or whether the relationship between practicing NFP and family stability is due to other factors common to these couples, including their strong religious beliefs and practices, and if these developed after they began practicing NFP (pg. 19 Internet version).

Hence, we cannot assume that NFP is directly responsible for the low divorce rates among its users.  As sociologists have previously found (for review, see Mahoney et al. 2001), religiosity can be a significant influence on marital stability.  And, without controlling for the effect of religiosity, as well as other factors, we cannot know to what extent NFP is really behind marital stability, or whether the couples’ high religiosity is the contributing factor.  Likewise, given that the sampling for the study was nonrandom, we also cannot say that the results of the NFP study are representative of all women using NFP.



More research on the impact of NFP on relationships is clearly needed.  While the above study shows clear differences between women using NFP and women not in the NFP study to what extent NFP is the causal influence of these differences is unknown.  Indeed, the USCCB lists some criteria as to how Catholics can be “good consumers of NFP research,” as well as some examples of possible NFP divorce studies that could be done using good research methodologies.   Catholic speakers and organizations promoting NFP should be aware of this.  While research has looked at the ways NFP users say NFP has brought them together (VandeVusse et al. 2003), others have struggled greatly with NFP, as evidenced by a quick perusal of a popular Catholic online forum (e.g. see here).  If NFP is promoted as a sure-fire way to prevent divorce, couples for whom practicing it is difficult and/or for whom their marriage is strained, might feel misled by Catholic leaders.


Questions to consider

  • Were you aware of NFP Awareness Week? If so, did anything stand out in the way it was presented?
  • Does your parish promote NFP?  If so, in what way does it do so?
  • In what ways might NFP help a marriage? Why might some couples feel it hurts their marriage?



Mahoney, Annette, Kenneth I Pargament, Nalini Tarakeshwar, and Aaron B. Swank.  2001.  “Religion in the Home in the 1980s and 1990s: A Meta-Analytic Review and Conceptual Analysis of Links Between Religion, Marriage, and Parenting.” Journal of Family Psychology 15(4): 559-596.

VandeVusse, Leona, Lisa Hanson, Richard Fehring, Amy Newman, and Jaime Fox.  2003. “Couples’ Views of the Effects of Natural Family Planning on Marital Dynamics.”  Journal of Nursing Scholarship 35(2):171-176.

Wilson, Mercedes Arzú.  2002. “The Practice of Natural Family Planning versus the Use of Artificial Birth Control: Family, Sexual, and Moral Issues.” Catholic Social Science Review 7: 185-211.


*Additionally, according to the Art of Natural Family Planning (1996), Couple to Couple League Central has tracked one small group and found the divorce rate to be 1.3%, though the organization estimates that rate to be two or three percent higher (pg. 245).

6 thoughts on “NFP and Divorce Rates: More Research Needed

  1. I have little doubt there is a high correlation between NFP practicing Catholics and a low-divorce rate. However, my training in the scientific method finds any argument for a casual relationship between NFP and a successful marriage to be completely unfounded based upon articles (aka musings) circulating throughout Catholic circles. As stated in the blog above, the proper research has not been done, thus the data to make such a claim does not exist.

    It truly bothers me that a parish bulletin publishes the fact that “Couples who use NFP have a divorce rate of less than 5%.” I am curious as to where exactly they came up with 5%. Further, it appears they are attempting to spin their number to argue for a casual relationship that NFP leads to a healthier marriage. Where is the data backing this argument? I pray that practicing Catholics (myself included) have the wisdom to question such arguments and demand to see the data supporting them. Remember when we were taught as pupils the importance of a well-informed conscience? A well informed conscience ought not to kowtow to unsupported musings of the cause and effect of NFP.

    Please allow me to be a hypocrite and make my own musing, speculation, or what have you; any Catholic couple who is devout to the point of practicing NFP is likely to also be devout to living a holy life and a holy marriage. I think most people will agree with that assumption. Again, the argument of NFP contributing to marital success cannot be supported with current data.

