Killed by the Dragon

The Effects of Contraception on Courtship and Marriage

The symbolism and words of the Book of Tobit strike us with surprising clarity, and in the manner of an “emperor with no clothes.” In our modern culture, with its “liberated” way of speaking about sex and sexuality, we have become used to suppressing the meaning of our very bodies and constructed illusory reality by using misleading words — language creates culture.1 Marriage can only be built on a correction of this mistaken understanding and language.

Before Tobias proposed to Sarah, seven corpses had been carried out of her wedding chambers. Tobias, however, prayed before he came together with Sarah: “And now, Lord, thou knowest, that not for fleshly lust do I take my sister to wife, but only for the love of posterity, in which thy name may be blessed for ever and ever.” (Tobit 8:7, Latin Vulgate Edition). This prayer for purity is the reason why Tobias was not killed by the demon Asmodeus. As the story tells us, Tobias cast him out of Sarah’s room, with the help of the angel Raphael, who chained him in some remote corner of the desert in Egypt. The demon (as the text of the prayer says) is the demon of lust. Let us now call it the “patron saint” of contraception.

Tobias and Sarah, in their glorious days, were not only aiming at children, but, before becoming one flesh, abstained for three days “like saints” (cf. Tob. 8:4-5, Vulgate). Biblical scholars, of course, can bring criticisms to the Vulgate text of Saint Jerome referred to here — but we are not concerned merely with the letter. The spirit of chastity — of being in control over the instinctual energies in one’s personality, and, thus, symbolizing domination over the subhuman world2 —is also a common theme in fairytales of Indo-European heritage; the custom of abstaining for three nights (“triratravarta”) was well known in India and was still observed in some remote parts of Russia in the 1970s.3 Reigning over oneself, as is well known, is not limited to the Judeo-Christian tradition: “the one who conquers oneself is stronger than ten thousand enemies,” says Bhagavad-Gita; and celibacy, as we know, is a well-established tool for spiritual ascent in Buddhist spirituality up to this day. Even Freud did not dare to call this movement of the soul a “neurosis.” It was, rather, a matter of sublimation, the ennoblement of sexuality.4

The crash of marriage in the Western world was not caused primarily by the absence of the dream of the “happily-ever-after.” As much public opinion research shows, there is no lack of it in the hearts of young people today. The crash, rather, came about because of the inability to live the dream. In classical terms — as David and Amber Lapp recently concluded in their research of a now “normal” inability to stay together5 — there is a failure to achieve the traditional transformation of being in love into commitment, or, as Karol Wojtyła said, the feeling of love (“I’m in love with you!”) into love as a moral achievement (“I am ready to commit myself to love even when I don’t feel like it”).6 Now, the “naked emperor” standing in front of us here is that the simplest and most natural basis of the transformation of eros into agape, as was eloquently shown by Fulton J. Sheen, is a child.7 Contracepting lovers tend to remain stuck in Eros — a “mischievous beggar,” never satisfied with what it has, as Plato put it in the Symposium — and so, their love is built on sand. In the modern version of premarital life, which is inseparable from sexual relations and practiced with contraception, young couples train themselves in uncommitted love.

If their alliance survives until marriage — which is statistically unlikely — the ever-hungry sexual ego continues to strangle the love of the married couple, so that what remains of it resembles more the moral corpse of the seven unsuccessful bridegrooms of Sarah than the happy spouse Tobias. As marriage demands moral ascent (by which one grows in the ability not only to feel good about one’s spouse but to do good to him or her even when there are no feelings), the inability to move from emotion to commitment is often deadly for that marriage. We do not intend here to judge young couples; they are caught, after all, in a cultural narrative which tells them that it is a “good sexual life” that will make them happy, and that children should be relegated to a secondary place, with the help of contraception. Indeed, so much has this narrative been digested that one can hardly say anything about the debilitating character of the latter without being received with utter incomprehension.

