Decoding The Logic of Sexual Relationships

Ideas To Ponder from Intimacy & Desire

Decoding The Logic of Sexual Relationships by Dr.

Ideas To Ponder from Intimacy & Desire

Decoding The Logic of Sexual Relationships by Dr. David Schnarch
"Differentiation is your ability to hold on to yourself when your partner or your children pressure you to conform. It's your ability to balance your desire for attachment and connection with your desire for autonomy and self-direction. Differentiation is a major drive wheel of love relationships and of Crucible® Therapy."

"Ideas to Ponder" are summary ideas at the end of each chapter of Intimacy & Desire. The Ideas to Ponder Blog unpacks these key thoughts, principles, or observations, and highlights additional points within Intimacy & Desire.
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This is the fourth article in a series growing out of my prior posts, "People Who Can't Control Themselves Control the People Around Them" Part 1 (read here) and Part 2 (read here). Prior articles examined the sexual ecology of love relationships. We've covered a long list of ecological rules:

  • Sex always consists of leftovers. (read here)
  • Sexual boredom is built into monogamous relationships.
  • People have sex up to the limits of their sexual development. (read here)
  • Going beyond this creates anxiety.
  • Dependence on a reflected sense of self makes it hard to change your behavior.
  • You solve sexual boredom by creating sexual novelty.
  • Sexual novelty is always introduced unilaterally.(read here)
  • The solution always lies outside your comfort zone.

Now we can return to the origins of this journey, the stimulus for this series: A reader said "People who can't control themselves" sounded like a nice aphorism. He wanted an example of real life application.

The sexual system outlined above seems destined to shake itself apart. Is this why so many couples break up? I think not. There is one final ecological rule (in this series) that not only keeps relationships together, it shows the elegance of the people-growing processes of love relationships:

  • People who can't control themselves control the people around them.

Emotionally committed relationships contain crucibles of personal development all partners go through. Your and your partner's ability to control yourselves greatly determines how you come out of them–including if you come out of it at all. Couples develop emotional gridlock when one or both partners won't control themselves enough to get through it.

Curing sexual boredom requires refusing to live within each other's limitations
Sexual boredom is just a case in point. It highlights how love relationships operate. Partners form collusive alliances early on, explicitly or implicitly, allowing each to avoid his or her own limitations in return for overlooking the other's limitations. But love relationships don't work that way. Neither you nor your partner gets to stay immature and the other just accepts it. This doesn't line up with the ecology of love relationships. If you do this, the system creates sexual boredom.

Curing sexual boredom involves not accepting each other's limitations. One partner (if not both) has to propose a sexual option the other doesn't want to do, because those are the only remaining options. Remember, you and your partner went through "Sex always consists of leftovers" to get where you are bored. Anything either of you proposes will take the other beyond his or her level of sexual development.

Refusing to live within each other's limitations makes for healthy interdependence. This is why I stressed the importance of emotional autonomy in "People Who Can't Control Themselves…Part 2" (read here). "Refusing to live within each other's limitations" is not about separating or getting divorced. It's about struggling with yourself enough to make room for your partner within your relationship.

Actually, we're looking at what I call differentiation. Differentiation is one of the most powerful drive wheels of love relationships. It's the core part of my Crucible® Approach.

Differentiation is both an individual ability and an interpersonal process. Differentiation is (among other things) your ability to:

  • Balance your desire for attachment and connection with your desire for autonomy and self-direction. 
  • Hold on to yourself when people important to you pressure to conform.

2-choiceThese abilities greatly determine how "Sex always consists of leftovers" process turns out. They are key to creating sexual novelty and resolving sexual boredom.

Resolving sexual boredom tests and stretches four aspects of your differentiation: You have to:

  1. Maintain a collaborative alliance with your partner and become less dependent on your reflected sense of self.
  2. Contain your anxiety, lick your own emotional bruises, and keep your feelings from running wild.
  3. Keep your reactivity under control while you make yourself face things you'd rather avoid.
  4. Go through difficult times together, building a solid relationship based on the people you become in the process.