    If an experiment, study or whatever sociologists choose to call it, were to be constructed, with the hypothesis being that NFP promotes a lower divorce rate, atleast two groups, hopefully more, would need to be studied. Namely, a Catholic group who practices NFP and a secular, non-religious group who also practices NFP. I would also recommend a group of families who identify as practicing Catholics and choose to use a non-NFP form of contraception and a similar secular group. Even with these many groups there are many variables that are nearly impossible to control – but it would be something. Personally, I would hypothesize that NFP would have little effect on the divorce rate of the secular group. That’s of course assuming you could even find a secular group to practice NFP!

    I mean no disrespect to those who use NFP and find that it contributes to a holy and happy marriage. I also mean no disrespect to the Church who teaches it as a holy practice of family planning (aka birth control.) But – please – to anyone making a cause and effect claim without data – expect a question or two.

  2. This blog has raised several good points concerning the relationship between NFP and marriage, and one in particular stands out: there is no magic trick that determines a successful marriage. A marriage only endures because each partner vows to commit themselves to each other, and live out their marriage vows in their everyday lives. We must do all we can to teach Catholic college kids that NFP will not guarantee one a successful and happy marriage.

  3. Hi,

    I posted this on Linda’s facebook post, and she asked that I post it here as well. Keep in mind, what I’m saying is based on my personal observations. I’m a financial analyst by trade and intimately understand correlation vs. causation. I know personal experience will never replace a good ANOVA analysis. But here’s at least one case where NFP caused a marked improvement in a marriage, and the reasons why:

    I’d vouch that there’s likely some causation, actually, at least from our experience. Bri and I were very surprised at how our relationship changed for the better once we started using NFP. Using NFP, guys are asked to learn more about the female body. It might sound hokey, but I feel like I respect her body more now that I know how it actually works. It’s an appreciation that I could say approaches awe.

    Plus, there’s increased communication. It’s easy to go on auto-pilot with your family planning when you’re using contraception, but with NFP, it’s always up for discussion. Especially with the pill, changing your mind and trying to become fertile again can take months, but NFP allows you to be much more responsive to God’s call to parenthood.

    And you know, our opinion of children kind of changed. The idea of having kids became much less scary. I’m not sure why that is. It’s unfortunate in a way, because people see folks on NFP with huge families, and they assume it doesn’t work. No, it works really well… it’s just, well, big families start looking like a blessing… and I can’t really explain why NFP helps you see that, but it does.

    There’s also probably something to be said for natural hormonal balance. Bri would be able to speak to this better than I, but I wonder if artificially manipulating a woman’s hormone levels every month with the pill takes a toll after a while.

    Most importantly, NFP trains you that sex shouldn’t be about instant gratification. I’m not convinced that contraception’s ability to make women always available is a healthy thing for a relationship. Everything needs a Sabbath, so to speak. NFP gives you natural periods of abstinence, and that has proven to be healthy for our relationship. It’s good to experience longing. It’s good that the wife doesn’t always end up being the one that says, ‘not tonight.’

    So yeah… from a couple that’s tried both NFP and contraception… I can’t say enough about how much better NFP has been for us. I didn’t go into it for religious reasons. I was pretty much a cafeteria catholic at the time. I just thought it’d be nice to save the money, but it’s really looking like Pope Paul VI may have really been a visionary on this one.

    John Paul II, in his “Theology of the Body” reminds us that our bodies, male and female together are an image of the trinitarian God. I won’t go into detail here, but the conclusion is that the better we understand our bodies, the closer we grow to God. It stands to reason then that NFP would bring you closer to God, because you learn about your body, the wonder of its fertility, and learn to listen to the signs it gives you. On the other hand, with the pill, you’re chemically shutting down the system, ignoring the signs, and relying on a short cut purchased from the pharmaceutical companies. I can see why one would contribute to healthy marriages, and the other contribute to a higher divorce rate.