As for contraception, with the beginning of its massive usage in the 1960s, the rates of cohabitation before marriage went up significantly.8 The raison d’etre for cohabitation is the search for “compatibility” but an absolutely compatible lover does not exist here on Earth, so cohabitation has led to the practice of “serial divorce” among young couples. I recently counseled a young lady who was afraid to enter a closer relationship with a man because she had endured previous disappointments and was afraid that she would “stop feeling love” for the young man courting her, as she had before. What an unfortunate mistake! What a myopic view of love our culture has (and has had for a long time, since its exaltation of romantic love!).9 Love is feeling, but it is also a friendship of benevolence; it is passion but it is also sacrifice! The good young lady seemed to be quite puzzled — and liberated — to hear the simple truth that the second part of love, besides feelings, was to develop herself into a friend of her beloved. She was no longer in danger of being at the mercy of her — or his — feelings.

Even if, however, a couple had taken a course on Karol Wojtyła’s Love and Responsibility — or C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves — and had learned its many “lessons” about sacrifice, the beginning of sexual relations outside of marriage would nonetheless have a detrimental effect for them, because of the intra-psychic effects of contraception. The most powerful evidence of such an effect is given by the famous psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson. In the essay “Eight Ages of Man,” which in contemporary psychology is considered one of the best treatises on different psychological tasks to be achieved in every stage of life from infancy to old age, the seventh chapter is devoted to the main span of life, which starts with the beginning of the work career and starting a family. The dilemma of this phase of life lies between the positive outcome, which Erikson calls “generativity,” and the negative one, called “stagnation.” In keeping with the respect accorded the bodily realities in the tradition of psychoanalysis, the strongest possibility of achieving generativity — which is only approximately synonymous with productivity or creativity — Erikson gives to producing and raising offspring.10 He offers an impressively integral, “bodily” view of the dynamics of the sexual act, and of the problems arising when its finality is thwarted:

It has taken psychoanalysis some time to realize that the ability to lose oneself in the meeting of bodies and minds leads to a gradual expansion of ego-interests and to a libidinal investment in that which is being generated. Generativity is, thus, an essential stage on the psychosexual as well as psychosocial schedule. Where such enrichment fails altogether, regression to an obsessive need for pseudo-intimacy takes place, often with a pervading sense of stagnation and personal impoverishment. Individuals, then,         begin to indulge themselves as if they were their own — or one another’s — one and only child; and where conditions favor it, early invalidism, physical or psychological, becomes the vehicle of self-concern.11

The exact interpretation of Erikson’s words asks us to think here about the expressions and language of the body, and not so much about the mind. In psychotherapy, it is said that “the body never lies”; what is meant by these words is that even when we try to hide some emotions — or even push them out of our consciousness — the bodily expressions are “betraying” what we really feel. Erikson is saying that his clinical experience has led him to an understanding of the enlargement of the heart (“gradual expansion of ego-interests”) tied to the loving attitude toward the future (possible) child (“libidinal investment in that which is being generated”) within sexual acts. It is amazing to read something from such a respected psychoanalyst that sounds so strikingly similar to what was said about the “language of the body” in the conjugal act, by another famous personality of the twentieth century, St. John Paul II. The coincidence of these two positions can be only explained by the basic structure of reality. Just as two biologists interpret the dynamics within the cell in the same way, two experts on the phenomenology of sex speak in the same way about the culmination of sexual passion.

Why do the individuals who decide to close their hearts to the possibility of conception “begin to indulge themselves as if they were their own — or one another’s — one and only child”? And why does “early invalidism, physical or psychological, becomes the vehicle of self-concern” where conditions favor such indulgence? This happy meeting of bodies and minds in the sexual act, as Erikson says, tends to open the hearts of the lovers to the third; as if the bliss of the encounter were too great to be contained within the two, it overflows into the potential third.12 In a sense, the ecstasy of the orgasm is like an explosion of love, the very intensity of which “contains” not only the promise to love forever, but also the joyful expectation of the prospective parent-child reciprocal exchange of love, tenderness and happiness, rarely exceeded by anything else in this world (which we observe in the happy instances of “preverbal” dialogue between mother and infant.)13

