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The Search for Intimacy: Inside the Sexual Crucible
By David Schnarch, Ph. D.
March/April 1993 NETWORKER Magazine
Most of us remember times in our lives usually when we were young–when the entire world seemed suffused with a bright and glistening eroticism. We remember the delicious thrill of seeing somebody we desired walking toward us, smiling, the warm shock of a special person's touch on our arm, or the almost unbearable pleasure of gazing unabashedly into the eyes of a new lover. Even when we grow older, marry, have children, and take responsible jobs, this sexual electricity jolts us from time to time. Maybe it's in the laser glance of somebody we pass in the street, the palpably sensual presence of a stranger standing next to us in an elevator, or the undercurrent in an ostensibly businesslike conversation with a co-worker. The tingling promise of eroticism still calls to us, still provides the vital energy, the joyous awakening of something in ourselves, which contributes no small portion to the pleasure and delight–the obsolete dictionary meaning of the word lust, by the way–we take in life.
The thrill of connection
opens us to
the terror of loss and pain
Except in our marriages, that is. Sexual boredom, low sexual desire and lack of intimacy are so common as to be one of the major complaints of couples who seek marital counseling, and are probably considered inevitable and incurable by the legions of other bored couples who don't. For most married people, the magnetic force, which drew them together in the first place, has so weakened that marriage has become almost synonymous with sexual ennui.
Indeed, the withering away of eroticism in marriage, particularly as spouses age, is apparently so widespread in our society that it is commonly rationalized as normal, if not actually desirable. "Sex is for the young, and has a lot to do with adolescent hormones–you get less interested in sex as you get older." "It's only natural for the novelty and romance to wear off after you've been married for a while." "I'm just suffering from the 'seven-year-itch'–it will pass." "You're not as interested in sex as you get more mature." But the couples who come in for therapy, complaining that the thrill is gone–they are sexually bored with themselves and each other, drudging through sex like a dreary duty, not wanting each other much anymore–are clearly not buying these clichés or they wouldn't be seeking treatment. They would not fuel the massive outpouring of popular articles and books promising to re-ignite the excitement of first love, nor could they sustain a growing industry of therapists whose stock in trade is a more sophisticated version of the communication techniques and sexual skills found in the glossies.
At the very least, clients come in wanting to achieve a "normally" functional sex life–without the erectile difficulty, the premature or retarded ejaculation, the orgasmic dysfunction or inhibited sexual desire, which they believe is responsible for their marital misery. But even people who are fully "functional," according to standard definitions of sexual normality–a utilitarian physiological arousal and "adequate performance" of intercourse and orgasm–complain of the predictable, pedestrian and oddly unfulfilling quality of their erotic life. Ironically, the same "bored" clients often are deeply upset when their partners unilaterally try new sexual behavior.
Why is it that we're so undone when our partner does something to break the sexual boredom? In fact, whether defined by the sex therapy establishment as "functional" or "dysfunctional," people complaining of a loss of the vital sense of connection they once knew often are deathly afraid of the very intimacy and eroticism they are craving. People have boring, monotonous sex because intense sex and intimacy (and change itself) are far more threatening and fearful than they can imagine, and require more adult autonomy and ego strength than they can muster. Intimate sex is, for most people, a terrifying and utterly mysterious business. Notwithstanding 30 years of research, a vast body of knowledge about the physiology of sex and a publishing industry virtually sustained on the self-help literature of sex and intimacy, most salient, deeply evocative and significant aspects of our sexual lives remain largely terra incognito to most people, including sex therapists. Having approached sexuality as if the secrets of life could be discovered on the dissecting table, modern sexology has confused sexual performance with the inner experience of sexuality, overlooking considerations of eroticism, desire and personal meaning.
Through sex, we can encounter–though usually we repress it–the fear of not being loved and the terror of losing what we love, the dread of exposing everything within us that is vulnerable and helpless, inadequate and impoverished or ugly and hateful. It is left to poets, artists and novelists to express the human emotional potential within our sexuality, its relationship to desire and longing, to ecstasy and passion, to the quest for self-transcendence in blissful union with another, and to the concurrent and contradictory terror of being lost, engulfed, obliterated by the same mysterious force.