  4. It is actually fairly clear that it is fallacious to attribute the low divorce rate to NFP alone. Others have commented on potential alternate variables. I won’t repeat except to add that there may be something to simply being willing to follow church teaching in one’s own sexuality, and to submit to a righteous authority outside of oneself. I wonder if that isn’t the biggest causal factor of ’em all (for enduring, happy marriages, that is).

    With all that said, it seems to me that it is perfectly legitimate to mention and advertise the 5% divorce rate (assuming it’s supportable). Just because the social scientists can’t easily determine the direction of all the causal arrows, and exactly how much of the variance is explained by each one, *doesn’t mean* that there isn’t something there. Obviously there is: 5% is a dramatic contrast to secular society, no matter how all the causality works out.

    It is also prudent to be cautious in claiming that NFP alone will solve all marital problems.

  5. Actually, it makes no sense at all to say that “maybe the reason is religiosity, as there may be a correlation between religiosity and low divorce rates.” It is widely known that there have already been LOADS of studies showing that divorce rates are roughly equal amongst practicing Christians of all types (including Catholics)–and non or non-practicing Christians. Therefore, the only possible difference of note here IS NFP– not just religiosity. In my opinion, that is just a lame way to avoid facing a very obvious correlation.

    • Hi Holly,
      I appreciate you taking the time to read my blog post. When talking about religiosity and divorce rates, it’s important to distinguish what we mean by religiosity. Typically sociologists of religion measure religiosity by some sort of combination of belief (e.g., Bible views), belonging (e.g., denominational affiliation or strength of one’s religious affiliation), and practice (e.g., Church attendance, frequency of prayer). I think the reason for different findings regarding religiosity and likelihood of divorce is because not all researchers use the same measurements of religiosity. For example, some researchers have measured religiosity by asking the respondent if he or she is a Christian, then comparing those who identify as Christian to those who have no religious affiliation. However, that way of measuring religiosity is only one of many. I’m not sure where you got your statistic that “practicing Christians of all types (including Catholics) and non or non-practicing Christians” divorce at the same rate. However, much of the research I’ve come across suggests that religiosity significantly impacts both attitudes about divorce and the likelihood of actually getting divorced. However, such studies often take a nuanced view of religiosity – showing that it’s not so much one’s religious affiliation that affects the likelihood of divorce but the religious practices that a person does, often with his or her spouse, that make an impact, e.g. going to church, praying regularly, etc. For instance, W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, finds from his own analysis that “active conservative Protestants” who regularly attend church are 35 percent less likely to divorce compared to those who have no affiliation. Similarly, he finds that “active Catholics” are 31 percent less likely to divorce compared to those who claim no religious affiliation.* Important to note here is that these are “active” conservative Protestants and “active” Catholics, defined as people who attend church several times a month or more. This is in comparison to “average” conservative Protestants and “average” Catholics, who are defined by the fact that they simply indicated a religious affiliation to survey interviewers.

      As for the effect that practicing NFP has on divorce, so far that hasn’t been tested by sociologists, which leads to my point that we don’t know if it has a significant impact on the likelihood of a couple getting divorced or not. My guess is that it does, though I realize that those Catholic couples who practice NFP tend to exhibit high rates of religiosity in the first place. From personal experience, the NFP practicing couples that I’ve met tend to attend Mass every week, and sometimes several times a week. They also tend to pray together and be very involved in their parish. Such behaviors themselves have been found to be protective against divorce. It would be nice if sociologists had a good dataset by which they could parse out the separate effects of NFP use from other practices of religiosity, but as far as I know no dataset like that exists yet.

      *W. Bradford Wilcox and Elizabeth Williamson, “The Cultural Contradictions of Mainline Family Ideology and Practice,” in American Religions and the Family, edited by Don S. Browning and David A. Clairmont (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).