If such ecstasy — this going out of oneself — constitutes the very structure of the “sexual act” and if, to use again Erikson’s psychoanalytical vocabulary, this “libidinal investment in that which is being generated” is not realized in the exchange of the blissful happiness between the mother and the child, the father and the child and perhaps among all three of them together — this surplus of emotion “falls back” onto one’s own personality, so that one is urged to act it out, to direct this expectation of happiness toward oneself or to another, thus becoming “your own — or one another’s — one and only child.” In other words, one becomes sentimental, indulgent and self-concerned because, having embarked on a “spaceship” which did not reach its blissful destination, one was left with nothing more than painful longings for it — regardless of how much “good,” or even “great,” sex he has had. The situation is reminiscent of that described by Plutarch, where Julius Caesar, “on seeing certain wealthy foreigners in Rome carrying puppies and young monkeys about in their bosoms and fondling them, asked if the women in their country did not bear children.” Plutarch then adds that the famous man “in right princely fashion” rebuked “those who squander on animals that proneness to love and loving affection which is ours by nature, and which is due only to our fellow-men.”14

We know from physics that what was generated cannot disappear without a trace. The ecstasy of sexual union has occurred; the ego — or the heart — has opened itself to the blissful exchange of warmth, gentleness, and affection between the parent and the baby. And if this flash of energy cannot be realized in a real exchange, it will be “reabsorbed” by the “partners’” own personalities, turning them into indulgent children. The problem has been well known for a long time, but has received even more attention, surprisingly, from the most “sexually fixated” of disciplines. According to psychoanalysis, when the couple blocks the natural and unconscious dynamism of their hearts toward the fruit of their love, their personalities necessarily undergo infantalization, especially in the case of men. This takes either the form of the “bad boy” who is proud of his abusing of women, or the “emo-boy,” the “nice,” sentimental and “wounded” young man — really, “the only child of his own” — who tends to cry on his girlfriend’s shoulder to her considerable confusion as, for instance, was recently reported in the German periodical Der Spiegel.

We, adults, need children in order to become mature — first of all, by the way of giving and caring. Most likely maturity also comes from a subtle strengthening of the adult’s soul in the love he receives from the child and gives to himself when loving the child, even if these fine movements of the soul can often slide in the egocentric direction. According to Erikson, “The fashionable insistence on dramatizing the dependence of children on adults, often blinds us to the dependence of the older generation on the younger one. Mature man needs to be needed, and maturity needs guidance as well as encouragement from what has been produced and must be taken care of.”15

Obviously one has to answer: what could be said about the couple who is infertile? Isn’t it so that their “explosion” of love in the conjugal act does not “incarnate” in that happy exchange of love between the parent and the child? What happens then? Do these spouses fall in the trap of becoming “their own — or one another’s — one and only child” and develop the egocentricity which, as Erikson says, compromises the unfolding of their generative attitude toward life? It seems that this is not the case — and there are clues to the answer to this question in Erikson’s text itself. Thus, he writes that, “[t]he mere fact of having or even wanting children, however, does not ‘achieve’ generativity. In fact, some young parents suffer, it seems, from the retardation of the ability to develop this stage. The reasons are to be found in early childhood impressions; in excessive self-love based on a too strenuously self-made personality; and finally . . . in the lack of some faith, some ‘belief in the species,’ which would make a child appear to be a welcome trust of the community.”16 So that one can say that the openness to the third, the “expansion of ego-interests” or the enlargement of heart depends more on the intention and ability to care — rather than on the possibility of receiving the desired object of love. This seems to be confirmed by Erikson’s later words in the same text on the possibility of becoming generative in a celibate life:

As to the institutions which safeguard and reinforce generativity, one can only say that all institutions codify the ethics of generative succession. Even where philosophical and spiritual tradition suggests the renunciation of the right to procreate or to produce, such early turn to “ultimate concerns”, wherever instituted in monastic movements, strives to settle at the same time the matter of its relationship to the Care for the creatures of this world and to the Charity which is felt to transcend it.17

