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Interview with Dr. David Schnarch
Dr. David Schnarch is a certified sex therapist and recipient of the Professional Standard of Excellence Award from the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. He is the author of two books, "Constructing The Sexual Crucible" and "Passionate Marriage" and co-founder of the Marriage and Family Health Center in Evergreen, Colorado, which sponsors workshops offering his unique approach to marital counseling.
A: The Passionate Marriage® Approach focuses on people's adult strengths rather than their childhood wounds because what's good and solid in us is the part that can change ourselves and our relationship(S)-and that's the part of us that is truly capable of loving. We help people finally understand and accept themselves, rather than trying to get that from their partner, because that's what makes it safe to love. We don't focus on communication skills per se because communication is no virtue if you can't stand the message or you can't stand truly being known. We focus on developing self-soothing and self-validation because these abilities let us speak and hear difficult truths. We help couples develop themselves within their relationship rather than focusing on compromise and negotiation, because compromise and negotiation sounds great but it really kills sexual desire and passion.
Q. What do you mean by self-soothing and self-validation?
A. I'm referring to our ability to validate our own perceptions, feelings, and self-worth, and soothe our own heartache and anxiety when the inevitable marital disappointments, frustrations, and misunderstandings occur. These aspects of our "relationship with ourselves" determine how we handle the good and bad times in our relationships with others how intimate or erotic we can be, how much we can afford to love someone else, and whether we feel like we're "loosing ourselves" or "bail out" as the relationship becomes more important or more difficult. Paradoxically, the better we are at soothing and validating ourselves, the less we need our partners to "be there" for us and the more we can "be there" for others. Likewise, we can let ourselves be influenced by our partners taking their needs and opinions into consideration without feeling like we're weakening our own position or interests in the process. Our ability to self-validate and self-soothe is absolutely vital to maintaining long term passion in marriage as well as expanding our sexual relationship.
Q You use the term "marriage" in a unique way. What do you mean?
A. I use the term "marriage" to refer to any emotionally committed relationship. Marriage creates a complex system, and part of loving and living with someone involves dealing with difficult conflicts where simple solutions often don't work. These often surface around issues like kids, money, in-laws, and most especially, involve sex and intimacy. What makes these issues unique is that common solutions either don't work or destroy sex. As long as we're simply focusing on feelings, everyone's entitled to their opinions and we can communicate and "agree to disagree". But when the issue involves behavior disciplining the kids, spending money, having in-laws visit, or having sex the solution is more complex because one partner's behavior dramatically effects the other. For instance, you can't "agree to disagree" about having intercourse, and "compromise and negotiation" usually destroys desire, eroticism, and passion. We refer to these aspects of emotionally committed relationships, which intensify when people become legally married, as the people-growing machinery of marriage.
Q. Do you perceive other errors in so-called "normal" beliefs about marriage?
A. Although people usually assume that marital problems are caused by their past or "what's wrong with them," I have found that many common beliefs destroy relationships, such as "love naturally leads to good sex", "sex is a natural function," and "compromise and negotiation is the key to marriage." A particularly destructive development is the expectation and demand for empathy, understanding, acceptance, and validation from your partner. There's nothing wrong with validation and acceptance, per se, but our dependence on them-especially when our relationship is contentious, creates two things: First, it destroys intimacy, and second, it creates emotional gridlock and freezes the relationship because both partners are dependant on validation from the other. These common erroneous beliefs combine with common limited personal development to create the common "marital problems" that either commonly get us divorced or, conversely, can help us become the people we're capable of being.
Q. How does this mutual validation pact undermine intimacy?
A: After the easy mutually-compatible things to say are said, dependence on our partner's validation eventually makes us shift from self-disclosure to self-presentation–presentation of ourselves as we want to be seen, not our true selves. Our partner's reactions-and getting the acceptance we want-becomes more important to us than truly being known. We start shading how and what we say to keep ourselves, our partner, and the relationship calm. But this destroys intimacy, sexual passion, and desire, and diminishes our sense of security and self-worth in the process. In the approach I take in Passionate Marriage, this is a normal, inevitable, and potentially productive developmental process! The conflict forces us into what I call the "two-choice dilemma: destroy your relationship, your integrity and true caring for your partner-or do the necessary things that scare you: stand up, validate ourselves and what you have to say, and become more intimate and more of a human being. This is an example of what I referred to earlier as the people-growing machinery of marriage.
Q: What exactly do you mean by intimacy?