Most people entering treatment for sexual dysfunction do not realize, any more than do many sex therapists, that they can find within themselves and their relationship a capacity for something a world beyond functional sexual behavior. Sexual-marital therapy can help them achieve the kind of intimacy that is one of the pinnacles of adult human development. Beyond the utilitarian treatment of dysfunction, the goal of sexual-marital therapy can be to help clients achieve their fullest sexual potential, and, in the process, become more independent, grown-up, emotionally free and spiritually developed human beings. In this paradigm of therapy, which departs radically from other modern sex therapies, clients engage in a profound struggle around sexual-marital issues–allow themselves to be transformed in a process I call the sexual crucible–in order to achieve an experience of intimate encounter quite beyond the limits of normal sexual functioning.
The Sexual Crucible provides an "abnormal" solution for a "normal" problem that affects "normal" people with "normal" neuroses. But the process is difficult and often excruciatingly painful for both patients and therapist alike. The essence of sexual intimacy lies not in mastering specific sexual skills or reducing performance anxiety or having regular orgasms, but in the ability to allow oneself to deeply know and to be deeply known by one's partner. So simple to articulate, so difficult to achieve, this ability of couples to really see each other, to see inside each other during sex, requires the courage, integrity and maturity to face oneself and, even more frightening, convey that self–all that one is capable of feeling and expressing–to the partner.
Within this model, adult eroticism is more a function of emotional maturation than of physiological responsiveness. And, conversely, becoming capable of sexual intimacy is a path to personal growth and individual maturity, a means to achieving a freer, more adult sense of who we are and what we want–what family therapist Murray Bowen called the solid self in his theory of differentiation. A solid self is completely different from self-image, which is what most of us like to present to others as our real selves, authentic or not. During sexual intimacy, the differentiated, grown-up person with a solid identity can reveal her- or himself to a partner and accept the consequences, including the possibility that the other might not respond with empathy, affirmation, approval and delight.
But for individuals who do not have a firmly grounded sense of personal identity (probably the majority of people seeking therapy), any negative reaction from a spouse threatens the destruction of one's carefully constructed facade–a threat many couples are mutually committed to avoiding at all costs. When two such people marry, both spouses demand, in effect, that the other always respond with appreciation, warmth, approval, empathy and love to any disclosure of what either wants, feels, thinks–in short, any expression of what she or he really is. At the same time, each is terrified to make such disclosures, to let him- or herself be known, on the very well-grounded fear that the other may not want to, and often cannot, provide such flattering but inauthentic and dishonest responses. Most such marriages are constructed on the basis of what might be called mutual-validation pacts, in which each spouse implicitly promises and requires in turn the good opinion and emotional acceptance of the other for a fundamental sense of identity and self-worth.
Generally, these couples do not really want increased emotional contact during sex, not because their relationship matters too little to them, but because it matters too much. They are terrified of what would happen to the relationship, and to themselves, should they ever truly let themselves be known to their partners. Even while complaining that they want more intimacy in their marriages, in reality they cannot tolerate the anxiety and pain of fully knowing themselves, let alone allowing their spouses really to see and hear them as they genuinely are–it is far too dangerous.
So the couple implicitly makes an internal reciprocity bargain, which runs something like this: "I will tell you about me, but only if you then tell me about you. If you don't, I won't either. But I want to, so you have to. I'll go first and then you are obligated to disclose too; it's only fair. If I go first, you have to make me feel secure. I need to be able to trust you." This is, in effect, a common marriage roundelay–two mutually dependent and mutually suspicious spouses jockeying uneasily for the limited quantity of emotional security between them.
People have boring, monotonous sex
because intense sex and intimacy are far
more threatening and scary
than they can imagine,
and require more adult autonomy and ego strength
than they can muster.
Sexual-marital therapy often falters because therapists have enshrined this expectation–and demand–of reciprocity in our textbook definitions of intimacy. Some stipulate the reciprocity must be similar in style, while others say it can be asymmetrical, with one person disclosing more than the other. Most clinicians seem to agree, however, that the listener is responsible for instilling feelings of trust, acceptance and validation in the discloser. Therein lies the problem: while therapists reinforce common hopes and fears about intimacy, they perpetuate expectations that just don't work in real life.