Despite the fact that the biggest part of the discussion about the use of contraception develops within the context of questions of marriage, contraception’s paralyzing effect on the psyche seems to be by no means lesser in cohabitation or other forms of premarital relations. The closure to the unconscious expectation of “triadic” happiness boosts egocentricity — and such unfortunate psychodynamics has struck enormously vast layers of our societies. This is observed by sociologists: the man is killed; there remains a child-man. The latter term, introduced by Kay Hymowitz, speaks of the large part of the young male population today who, from the moral point of view, resemble the bodies dragged out of Sarah’s wedding chamber more than living young men. They eat, drink, and waste their generative power in masturbation or are provided “sexual outlets” by girls who have an illusion that the pleasure experienced will propel these men to marry them. As says Kay S. Hymowitz, they live an a “pig heaven,” and their bible is Maxim magazine, whose motto is “gratify yourself in infinite ways!” — a magazine even more primitive than Playboy.18

If they can be considered inhibited from a moral point of view, from a psychological perspective Hymowitz’s “child man” seems to be exactly the type of man Erik Erikson foresaw as being created by the infantilizing influence of the contraceptive sexual act. Men, living in this arrangement, still have dreams about happy family life, as opinion polls show. But the love they hope for is coincident with getting along well with that future wife, or partner. Love is as long as it feels good. Now, in contraceptive sex, one remains hungry emotionally because no pleasure can compensate for that exchange of love to which the psyche is opening up in generative intercourse, according to Erikson’s description. The “subjectivist” understanding of love — Karol Wojtyła’s concept of exclusion from love of the other, actually, the most essential part of love, love of friendship or benevolence — as we see this from Erikson’s analytical insight, is importantly exacerbated by the closure to the third in the intimate act. “Egoism of the senses” leads to, and is interrelated with, “egoism of the emotions.”19

As we indicated already above, in order to help the young generation to understand how essentially contraception “rewrites” the story of love, in our opinion, it is quite important to give a serious attention to the language we use in raising children. They should hear from us about the generative power rather than “sexual needs” abiding in themselves, about responsible exercise of their power to procreate rather than the duty to control their sexual attractions.20 Even if the word “generative” instead of “sexual” sounds strange to our ears, it seems less revolutionary than the introduction and “normalization” of the term “queer” in the mainstream language, stealing the word “gay” for popularizing homosexuality, or desensitizing the German society to the unpleasant meaning of the word schwul (hot, in a heavy and pressing way) for a similar purpose.

While fully understanding that educating children in chastity is a broad question and cannot be reduced to the topic of linguistics, we believe that naming fertility power more exactly, we can help our young people to be more immune to the cultural myths celebrating lustfulness. To use another observation of Erikson, a citizen of Western countries lives at the time of a widespread belief, “that before God and man he has only one obligation: to have good orgasms, with a fitting ‘object,’ and that regularly.”21 While in these words Erikson described the 1950s myths about what a patient is taught in psychoanalysis, it is not difficult to see that such “religion” of sex, or “orgiastic” vision of sexuality,22 escaped the “esoteric” space of the psychoanalyst’s office and is reigning over wide areas of the world, and has been for several decades.

What is the solution for the modern crisis of premarital intimacy, of which frequent divorce seems to be just a consequence? The dragon — a universal symbol of power and energy across cultures — can kill the person morally when it acts as a power of lust, but it can also carry him high on its wings. Powerful generative passion not only produces children and satisfies the heart’s desire for fulfillment in being needed: it also ignites the ability to love and boosts personality development (as noticed even by Freud in his concept of libido sublimation). If a man puts up a battle to remain abstinent before he can procreate, he subdues the lower powers inside his personality, and thus, as Paul Quay showed, demonstrates his ability to rule over life circumstances outside of him.23 Once again, it would do him good to remember that he is dealing here not with his Kinsean “sexual needs,” but with the power to generate. When not consummated, generative passion brings a great incentive to become a man before marriage. The disabling effect of a young man’s sexual license is, perhaps, well reflected by Benedict XVI in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate: “When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good.”24 Perhaps that is why, as research shows, married men with children are generally stronger both economically and psychologically.