A: Intimacy involves self-confrontation and self-disclosure in the context of a partner. In 1991, my first book on the Sexual Crucible Approach® revolutionized the fields of sexual and marital therapy by pointing out the difference between other-validated intimacy and self-validated intimacy. Other-validated intimacy requires your partner to validate and accept all your disclosures. Self-validated intimacy involves validating what you say when your partner won't. Most couples-and most therapists-confuse getting acceptance, validation, and understanding from your partner with the process of intimacy itself. The problem is that other-validated intimacy allows the partner with the least desire for intimacy to control their partner's disclosures and the level of intimacy in the relationship. We all want to be validated, but our dependence on it leads to what I call the "tyranny of the lowest common denominator," and destroys passion, eroticism, and desire in emotionally committed relationships. This is why I said earlier that our capacity for self-soothing and self-validation determine our tolerance and capacity for intimacy.
Q: What's the relationship between this profound intimacy and passion?
A: What really turns you on is personal and unique, like your thumbprint. People who can't validate their own eroticism hid it in their most important relationship, and passion always suffers. When you're capable of self-validated intimacy, you can let yourself be known at a very profound level-including what you really like sexually and daring to try out new things. You stop worrying about your partner's reaction and become deeply engrossed in the sexual drama unfolding with him/her. This involves more than just "getting into sex" and getting the sex you like. Many people focus on sensations during sex as a way of keeping intimacy to tolerable levels-they tune out their partner and tune into their body. But when you're capable of self-validated intimacy, you can let your partner look into you during sex without pulling away. This makes for what my clients refer to as electric "wall-socket" sex.
Q: Why do you say that marriage is the optimum setting for achieving and experiencing true sexual intimacy?
A: Monogamy creates powerful dynamics which force us to grow or the relationship deteriorates. The very fact that we care about the relationship prompts us to do the growing necessarily to turn things around. If you're in an open relationship and dependent on other-validation, then you just seek out another partner for an infusion of validation when gridlock inevitably develops within your primary relationship. But a monogamous relationship pushes you to hold onto yourself in your relationship with your partner. In my book Passionate Marriage I describe how emotional gridlock eventually presents all couples with four choices: try to dominate your partner to accommodate to you, turn yourself over to your partner, withdraw physically or emotionally, or develop a more solid sense of yourself. I often joke that the task of marriage seems to be finding out who you really are-while fending off a partner who's too ready to tell you!
Q: How does your approach to sex therapy differ from traditional approaches now in vogue?
A: Traditional sex therapy focuses on sexual dysfunctions, emphasizes anxiety-reduction, and promotes sensory awareness through structured touching exercises. The Passionate Marriage® Approach focuses on sex and intimacy as vehicles for personal development within emotionally committed relationships. It emphasizes intimacy, eroticism, anxiety-tolerance, and developing the capacity to love. Many people who find our approach extremely rewarding have no sexual dysfunctions per se. They are looking to make their relationship as good as it can be and taking their personal development as far as they can go.
Q: Why do you say that most people don't reach their sexual potential until their fifth or sixth decade of life?
A: Modern society mistakenly assumes that adolescence is the sexual prime of life, because we commonly confuse genital prime with sexual prime. When adults stop to examine their own lives, they often realize that they are much better in bed when they're 50 or 60 than they were when they were twenty. If you're interested in intimacy and eroticism during sex, the more mature person is usually a better partner. Men get to the point that they can tolerate a woman who's an equal in bed, and they can stop performing and let someone hold them. Women stop hiding their eroticism or protecting the man's ego, and openly enjoy their sexual prowess. Men and women often become more sexually compatible as they mature, and "third-agers" often have the best sex of their lives. It turns out that cellulite and sexual potential are highly correlated!
Q. Why do you say that third-agers bring more to the experience of sex and intimacy? More of what?
A: More selfhood, more capacity for meaningfulness. The more "self" you have to disclose and the greater your ability to disclose it, the greater your capacity for intimacy particularly during sex. Likewise, the more you can validate your erotic preferences and the more you've developed your eroticism, the more profound and passionate sex can become. These abilities are the fruits of personal maturity which usually coincide with physical maturity. When you've been around for five or six decades and had your share of successes and failures, you know yourself for better and worse. When you know who you are, and you stop apologizing for yourself, you can let your partner really look inside you during sex. Third-agers more likely recognize that they won't live forever and neither will their partners. True friends, intimate friends, are to be cherished. And that's one of the most powerful aphrodisiacs there is.