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David Schnarch

New Perspectives on Desire:
2010 annual conference
with David Schnarch

by Kim Gilliland and Colleen Quitslund


WAMFT is proud to welcome back David Schnarch, Ph.D., at our 2010 annual conference on March 13 at Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Schnarch will present “New Perspectives on Desire.” This conference marks the first opportunity for Dr. Schnarch to publicly present his groundbreaking approach to treating sexual desire problems. Conference volunteers Kim Gilliland and Colleen Quitslund interviewed Dr. Schnarch, who discusses the workshop and his new book, Intimacy & Desire.

Gilliland & Quitslund: Those who’ve seen you present at previous workshops know they are in for a treat. What can clinicians who aren’t familiar with your work expect to gain from your workshop? For those clinicians who have attended your workshops before, what new perspectives can they hope to gain?

David Schnarch: The audience at the 2004 WAMFT workshop was just wonderful, and I’m looking forward to coming back. Participants new to my work will gain an understanding of differentiation-based sexual-marital therapy. I’ll also talk about the Four Points of Balance. Prior attendees will see how Crucible Therapy has matured, integrating the latest science on neural plasticity, neuroplastic training, and interpersonal biology in practical ways. This conference will be the first time I’ll speak publicly about things I’ve worked on for more than a decade but never released. One advance is harnessing the brain’s “mind-mapping” ability to dramatically increase the precision and power of therapy. Everyoneshould come prepared to have a good time. I know I am.

G & Q: How does your new book, Intimacy & Desire: Awaken the Passion in Your Relationship, differ from Passionate Marriage?

Schnarch: Intimacy & Desire builds on Passionate Marriage and gives sexual desire the coverage it really needed. Intimacy & Desire lays out a new model of sexual desire rooted in the evolution of the human brain and emergence of the “self.” It provides the first explain why normal people in good relationships have sexual desire problems. It starts where Passionate Marriage left off—with the fact that the low desire partner always controls sex—and takes off from there. Intimacy & Desire shows how to use sexual desire problems to increase your differentiation, resolve desire problems, and possibly rewire your brain. People who have read both books say the new one is even easier to read, although it contains loads of brain science and interpersonal neurobiology.

G & Q: In the overview section of your new book’s website, www. desirebook.com, you mention that the sexual desire everyone wants has nothing to do with hormones and sex drive, but in the desire from one’s partner and his or her partner’s ability to want them. Can you explain this a bit more and comment on how this might be different depending on gender?

Schnarch: Hormones and sex drive operate on “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” The sexual desire everyone wants is consciously chosen and freely undertaken desire, where you feel wanted and chosen by your partner. It’s not just our reflected sense of self that needs this (until marriage beats it out of us); the best in us wants a meaningful sexual relationship too. Unfortunately, the lower your differentiation, the more you desperately need your partner to want you, while at the same time, you yourself don’t want to want. Men and women don’t differ in this regard. The stereotype that men are hormonally driven for sex and that women need intimacy is wrong and destructive. In half the cases I see the man is the low desire partner, and women have just as much difficulty tolerating intense intimacy as men.

G & Q: In your view, what are some of the most common causes of low or no sexual desire?

Schnarch: Until now the literature says there are three main drives of sexual desire: lust, romantic love, and attachment. Intimacy & Desire says there’s actually a fourth drive: the drive to develop and maintain a “self.” The battles of self-hood that permeate love relationships (i.e., differentiation), are often a stronger determinant of sexual desire than the other three drives. I know I’m supposed to say common causes are things like lack of communication, hectic life schedules, or changing gender roles. But sexual desire problems show up in the earliest recorded history and presumably occurred in prehistory, too. There’s nothing going wrong, we just need to stop trying to make relationships be the way we want them to be, and get with the program. This changes how you do couples therapy.

G & Q: How adaptable is your work for same-sex couples?

Schnarch: You don’t have to adapt my approach for same-sex couples, because they aren’t “outside the norm.” Gay and lesbian couples have the same issues as straight couples, plus the problem of living in a homophobic society. The low desire partner always controls sex, regardless of whether you like to have sex with men or women, or your partner is the same gender as you. One of the cases in Intimacy & Desire is a same-sex couple. If the reception I’ve received from the Seattle community and reports from gay/lesbian therapists are any indication, my approach applies to same-sex couples. Straight clients, who want to attribute their desire issues to gender differences, find it helpful when I point out that same-sex couples have the same exact issues.