It is interesting to notice, however, that the leading role in transforming the psychophysical enthusiasm into the spiritual one during engagement is given to the woman by several famous scholars. Thus, according to Marie-Dominique Philippe, it is she who can bring man closer to faith and even helps him to accept the more difficult aspects of Church teaching — like that of Humanae Vitae.25 This attitude seems to be very classical: in every fairytale it is the man who pursues the woman, and her heart (and body, we must add in our times in which the value of body is forgotten), and she agrees to marry him if he proves worthy of such a gift. The activity of the man and receptivity of the woman — a receptivity which is active in transforming that man! — seem to be rooted in a solid anthropological reality of human nature — down to the biological details of procreation.26 As is shown by Leo and Amy Kass in their essay on Erasmus of Roterdam’s Colloquy, the famous Renaissance humanist also saw that even if the man has the power to choose, his ability to mature as a man is to an important degree in the lady’s hands.27

In this way, considerable blame has also to be put on the girl of our day. She has degraded herself from an archetypical princess, whose beauty was both a challenge and a prize for a young man, to a beggar who hopes that the man she is living with and to whom she is trying to prove she can be a good wife will eventually marry her. What a miserable position! As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead puts it, although in those uncommitted love arrangements a young woman is following the logic of feminist liberation, she often ends up in an exploitation no “patriarch” of the traditional family would ever impose on his wife.28 She gave herself to him for no price, and her classical power to challenge the young man to “man up” is consumed and lost. She has lost her power to turn the frog into a prince, an autoerotic and infantile Maxim hero into a man, whose potential to generate was a sign of psychological normality even to Freud, in spite of his many contradictions.29

It is time for the girls of the Western hemisphere to launch a campaign: “I — and even my body, if you can believe it — am worth a commitment! Be a man: marry me!” The first necessary condition of this campaign is simple enough: “I don’t use contraception!” In the context of our contemporary phallic cult, these rallying cries will of course sound absolutely shocking, though, for sure, following them would reduce the number of corpses dragged out of the “sexual” chambers of “pig heaven” as well as the crowd of weeping Sarahs.

