Greetings in Christ,
I'm a relatively new convert (2008); used to be evangelical protestant. I'm trying to understand how sex in marriage is supposed to be, in general. I just got Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body; and have read much of the Catechism. I realize that a complete answer to my question is probably in these books (and others perhaps). However I'm hoping someones here can help me in the meantime (it will probably take me months to work through these books in my spare time).
As brief background: We've been married 17 years and have 8 kids. For most of our marriage my wife has been sick, pregnant, or nursing (and sometimes all 3). I had a great desire for emotional intimacy in sexual union with my wife when we married, but for various reasons that desire was rarely satisfied. Out of love I tried to practice abstinence as much as possible, which turned out to be a lot harder than when I was single - now living with a woman I was in love with and sexually attracted to, who slept in my bed and dressed in my room etc. However, I hoped for better days when her body would be healthy and not given over so directly to bearing children.
As a protestant I thought sex was supposed to be an expression of, and joyful participation in our love for each other. Specifically, it was to be promoted as a good (any and all sex between spouses that is mutually beneficial, "the marriage bed is undefiled", etc.). Outside of marriage sex was a sin (hetero-, homo-, kissing, intercourse; all of it). Inasmuch as our marriage didn't match this ideal, it was good for us to work toward it. I (and other protestants) often used the analogy of hunger for sexual desire. Food is a basic need of the body, and hunger is God's way to let us know we should eat. Likewise, sex is a basic need of the body, and sexual desire signals that need. People can fast from food for a time, but eventually need to eat. People can fast from sex for longer, even forever if they have the grace, but the norm is regular satisfaction of the sexual need (in marriage, of course).
Therefore the abstinence I was enduring as a protestant, I saw as temporary (even if it did last for 15 years or so - with some respites here and there). Now we are trying to understand Catholic teaching, and the impression I get is that the "way it should be" is roughly as follows: The only licit complete sexual act is intercourse in marriage; all other complete sexual acts, in or out of marriage are illicit and a mortal sin, and depending on who you ask, some incomplete sexual acts are illicit in marriage too. (I realize this is a negative view, but it is useful to me for clarity and logic's sake. I think I understand the "total giving of oneself" point of view, which is useful philosophically, but not as much practically.)
We are practicing NFP very carefully because we have determined it would not be good for my wife to become pregnant again. As a consequence, we are back in the situation of abstinence most of the time. I don't know what it's like for other couples, but when we have a little over a week of "green light" time each month, we are lucky to get more than 2 times together in the context of our family life (I have 3 jobs and work crazy hours; she is the bus driver, cook, maid, doctor, etc. 24/7). Continuing the food analogy, I feel like I'm starving most of the time. If this is normal and I just need to trust God for the grace I need in my vocation then I can accept that - but I really would like to know, since it feels wrong - like "it shouldn't be this way".
The confusion for me comes from the existence of the unitive purpose of the marriage act. Our current practice of mostly abstinence seems to frustrate the unitive purpose almost completely. (We know about NFP and are using the latest technological tools to monitor fertility, etc.) Our times together often seem mainly as reminders of what we are missing all the rest of the time. I get the whole "posses yourself" thing and chastity in general (I think), but it's one thing to have mastery over your desires, and another thing to just deny those desires (almost) completely.
I apologize for the length and lack of clarity of this post. I guess my question is, how does one reconcile the unitive purpose with the practical reality of near total abstinence? Is sex supposed to be fueled by passionate love and expressed powerfully to the strengthening of the marital bond - like a hearty, nourishing meal for hungry people; or is it supposed to be an occasional dispassionate embrace, when convenient - like a bite of a sandwich for people who don't really need to eat anyway?
Thanks for reading.