A couple, for example, wakes in the morning having had sex the night before and the wife remarks on the wonderfully intimate time they shared. The husband brusquely comments that he didn't find it wonderfully intimate or even sexually satisfying. The wife is shocked and wounded, but how she allows the comment to affect her sense of herself reflects whether she is capable of relying on self-validated intimacy or depends upon her husband's attitude to define her view of their sexual encounter. If she has "normal" beliefs about intimacy–or treatment by a "normal" therapist–she will be thrown into a swamp of self-doubt, begin to mistrust her own experience, and look to her husband instead for her sense of what happened to her. "Gosh, maybe it wasn't so great, maybe I don't really know what good sex is, maybe there is something wrong with me, maybe I didn't really feel what I thought I felt, etc. etc." In a marriage between two relatively well-differentiated spouses, on the other hand, a negative emotional response from one partner does not have the power to suck the other into a vortex of anxiety and depression. The wife will trust her relationship with herself, her own instincts and perceptions, and say something like, "I'm really sorry to hear that. I, and the man I was I was with last night, had a wonderful time! What was the woman you were with like?" If the husband was trying to hurt your feelings, or "play with her reality," it no longer works. She is no longer using him to validate her own experience.
Unsurprisingly, simple-minded suggestions for improving sexual intimacy in marriage–communicate honestly, spend more time together, schedule time in advance, and surprise your partner with new, seductive lingerie or more expert techniques–don't work because the underlying issues and deep-seated insecurities people bring to sexual relationships are not addressed by such inanities. Nor do standard sex therapy models deal with individual differentiation and each spouse's capacity for intimacy.
Indeed, sex therapy has only recently begun integrating physiological functioning with emotional factors at all, and therapists–particularly those who don't specialize in this area–still treat most presenting sexual problems as questions of mechanical performance. The Masters and Johnson sexual-response cycle (excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution), while it revolutionized our understanding of sexual physiology, set the stage for a view of human sexuality that reduces and subdues sexual issues to biomechanical problems usually amenable to the correct technical interventions. We've taken too literally Masters and Johnson's notion of "the pleasure bond," the idea that if a couple could be trained to manipulate and control their own genital functioning, and experience physiologically normal sexual cycle from arousal to intercourse to orgasm, the inherent pleasure of the experience would make them want to repeat it over and over again. One would seemingly either have to be stupid or significantly disturbed not to keep on doing it.
This view that adequate physiological sexual functioning inevitably provides pleasure and satisfaction dovetails nicely with the widespread, romantic notion in our society that "good sex" (meaning, functional sex) is the most direct route to intimacy and that physical orgasm is the pinnacle of sexual experience. But, in fact, people often are capable of engaging in physiologically normal sex and having orgasms without experiencing much desire, passion or subjective pleasure. Indeed, the original work done by Masters and Johnson–measuring physiological response in a laboratory setting–demanded that research volunteers be capable of completely tuning out their anonymous partners and the semi-public setting of the lab so they could concentrate solely on their own physical sensations. Sex therapist Bernard Apfelbaum has suggested that this athletic ability to focus only on genital performance became the de facto reference model for sexual style to the present day. It is as if, once taught how to sneeze at will, one could be expected to experience new heights of emotional fulfillment with every "ach-oo!"
Masters and Johnson's example should serve as warning to all therapists: The models and methods you develop may not be consistent with the ideals and values you profess. Masters and Johnson were noteworthy in their day for their attention to issues of intimacy, but it doesn't carry through in their notion that "sex is a natural function." The real point is, intimacy during sex doesn't come "naturally"–it's a learned ability and an acquired taste.
Ironically, sex therapy, particularly techniques aimed at reducing performance anxiety, often dampen the capacity for intimacy and sexual intensity. In sensate-focus exercises, for example, one partner is encouraged to concentrate on his or her own physical sensations while being stroked and caressed by the other. An integral part of the exercise is to tune out not only thoughts and feelings, but the partner as well. The model implicitly suggests an experiential rule of modern sexology, that focusing on the partner, or opening oneself up on the partner, or opening oneself up to an awareness of both self and other in what is, after all, a mutual engagement, actually interferes with sexual arousal: awareness of the sexual partner is regarded as a sexual turnoff! This is the essence of sex therapist Helen Singer-Kaplan's "bypassing" approach–teaching people to willfully ignore disruptive thoughts or emotions about the partner that interfere with sexual functioning. Clearly, preoccupation with sensate focus–the core technique of sex therapy–could actually hinder deep communion with a partner. And, following the lead of the sex therapy industry, society has idealized one partner focusing inward while the other touches him/her; the paradigm is prostrate, eyes-closed "cadaver" sex.