G & Q: Please explain what you mean by “sexual potential.”

Schnarch: Until Constructing the Sexual Crucible, sex therapy focused on resolving sexual problems. Conceptually, there were two groups, people with sexual dysfunctions, and non-dysfunctional people (who presumably had great sex). In CTSC I said there were actually three groups: people with sexual dysfunctions, “normal” people with utilitarian sex, and the Blessed Few who have great sex and intimacy. My concept of “sexual potential” focused attention on the fact that the vast majority of people who don’t have sexual dysfunctions still have lousy sex. (Responses from 13,000 people on our web site support this.) Your sexual potential is your untapped capacity for profound desire, intimacy, and eroticism. Contrary to common stereotypes that adolescence is the sexual prime of life, most people don’t hit their sexual prime until their 40s, 50s, and 60s.

G & Q: Most therapists who work with couples address issues of intimacy in their clinical work. Would a therapist need special training in sex therapy to utilize your model?

Schnarch: Therapist doesn’t need sex therapy training to use the Crucible model of intimacy. But once you understand the difference between other-validated intimacy and self-validated intimacy, and how dependence on other-validated intimacy creates emotional gridlock, it does change the therapy you do: Couples come in complaining about lack of intimacy, which therapists accept at face value and then endeavor to create more of. Intimacy is an incredible system built into love relationships, driven by the natural forces of differentiation. Intense intimacy is often unsettling. Poorly differentiated people don’t want to be truly known. They want acceptance, validation, and reciprocal disclosure to pump up their reflected sense of self. Crucible Therapy helps people develop intimacy tolerance and greater capacity for self-validated intimacy, which resolves couples’ emotional gridlock.

G & Q: Challenges in the area of sex are so common with couples. Do you think there are things our society could be doing better to give our children a good foundation for healthy sexuality?

Schnarch: No question, we need to do better sex education. But sexual challenges in ECRs aren’t caused by lack of knowledge or unhealthy attitudes, they derive from human evolution. Ignorance just makes it worse. If sex education included a realistic picture of how sex and intimacy work in love relationships, sexual desire problems will still be ubiquitous, but our kids would handle the inevitable much better.

G & Q: Why do you suppose it’s so difficult for many couples to discuss sexual issues?

Schnarch: Couples see sex through the socially constructed lens: Sexual function and desire are supposed to be “natural functions” (i.e., automatic), so the only way they see sexual problems is something must be going wrong. (It certainly feels that way.) People don’t like talking about things they feel inadequate about, so people don’t talk about sex. Crucible Therapy says sexual difficulties, particularly sexual desire problems, are often a sign everything is going right. When people realize this is not empty reassurance that “everyone has problems”—that it is real science—they feel better and become more resilient about facing their problems.

G & Q: What kind of prognosis can couples hope for using your approach? In other words, just how difficult is it to rekindle desire and resolve sexual issues?

Schnarch: My clinical experience makes me optimistic about couples resolving sexual desire problems, but it’s not about rekindling desire. It’s about helping clients develop greater capacity for desire, a desire that come from a different basis than early in their relationship, and involves a different part of your brain. Using this approach I’ve found resolving sexual desire problems isn’t more difficult than solving sexual dysfunctions, which have a good prognosis. But research and reports from therapists say a couple’s prognosis is bleak if treated by conventional “rekindling” approaches.

G & Q: Can you please comment on your view of the connection between intimacy and sex?

Schnarch: Your brain, mind, body, desire, and relationship actually operate as one integral unit, so sex and intimacy are fundamentally connected. Sex in committed relationships is a sophisticated system that’s not reducible to behaviors and techniques. The same holds true for intimacy. Both are sub-systems of the ecology of relationships, and both are driven by differentiation.

G & Q: Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?

Schnarch: We are about to open Crucible4Points.com, the first online social community based on differentiation as an emotionally healthy lifestyle. It contains resources for couples that can really help, and ways for singles to meet like-minded singles. Being single is not a disease that needs to be cured, and if people meet someone in the community that’s great, but it’s not the sole reason they’re there. Likewise, we’ve tried to make the site gay- and lesbian-friendly. When same-sex couples create their Relationship Wall, the graphics display their correct genders instead of a heterosexual couple. The Lifestyle Forums include same-sex couples and singles. We want the site to be inclusive, and that means celebrating same-sex partnerships and their families too.