Reggie & Angie: Finally a solution
This was how Reggie and Angie, the couple in my prior posts, finally improved their sex life and their whole relationship. They exemplified the rule "people who can't control themselves control the people around them. Angie was controlled (sexually) by Reggie's refusal to confront his sexual immaturity, the same way Reggie was controlled (financially) by Angie's irresponsible spending.

Angie made it clear she wasn't willing to continue giving Reggie oral sex when he wouldn't reciprocate. It was a growth step for Angie to finally make this decision, and it triggered parallel growth in Reggie. It pushed him get over his squeamishness about vaginas and his awkwardness in doing something new. He also had to get over thinking other guys would laugh at him for being "pussy-whipped" if they knew.

Applying these four aspects of differentiation (above) helped Reggie become more comfortable and proficient at giving Angie oral sex. First, he had to stay clear about what was most important to him. He did it because he thought it was the right thing to do, even though it made him a little uncomfortable. Second, he calmed himself down when he got afraid he wouldn't do it as well as Angie's prior partners. Third, he stopped making excuses and actually did it. Fourth, his discomfort went away with a little practice, which Angie was happy to oblige him. In the process, Angie finally got the oral sex and equal treatment she wanted, and she respected Reggie more for it. This reduced their bickering and Angie became more focused in reducing her overspending.

The Ecology of Love Relationships
These four aspects of differentiation can help resolve sexual boredom, and in the process raise your own personal level of differentiation. Welcome to the people-growing machinery of love relationships. Here are other ecological rules:

  • Conflict is inevitable in long-term sexual relationships.
  • Conflict over sexual behavior is one way the human "self" develops.
  • You grow sexually (and otherwise) by walking into your anxiety, calming yourself down, and mastering yourself in the process.
  • Sexual relationships grow and become more stable when you shift from expecting your partner to regulate your anxiety and reflected sense of self, to regulating your own inner life, allowing partners to more profoundly make love with deeper intimacy and richer carnality.
  • Developing greater ability to soothe and calm yourself down makes you better able to truly love another human being and make room in your relationship for your partner.

What does love have to do with it?
Where does love come in? What ever happened to marrying someone "in sickness and in health, for better and for worse?"

People often misunderstand and misuse this commitment. It's not a collusive agreement allowing you to get fat and lazy, or drunk, or shiftless–or how ever else you decide to let yourself go. When the best in you has done all you can, your partner agrees to put up with these "leftovers." The complacent and lazy parts of us like to believe it means our partner agrees to up with our crap while we coast, goof off, or refuse to grow up. Your partner isn't agreeing to put up with those limitations. "Live with my sexual hang-ups, immaturities, and insecurities" is no different than "live with my procrastination, my selfishness, my emotional outbursts, my cruelty, or my inability to love."

coupleIf you're young or just starting a relationship
Don't waste time trying to avoid this by seeking the perfectly compatible partner. Yes, it's better to find someone with whom you feel sexually compatible. But that means you've found someone who wants what you want, and doesn't want what you don't. This is a great recipe for sexual boredom down the road. It will be hard to step outside relationship norms you've established and propose something new. Regardless of whom you pick, figure on going through the process I've outlined. Also figure that when it the time comes, you'll be frustrated with each other in ways you can't even imagine now. Factor in battles of selfhood you're not anticipating, where you and your partner struggle over "Do I belong to you, or do I belong to me?!" and "I want to be with you, but don't tell me what to do!"

Being aware of what's happening from the outset helps you handle this better. Realize this isn't just about sex. You're setting up the dynamics, sexual and otherwise, that will shape your relationship for years to come. My advice: Find a partner who's worth going through this together.

If you are already in a relationship, seeing this in retrospect helps you understand how you got where you are now. It makes you less defensive and more resilient. Future articles will focus on other aspects of sex in relationships you'll find helpful.

In the outset of this series I promised to share my appreciation for the elegant beauty of emotionally committed relationships. Step by step we've uncovered a cunning system, ready to receive our limited development and turn it into sexual boredom that requires us to grow to solve it. The old debate about whether is sex for reproduction or love or pleasure is misguided from the start.

Sex is for self-development. It's about time we figured this out.


© 2011 by Crucible Institute. All rights reserved.


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