But truly intense sexual intimacy is in every way an "eyes-open" experience, a reality not apparently recognized by therapists. During a presentation at the 1991 annual meeting of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, I asked a room packed with certified sex therapists how many thought treatment was not concluded until patients could have eyes-open orgasms. Not a hand was raised. (At my presentation at the 1992 American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists annual conference, three hands ascended.) And yet, sustained eye contact is one of the most striking features of human sexual arousal and intimacy. Not only is eye contact in sexual initiation a common aspect of primate behavior, apparent in monkeys and apes, it appears to be a phylogenetically ancient trait in human beings, occurring in a wide range of cultures and buried deep in the evolution of our species. Flirtation, for example, is a kind of sexual communication compressed largely of reciprocal signals sent via the eyes.
Furthermore, unlike other animal species, human beings have the physiological capability for face-to-face intercourse that facilitates eye contact. Anthropologist Helen Fisher describes the impact this has had on the unique capacity of human beings for intimacy. In frontal copulation, she writes in The Sex Contract: The Evolution of Human Behavior, "each partner could see the other's face, observe nuances of expression, and express his own. Face-to-face copulation nurtured intimacy, communication and understanding. It strengthened the ties between sexual partners."
For human beings, eye contact during sex tends to make the encounter feel intensely personal; looking into a beloved partner's eyes during sex can be an enthralling mutual communication of emotional feeling, much more revealing, expressive and evocative than achieving technically adequate levels of physical sensation. Many couples, however, find the idea of just looking at each other, let alone looking into each other's eyes, very threatening. Spouses often prefer having sex in the dark, not only because of shame or embarrassment about their bodies, but because they are afraid to be seen–physically and emotionally, literally and metaphorically. Couples claim that they want to be more "intimate" with each other, but in fact they dread eye-to-eye contact because it is the precursor of an even deeper "I-to-I" contact–two people letting themselves see and be seen behind the eyeballs, looking inside each other. It is as if they must stay unseen and unfelt to be acceptable in both the eyes and the heart of the partner.
Even when they get to the point of keeping their eyes literally open, people can draw down their emotional "shades," present the blank facade of an unseeing gaze, a mask of distance that one presents to a potentially dangerous and unknown other. That's the problem with being "sexually normal." "Normal" sexual styles are designed to let one (or both) people reach orgasm, while also keeping intimacy to tolerable levels. In many marriages, both spouses remain forever unknown and unseen to each other in what is supposed to be the most "intimate" connection of their lives.
Modern sex therapy illustrates how we've tried to subdue sexuality. Masters and Johnson's well-known "performance anxiety" concept assumes that reducing anxiety is the key to resolving sexual problems. In actuality, however, sexual repertoires grow by progressively mastering new anxieties. Remember when you first heard about "French kissing," or the first time you had intercourse? No one is anxiety free when growing sexually. People's (and couples') sexual repertoires grow by mastering anxiety about "unacceptable," "forbidden" or frightening acts. You can't "think about it" to the point you're relaxed–you have to do it while it still makes you nervous. Intercourse exemplifies how we convert what seems scary, strange and awkward into what's "normal."
Yes, an anxiety-reduction approach can improve genital functioning. Modern sex therapy techniques have undoubtedly improved the capacity of many people to enjoy, much to their relief, the mediocre level of sexuality that this culture considers normal. But curing genital dysfunctions is vastly easier than helping people look into each other's eyes while they are having an orgasm, or achieve anything near their full sexual potential.
In reality, anxiety tolerance is the key to sexual growth. That's what differentiation is all about. It makes you able to tolerate (or introduce) sexual novelty, and keep sex alive. When you can't soothe your own anxieties, or maintain your own psychological "shape," you're dependent on "trusting" your partner (who can then stop you dead in your tracks by simply withholding validation).
Losing a long-term loved one
from a good relationship is irreparable.
It takes courage, integrity and
a strong faith in one's own resources
to risk intimacy knowing this.