  1. The word “sexual” became widely used only in the twentieth century; it is a question to what extent the culture was too discreet or too repressed, as Freud claimed, to talk about intimate matters openly. The term to describe this power used by St. Thomas in the Summa was vis generativa, the generative power. If one measures the value of the word according to the level it describes reality, “generative” says more about the power of fertility than “sexual.” The latter comes from Latin secare — “to cut, “to divide” — and so “sexual,” etymologically speaking, means “different.” ”Generative,” on the other hand, speaks also about the fact that the attraction between man and woman is based on fertility. Both the primary (reproductive organs) and the secondary (shape of the body, tone of voice, etc.) “sexual” features in man and woman develop under the influence of fertility hormones (testosterone in man, estrogen in woman) so that “sexual” attraction is, essentially speaking, a generative attraction, a longing for love based on the “body’s” desire to beget a baby. In romantic paintings of past centuries, the hearts of lovers were pierced by an arrow shot by a cherub — usually, a baby! In this paper, therefore, we will resort more frequently to the word “generative,” notwithstanding the fact that “sexual” is more used in our day. “Generative” is more exact. What is more, this is the term preferred by Erik Erikson, the famous psychoanalyst, in his chapter on the generative phase of life, in his classic essay on the Ages of Life.
  2. Paul Michael Quay, The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), p. 87.
  3. D.M.Balashov, et al., Russkaya Svadba (Russian Wedding) (Moscow: Polessky Etnoligvistichesky Sbornik, Moscow, 1983); quoted from Algirdas Patackas, Aleksandras Zarskus, Vestuvinis virsmas (Transformation of Marriage), Prienai: Valstybine aviacijos g-los leidykla, 1993), p. 134.
  4. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (London: Norton & Co, 1961), p. 58.
  5. David Lapp, “What Marriage Means in Today’s ‘New Normal,’” The Public Discourse, March 13th, 2012, accessed on March 29th, 2013, at http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/03/4925/.
  6. Cf. Karol Wojtyła’s emphases that love as liking, in contrast to just liking, has, besides the emotional, also the cognitive and the volitional dimensions. Love and Responsibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), p. 75.
  7. Cf. Fulton John Sheen, Three to Get Married (Princeton, N.J.: Scepter Publishers,1996), pp 27–39.
  8. Janet Smith, “Contraception, Why Not?” from http://www.catholiceducation.org /articles /sexuality/se0002.html, accessed March 25th, 2013.
  9. C. S. Lewis draws the beginning of the problem in the eleventh century’s troubadour culture in the South of France in The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959). And Leo Karsavin, a Russian philosopher and cultural historian, found this beginning precisely in the story of Tristan and Isolde which exalted wild emotion as the sign of “true love.” Cf. Levas Karsavinas, Europos kulturosistorija, II t. (Vilnius:Vaga, 1994).
  10. Cf. Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1963), p. 201.
  11. Erikson, Childhood and Society.
  12. There is, by the way, a parallel statement in the history of theology. According to Richard of St. Victor, love is not perfect when enclosed in a dyad; its perfection “demands” a third. Cf. Richard of St. Victor, Book Three of the Trinity, Ch. XV.
  13. This has been described, filmed and analyzed in great detail in the second half of the twentieth century by such famous child researchers as John Bowlby and Daniel Stern. Cf. John Bowlby, A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 6.; Daniel N. Stern, The First Relationship: Infant and Mother (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), pp. 49–67.
  14. Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, The Life of Pericles (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), ch. 1.
  15. Erikson, Childhood and Society, p. 200.
  16. Erikson, Childhood and Society, p. 201. Erikson’s’ referral to the “excessive self-love based on a too strenuously self-made personality” as the cause of an inability to become generative not only in a physical, but also in a psychological/spiritual ways seems to reflect a psychodynamic understanding of the possible problems in the development of the parent’s personality, going back to their early childhood years — a result of having themselves suffered from more or less dysfunctional parenting.
  17. Erikson, Childhood and Society.
  18. Kay S. Hymowitz, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Turned Men into Boys (New York: Basic Books), p. 113. In an essay in the Wall Street Journal (Feb. 19, 2011) she describes the child-man.
  19. Cf. Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, pp. 78, 157–158.
  20. The expressions “responsible use of parental abilities,” or “power to procreate” rather than “control of sexual energy,” while speaking to the boys on the challenge to grow in chastity and not to succumb to the habit of masturbation, are used by Mario Zivkovic — a longtime Director of the Croatian Family Center and a member of Pontifical Council for the Family. Dr. Zivkovic seems to be well aware of the above-mentioned principle that language has strong influence on the culture.
  21. Erikson, Childhood and Society, p. 202.
  22. Erikson, Childhood and Society, p. 202.
  23. Paul Quay, S.J., The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality, p. 92 , ch. 4.
  24. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, no. 28.
  25. Marie-Dominique Philippe, Au Coer de l’Amour. Fayard – Le Sarment, 1998.
  26. This is eloquently shown by the philosopher Robert E. Joyce, in his Human Sexual Ecology: A Philosophy and Ethics of Man and Woman (UniversityPress of America, 1980).
  27. Cf. Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass, “Proposing Courtship,” First Things, October, 1999.
  28. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman (New York: Broadway Books, 2003), p. 147.
  29. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, in the chapter “Transformations of puberty,” Freud describes how sexual passion of a mature person is united with affection and is directed to reproduction. Cf. Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works (The  Penguin Freud Library, vol.7, Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 127–128.
About Dr. Gintautas Vaitoska

Dr. Gintautas Vaitoska, STL is the Director of Studies on Marriage and the Family Program at the International Theological Institute in Trumau, Austria.

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