Dr. David Schnarch
Sexuality and self-development are intertwined in the most amazing ways in love relationships. Unfortunately, this incredible system creates sexual boredom along the way. Two prior articles explained how this happens in great detail. Let's start by summarizing what's been covered so far:
- "Sex always consists of leftovers." This builds sexual boredom into monogamous relationships. (read here)
- "People have sex up to the limits of their sexual development." Going beyond this creates anxiety. (read here)
- Mastering this anxiety is how you become a sexually mature adult.
- Dependence on a reflected sense of self makes it hard to change your behavior.
How do you ever get out of this box? How do you create a wider array of leftovers?
Sexual novelty is always introduced unilaterally
The solution isn't difficult to figure out, it's just easier said than done. It's two seemingly simple statements, logical deductions from the summarized points, which have far-reaching implications.
- You solve sexual boredom by creating sexual novelty, which is always outside the safely-familiar and deadly-boring "leftovers."
- Sexual novelty is always introduced unilaterally. One partner has to propose something new to the other.
Your partner is not going to applaud
Common sense says if you're bored with your sexual relationship, suggest something new. (Dummy!) Why don't you do try a new behavior or position, or change your sexual routine, like the experts say? It's because you know your partner better than the experts do, and you know whatever you have in mind, your partner is not going to applaud! He or she is not going to say, "Thanks for sharing! That's a great idea! Let's do it right away!"
How do you know that? You know it because you've gone through the "sex is always leftovers" process and people have sex up to the limits of their sexual development. Whatever you'd like to do is generally outside your partner's comfort zone. You've also been mapping your partner's mind like crazy to see what he or she is open to.
Going forward always creates anxiety. You have to do things you've never done before (or never done together), whether it's talking about what you want to do in bed or doing it when you get there. You have to show a side of your sexual self you haven't revealed to your partner. You have to walk into things that make you nervous, rather than expecting your partner never to ask you to do what makes you nervous. You don't get to sit back until you're feeling safe and secure, sure of yourself, and immune from rejection. You have to step up and address difficult and scary things while you're insecure. This is important preparation if you're considering having children. Parenting is one long journey through things that make you nervous.
The solution always lies outside your comfort zone
Creating sexual novelty and curing sexual boredom requires standing on your own two feet, without expecting or getting your partner's encouragement and validation. This tests and stretches your ability to keep your emotional equilibrium in important relationships.
This not only applies to you if you're making the new suggestion, it applies to your partner too. Both people have to walk into their anxiety. The initiator of new behaviors has to hold onto self, step up and propose something new, without expecting partner's approval and not being surprised if partner over-reacts. The recipient of the proposal has to hold onto self, not get over-reactive. Both partners have to be willing to go through a somewhat awkward and potentially tense and difficult conversation to get to a moment of new peace and new pleasure. Both of you have to keep yourselves from over-reacting. You have to keep your reflected sense of self under control (e.g., "Are you saying I'm not good in bed?!"). You have to stay focused on what's really important.
- Now you can see the practical importance of emotional autonomy. The more emotional autonomy you've developed, the easier it is to handle this. The more emotionally fused you are, the more boring your sex will be, and the harder (and more important) it is to go through this, and the more you'll tend to avoid it. I'm describing the incredibly elegant "people-growing machinery" of love relationships, but it's hard to appreciate when you think you're discovering you and your partner are sexually incompatible.
Issues of selfhood
We feel entitled to expect our partner's unwavering validation, acceptance and support. But love relationships have their own ecology.
Last time I started to describe Reggie and Angie, a couple who came to see me. Reggie liked receiving oral sex but he was squeamish about reciprocating. Angie liked giving it, but she wanted to receive too. She also objected to the inequality she had tolerated for years. She wasn't tolerating it any longer because her self-respect demanded it. The integrity of her sense of self was on the line. Reggie could see Angie's point, but that didn't make him comfortable giving her oral sex. When people get anxious and defensive, they dodge confronting themselves and confront their partner instead. This turned out to be what Reggie and Angie called "bickering," a frequent problem in their relationship:
Reggie--"If you loved me, you'd accept me as I am!"
Angie--"Well, if you loved me, you'd want me to be happy sexually."
Reggie--"Why aren't I good enough for you the way I am?"
Angie--"Why do I have to give to you but not get in return? I'm not your servant."
Reggie--"Why do we have to have sex your way?!"
Angie--"Because we always have sex YOUR way!"
Reggie--"It's not my way, it's OUR way!"
Angie--"I want OUR way to be different!"
Reggie--"You're trying to control me!"
Angie--"Me?! You're the one controlling ME!"
In other relationship issues, like overspending, Angie avoided confronting herself, just like Reggie tried to dodge this. And whenever Reggie confronted her about her spending, she was as adept at tying Reggie up in knots as he was when she confronted him about oral sex. They had an unspoken collusive alliance, where neither one had to grow up. This was the (limited) level of selfhood each had developed. When I confronted this in-session, they were embarrassed to see themselves through their conflicts about sex and money. They considered each other their best friend, and I didn't disagree in the slightest. In their
childhood homes this passed for friendship and commitment. This had a profound impact on Reggie and Angie. Both came out of homes where their parents divorced.
The ecology of love relationships: Safety & security come AFTER the "crucible"
Perhaps you've heard the drivel, "You don't have to agree with your partner, just accept what you're partner says is valid for him or her." Here's where this nonsense falls apart. Sure you want your partner to accept and validated you when you propose something new, because you'll be sticking your....neck out. But your partner may be threatened by whatever you propose. So, if you're in a relationship where no one is expected to grow up, there's a fair chance you're going to hear: "What you want to do is disgusting, and so are you!"
On the other hand, perhaps he or she will calmly and respectfully decline your kind invitation for something that's beyond his or her personal development, while letting you know what you're proposing may be valid for you. This means: You ain't doing it with me, Partner! You are out of luck!" Now what to you do? And what do you do with the urge to cram your partner's sanctimonious attitude where the sun doesn't shine?
Is this a dark view of marriage? How does this square with talking about the elegance of love relationships? Where does this all lead? The Publishers Weekly "star" review of Intimacy & Desire summarizes where we're headed next:
"Readers sick of typical glossy-magazine self-help patter about reigniting romance, or the droning pomposity of most author-experts, will be pleasantly surprised with psychologist and sex therapist Schnarch (Passionate Marriage). He immediately catches readers' attention by agreeing that the common "just do it" approach to solving sexual problems is not only ineffective, but often results in one partner responding with a decisive "Don't tell me what to do!" That kind of understanding produces a number of unexpected bombshells-including "Marriage does kill desire"-which produce an uncanny effect: getting couples to stop and reconsider their emotions, quit blaming each other, and start to think (and act) differently regarding sexual situations, behaviors and attitudes...[Schnarch] breaks down complex issues with loosely-drawn real life examples, illustrating the dramatic and fundamental changes that occur when couples have a greater understanding of desire, monogamy and the brain. The process is neither easy nor quick, but Schnarch's confidence is contagious."
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