An interview with Dr David Schnarch - The Sex Therapist
In his book Passionate Marriage, sex therapist Dr David Schnarch asserts that the greatest sexual pleasure in life is possible in one's middle and later years, when a mature sense of self has been achieved and genuine intimacy is possible with another person. Dr Schnarch shows how the details of your sexual style -- from kissing to daring erotic behaviors -- are a window into you, your partner, and your relationship.
Q. What is this book about?
A. Passionate Marriage focuses on helping people reach their sexual potential and have the best sex and intimacy of their lives -- within a long-term relationship -- even after passion and desire have waned. It doesn't focus on dysfunction, but instead on growth and helping people really make contact with their partner during sex. Good sex isn't about just elevating your heart rate -- it's about elevating your heart.
Q. How does your approach work and how is it different from traditional approaches?
A. I help couples use the inevitable problems with sex and intimacy to grow -- so they can have sex with their hearts and minds, and not just with their genitals (there is no nudity or sexual contact in our therapy or workshops). All couples eventually hit emotional "gridlock": when partners are at each other's throats, arguing about everything and no one can give an inch or say they're sorry.
Gridlock is a natural stage in the evolution of both people and their relationships; it isn't caused by lack of communication and communication won't solve it. It can be the pathway to the hottest, most intimate sex you've ever had.
Passionate Marriage talks to people's strengths rather than to their weaknesses (i.e.: "childhood wounds" and "fears of abandonment"). It focuses on people's resiliency rather than their pain. Marriage operates at much greater intensity and pressure than we expect--so great, in fact, couples mistakenly assume it's time for divorce when it's really time to get to work. Unlike other methods, this approach may be used even when only one partner is willing to participate. By empowering the best aspects of a relationship rather than the lowest common denominator, this method helps couples on the brink of divorce, when empathy and listening skills offer too little and too late.
Q. Many experts stress the importance of communication in a relationship, including "asking for what you want" sexually. You take a different stand. Why?
A. Marital difficulties are often not about an inability to "communicate." We've confused "good communication" with consensus and feeling accepted and validated. Communication is no virtue if you can't stand the message. The path to good sex is not "telling your partner what you want." It involves dealing with what I call "normal marital sadism": your partner probably already knows what you want, and the fact you're not getting it means he or she doesn't want to give it to you.
Q. You disagree with the popular notion that relationship problems arise because "men are from Mars and women are from Venus." Why?
A. There's a lot more to marriage than communication and how men and women communicate differently. A much greater cause of problems is our similarities--our dependence and insistence on getting a positive self-reflection from someone else, and our inability to soothe our own anxieties. The problem is not how "distant" we are. It's that we're emotional Siamese twins, "fused at the hip" through our dependence on our partner's validation. Many "relationship problems" are really the unrecognized natural growth processes of emotionally committed relationships. Marriage is a people-growing machine.
Q. What do you mean when you say that intimate relationships are "people-growing machines?"
A. A good marriage is not smooth, and marriage is not reducible to a set of skills. People have difficulty with intimacy because they're supposed to. It's not something to be "solved" and avoided. Problems with sex and intimacy are important to go through because this process changes us. These are the drive wheels and grind stones of intimate relationships. The solution isn't going back to the passion of early relationships because that's sex between strangers; it's about going forward to new passion and intimacy as adults. If we use relationships properly they make us grow into adults, capable of intense intimacy, eroticism, and passion-having sex with our hearts and minds, and not just with our genitals.
Q. In Passionate Marriage you talk a lot about differentiation. What is this?
A. Differentiation is a natural process in committed relationships that involves developing more of a self while growing closer to your partner. Men often sacrifice their relationship to hold onto their sense of self. Women often sacrifice their sense of self to stabilize their relationship. Differentiation is about having it both ways: having a stronger sense of self and a stronger relationship.