The truism that males reach their sexual prime in late adolescence and that women reach theirs during their thirties dovetails with the popular media-driven view that only the young, the beautiful and the physically fit can really enjoy sex. But even those relatively few people who reach their full potential for sexual intensity and deep intimacy rarely do so before the fifth and sixth decade of their lives. If older people have learned something about themselves in their days on earth, there is far more core self to be brought to sexual intimacy and more differentiation to permit the disclosure of it.
It seems obvious, furthermore, that marriage is the most elegantly appropriate setting in which to engage in the long, hard struggle–and it is a struggle–for true sexual intimacy. Marriage tests our limits as human beings in relationship, pushes us to the edge of our capacity for emotional experience. Marriage forces us to see (if we have the courage to look) the worst, as well as the best, parts of ourselves; it reveals our capacity for sadism and hatred, our desire to punish and control our spouses, our secret neediness and insecurity, our shame-filled sexual fantasies, and, most of all, our usually unacknowledged terror of being left alone to our own inadequate selves, of being rejected, of losing someone we love.
But these horrors are precisely what people with lower levels of differentiation (most young people) expect to escape when they marry. Each spouse hopes to have finally found the "other half" that will make him or her a whole self. Marital problems often surface when the thin membrane of this fantasy is stretched to the breaking point, when life and its vicissitudes have shredded the fabric of bogus togetherness and mutuality that once made the couple feel safe, secure and less alone. The intolerable anxiety of seeing this dream of loving symbiosis dissolve and the resulting confusion and conflict drives many couples into marital therapy.
A couple's sexual style, the ways they touch each other and how they feel about their sexual lives, are profound, often quite literal, expressions of these emotional struggles, revealing issues they are often unable or unwilling to articulate or even consciously think about. Little wonder that marital-sex therapy can be regarded as a kind of crucible. The word literally refers to a very tough vessel, capable of enduring very hot temperatures, in which high-grade steel is forged from a mixture of crude iron and other substances. It also conveys the meaning of a severe test, trial or ordeal and a resulting transfiguration and is associated with Christ's crucifixion and ultimate transcendence.
The implicit comparison of a marital-sexual model of therapy to crucifixion may seem overblown and melodramatic, but in fact, couples who go through this process sometimes suggest that the spouse (or the therapist) is "crucifying" them. In fact, it is the dynamics of each spouse's whole life, reflected in their marital-sexual imbroglio and condensed in therapy, which constitute the "crucifixion" or crisis that can transform both them and their marriage. Patients often are shocked to find that therapy takes them through the anxiety, the pressure and the confusion they entered treatment to avoid rather than experience. But the very anxiety about their situation that the couple brings to treatment is the catalyst for change. Marriage, especially marital sexuality, is a people-growing machine. Its normal processes provide the pressure and heat that transform people, like carbon, into diamonds. And marriage grinds off spouses' rough edges, transforming a diamond in the rough into a gem worth treasuring.
The underlying rational for this form of therapy is the idea that sexual intimacy and intense eroticism in marriage are dependent upon the degree of individual differentiation of each partner. Thus, the mastery, rather than the masking, of anxiety is the centerpiece of treatment. In the process, both partners learn that without being able to stand alone as individuals, to hold onto themselves while they struggle through their fears, rather than trying to submerge, negotiate or evade them, they probably will not be able to achieve intimacy and connection with their spouses, or with anybody else for that matter.
For example, after 30 years of marriage, Steve came in to see me alone, complaining that, although until three years ago, he and his wife had always enjoyed "wonderful sex" and great intimacy, he now suffered from erectile difficulties and had little interest in sex, while she complained about his "lack of communication," his "lack of affection," and his lack of sexual desire for her. He said he thought his problem was that he no longer found her aging body attractive, though he couldn't tell her this for fear of "hurting her feelings." Nancy was, he suggested, a very dependent, insecure, demanding and emotionally reactive person, who might fall apart if he were honest.
I asked him if he wondered if Nancy guessed his feelings during sex, and when he replied in a puzzled tone that he had never thought about it, I suggested that there were two possibilities. If his wife didn't now know how he felt, then his report of wonderfully intimate sex for 30 years was hardly believable–if she was so unaware of his emotional state now, maybe the sex hadn't been so intimate after all. On the other hand, I said, perhaps she did know how he felt, and just didn't care–she was not nearly as interested in intimacy with him as she was in being serviced by him, and would put up with his distaste as long as he kept it to himself and performed the job adequately.