Q. What is intimacy? How is your view of intimacy unique?
A. Intimacy is about letting yourself really be known, including parts that you or your partner don't like. But it's not just about letting "warts" be known. It often involves showing strengths you've been hiding, too. Most approaches focus on getting your partner's validation and acceptance when you disclose. But you can't count on this, and if you try, it inherently limits self-disclosure because you won't say things your partner won't validate. Resolving gridlock requires intimacy based on validating yourself.
Q. You propose that the very way we think about sex and sexual desire sets couples up to have difficulty. Please explain.
A. People have been taught that "sex is a natural function." However, the sex that comes "naturally" is reproductive sex; intimate sex is an acquired ability and developed taste. The notion that "sex is a natural function" leads couples to believe that sex and intimacy emerge full-blown unless some "blockage" is in the way. But usually, getting the sex and intimacy we want doesn't involve removing a block, it involves growing up. Usually we just think of sexual desire as physical cravings (like horniness and "blueballs"). Desire involves wanting your partner -- not just wanting sex -- and we often don't want to want our partner because it makes us vulnerable.
Q. Your book talks about spirituality at the same time that it is explicitly erotic. How do you put the two together?
A. Passionate Marriage is the sexual "road less traveled," an erotic "Care of the Soul" that integrates sexuality and spirituality in deeply positive ways. It is about real passion and wet sex. It's about how relationships are spiritual journeys. It's pragmatic, explicit, practical, and erotic, but it's not simplistic and doesn't focus on technique. It takes a down to earth, "in the trenches," unglamorized, honest view of relationships.
Q. What do you mean by "speaking to the best in people" and addressing strengths rather than weaknesses?
A. The most important thing in marriage is not trauma and childhood wounds-it's strength, resilience and goodness. This book doesn't speak to readers' fears, insecurities, or inadequacies. It speaks to what's good and solid within people, the part that recognizes difficult truths. Marriage isn't simply a replay of childhood controlled by your past; it's a "people-growing process," the birthplace of adult eroticism and the capacity to love.
Q. We've all been taught that compromise and negotiation is the heart of marriage. But you say that it's the road to boring sex. Why?
A. People think the key to marriage is compromise, but what they really want is a "no-compromise marriage." Marriage isn't about giving yourself up or compromising yourself, because this generally kills sexual interest and desire. And compromise creates what I call the "tyranny of the lowest common denominator." The key is holding onto yourself so you can have more of yourself and more with your partner. When you feel proud of yourself, it increases your sexual interest and your interest in your partner.
Q. You say people often have the best sex and intimacy when they reach their 40s, 50s & 60s. But people have been taught for years that adolescence is the sexual peak of life. How can this be?
A. We have confused sexual prime with genital prime. If you want intimacy during sex, there isn't a 16-year-old that can keep up with a healthy 60 year old. People are capable of much better sex and intimacy as they mature. Ask your audience, "How many of you are better in bed now than you were when you were younger?" Most people never reach their sexual potential, and those who do are generally well into the fourth, fifth & sixth decade of life. Cellulite and sexual potential are highly correlated.
Q. In Passionate Marriage you discuss at length what you call "tools for connection." What are these "tools" and why are they important to couples?
A. Amazing as it seems, many couples are not in emotional contact while they are having physical contact. They may both reach orgasm but they are emotionally isolated. I have developed a number of "tools for connection." New ways to establish deep emotional connection in and out of bed. I encourage couples to forget about technique, and "follow the connection" during sex to know what to do next. We also suggest hugging 'til relaxed, eyes open sex, and even eyes open orgasm.
Q. What is eyes-open sex and eyes-open orgasm? And why are these important?
A. In informal surveys I've conducted around the world, it seems that only about 15-30% of all couples have sex with their eyes open, and only about half that number can orgasm that way. This means that most people have to shut their eyes to "tune out" their partner in order to be able to orgasm. Many people like sex in the dark with eyes closed because it's a way of keeping intimacy during sex to a tolerable level, not because it's more romantic. The intimacy and passion many couples seek is hiding right under -- or actually right above -- their noses.