Now Steve was in a crucible. Having walked in thinking he knew that the problem was both clear and insoluble, he had been thrown into a quandary–his neat scenario had been completely shredded, leaving two more or less intolerable options that cast into doubt all his preconceptions about his marriage.
That week at home, he was withdrawn and contemplative, and his wife, immediately sensing his unrest, pursued him relentlessly about the cause. He resisted her. She wouldn't let it go. Finally, he told her that he no longer found her sexually attractive. Wounded and angry, she cried and said she knew she wasn't so pretty anymore. He then changed tack and tried to console her, telling her he "didn't really mean it," but she refused to be consoled and became increasingly distraught. She said she was leaving him and began packing her bags. He felt angry and caught in a no-win situation–another little crucible. " I finally told her what I was thinking, and this is the reward I got," he told me in some outrage.
Finally, driven to the wall and thinking he had nothing to lose–she was leaving anyway–he threw the whole story at her: how their sex life had deteriorated because of her looks, how she was really responsible for his erectile difficulty, how he now only tried to "satisfy" her and got no pleasure from sex himself–every terrible word of what he really thought. After a screaming fight, which lasted for hours, they had very intense sex, which was repeated the following morning. The next day, Nancy called a therapist for herself, and seemed suddenly much calmer, less emotionally overwrought than she had in a long time.
What had happened? Always before, Steve had "spared" Nancy, lying to her to "save the marriage." But when she was almost out he door, he allowed himself to be truly, indeed brutally, intimate with her; he disclosed himself to her. However unpleasant and unerotic the disclosure might seem, no matter how much Steve believed his own diagnosis explaining his lack of sexual desire, the experience of intimacy, of letting himself be really known by her, released a reservoir of intense sexual feelings in him about the very same woman he had found so sexually unattractive before. In other words, when he was intimate with her, Steve felt intense sexual desire.
Conjoint therapy with this couple intensified the crucible: the more honestly they spoke to and about each other, the more obvious was the discrepancy between what they believed about their marriage and how they behaved as married people. The more they revealed themselves in therapy, the more intimacy they experienced; but the greater the intimacy (which they claimed they wanted), the greater the anger, distress and anxiety.
In fact, their "close" marriage had for years been a patchwork construction of semi-truths and evasions calculated to reduce anxiety. Steve had always been cautious about how he presented himself to his wife–he was afraid of her emotional reaction to him. Nancy, on the other hand, tended to take his behavior as a reflection on herself, trying to say and be what she thought he wanted–in bed and out. Ironically, to achieve a more intimate and sexually intense relationship, both Nancy and Steve had to do what each feared most and what seemed most dangerous to the survival of the marriage: they had to stand on their own feet, to venture away from the snug confines of their joint marital identity, risk being individual, separate selves and differentiate from each other–however rude, insulting and incendiary the process might be.
Spouses often believe that the mere existence of negative feelings about each other (encouraged by the self-help industry)–hatred, contempt, revulsion and sadism–proves not only that they are stuck in a bad marriage, but probably that they are seriously disturbed themselves. And yet the fights, the threats, the ultimatums, the yelling, the crying may actually signal the potential for a good and intimate relationship–they are signs that the difficult struggle within each spouse for individual differentiation is already going on. Acknowledging these feelings out loud before the other (and in the containing environment of therapy, with a therapist whose own level of differentiation allows him or her to tolerate the pain and anxiety), paves the way for a level of intimacy not possible until spouses can stop blaming their partners for their own feelings of hostility, disappointment, inadequacy and failure.
In the heat of the crucible, partners develop begrudging respect for each other. Each has watched the other master him- or herself, grow up a little and learn not to knuckle under to demands, tantrums or manipulation. They have had to give up the notion that the partner is a fused part of themselves, and learn to cope with the anxiety of recognizing the spouse as a separate individual, with competing preferences and agendas. Finally, they have had to relinquish the infantile hope of being unconditionally loved by a totally gratifying partner–the ideal, perfect parent they never had. Only when they can really see and respect the other as he or she really is will they be able to trust one another. Begrudging respect is an early sign that two spouses have taken responsibility for themselves, and now understand the sine qua non of intimacy: they are not one person, but two people, they are not together "in one boat," but in two, and whether they sail together or drift apart depends on their recognition of that ultimate separation.
The quest for intimacy is a great engine propelling the manifold therapies and human-potential enterprises aimed at reducing the alienation and personal isolation that are the watch-words of our time. Most, however, confuse intimacy with togetherness and closeness, failing to see the inherent paradox of intimacy: it is the acute awareness of our fundamental loneliness and separateness from other human beings that motivates intensely intimate contact. Catch phrases, like 'fear of abandonment," which litter pop psychology, bespeak our refusal to accept that we are here alone, save for our love and curiosity about the familiar strangers who populate our lives. To be intimate with another is not to attempt an impossible dream of fusion, as if two people could share one mind, one body, one personality, but a process of knowing oneself in the presence of a partner and recognizing the other's immutable separateness.
This recognition that each of us is ultimately alone brings with it the sorrow of realizing that our most intimate relationships are ambiguous, painful and transient. Ambiguous because we never can absolutely know another, can never fully dissolve our lonely separateness in merger with another. Painful, because every sexual relationship that approaches the limits of sexual potential triggers what one patient called "a bottomless pit of past disappointment about love not received," and a terrible fear of loving and wanting much more intensely than does our partner.
Finally, the experience of an intensely intimate relationship paradoxically makes us feel with great vividness the terror of loss. It is now so bad, we half-consciously tell ourselves, to lose someone we don't care very much about, but when we experience our fullest potential for intimate sexual connection, we know just how bad that loss will feel. And yet, loss is inevitable. "To love is to be lonely," writes therapist Clark Moustakas. "Every love is broken by illness, separation, or death. The exquisite nature of love…is threatened by change and termination, and by the fact that the loved one does not always feel or know or understand."
We bypass this frightening awareness by focusing on recapturing the early bloom of "first love," the blind and ignorant love of new partners, never considering that the real treasure is "last love," the love of partners who've been together long enough to truly know themselves and each other. In the process of loving someone, particularly in a long-term relationship, something wondrous and awful happens. The partner becomes unique, the one person with whom we can be truly ourselves, while, paradoxically, giving up the need to struggle for selfhood. Losing a long-term loved one from a good relationship is irreparable. There is a hole in the fabric of one's life that is not filled by another. One is left with a bounty of good memories and a wealth of pain. It takes courage, integrity and a strong faith in one's own resources to risk intimacy knowing these truths.
But the prize is well worth the price to those willing to accept life on its own terms. Once the dream of fusion is relinquished, paradoxically, the experience of the "oceanic" oneness with humankind, and the integration of sexuality and spirituality is possible. "For me, the erotic encounter is ecstatic in the dictionary sense of the word," writes journalist George Leonard. "It permits me the unique freedom of stripping away every mask, every facade that I usually present to the world, and of existing for a while in that state of pure being where there is no expectation and no judgment. The act of love, at best, is an unveiling. Layer after layer of custom and appearance are stripped away. First goes clothing, then every other marker of status and position…My freedom lies precisely in surrender, in my willingness to relinquish even my hard-won personality (personal, Greek for 'mask'), my image of who I am in the world and what I should be–my ego.
And it is in this state of surrender, of not-trying, that my full erotic potential is realized. For I am now willing to lose everything and find nothing. All that has maintained me in the ordinary world is of no use here…Even differences of gender fade away in the climactic rhythm of our joining. I am not male, my love is not female. We are one, one entity. Through a tumult of love, we have arrived at a radiant stillness, the center of the dance… Seeing nothing, hearing nothing, I am totally connected with my love and, through her, to all of existence. What was veiled is unveiled, what was hidden is revealed; beneath all customary distinctions, there is a deeper self that wears no mask. In the darkness, there is an illumination. I love, I have found nothing and all things.
David Schnarch, Ph.D., is the founder of the Sexual Crucible® Approach, and Director of The Marriage & Family Health Center in Evergreen Colorado. At the time this article was published, he was Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Urology at Louisiana State University Medical Center in New Orleans. He is the author of Construction the Sexual Crucible: An Integration of Sexual and Marital Therapy (W.W. Norton, 1991) and Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships (Owl Books, 1998; W.W. Norton, 1997). Address: 2922 Evergreen Parkway, Suite 310, Evergreen, CO 80439. Website: www.PassionateMarriage.com