Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Dr. David Schnarch. David is a licensed clinical psychologist, a certified sex therapist, and a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. David Schnarch is the author of a new book, Intimacy and Desire, as well as the book, Passionate Marriage: Resurrecting Sex and Constructing the Sexual Crucible. With Sounds True, David has released a two-session audio program called, Secrets of the Passionate Marriage: How to Increase Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Fulfillment in Committed Relationships, a program which shares a revolutionary approach thousands have used to take their relationships to new and lasting heights of sexual ecstasy and intimacy.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, David and I spoke about the relationship between differentiation and sexual satisfaction in committed relationships. We also talked about the four drives of sexual desire; what David means by the word integrity and its importance in a healthy relationship; and what it might mean to hold onto yourself in a relationship. Here’s my very helpful and provocative conversation with Dr. David Schnarch.
David, in your work on passionate marriage, you talk about the cornerstone of a passionate marriage as something you call, “differentiation.” And so I want to start right there, right in the heart of your work. What do you mean by differentiation?
David Schnarch: Well, differentiation is the phenomenon that applies to all living things, but in human beings, differentiation is basically the ability to balance humankind’s two most fundamental drives. One is our urge to be connected with other people, and the other is the urge to be free and autonomous and direct the course of our life. So both wanting to be in a relationship and wanting to be our own person are the two most fundamental drives and the two fundamental problems that couples have in emotionally committed relationships.
So differentiation is the ability to have both: to be very much involved in a relationship and also be able to be your own person within that relationship. When you can do that, you basically have the best of both worlds, including the kind of relationship everybody wants to have.
TS: OK, OK. Is it actually possible to have both?
DS: If it’s not, you’re going to be a hurtin’ kitten. That is absolutely possible. But it’s possible at a level of development. So just like you can have pedestrian spirituality or you could have a much more mature robust spirituality, the same thing is true about personal relationships. People have relationships at the level of their own development the same way that everybody has sex at their own level of sexual development. It’s not about learning an idea or learning a new technique, like communication skills. But if you use the natural processes of emotionally committed relationships that grow yourself up, then absolutely, you are quite capable of having both an intense, satisfying relationship and also being your own person within that relationship.
TS: OK so a couple comes to you… Do you have certain litmus tests where you can see what level of differentiation they have in their relationship? How can you tell?
DS: Well, it’s not that hard. For instance, differentiation is an abstract concept and I know that when you start talking about that, people scratch their head and when I do interviews with reporters and I talk about differentiation, you can watch their eyes glaze over. And they’re saying, “explain to me in thirty words how I can tell my public how your approach is different?” So what we have done is operationalize differentiation into four basic human, uniquely human abilities. We call these the Four Points of Balance, the Crucible Four Points of Balance. They are written for the first time, actually, in my latest book, Intimacy and Desire.
The Four Points of Balance, which is our way of looking at differentiation, are, what we call solid flexible self which is the first one, the ability to have solid values that you can both hang onto and change over time. The second one is called quiet mind and quiet calm heart, which is the ability to contain your anxiety and not let your feelings overwhelm you and take care of your own self emotionally. Third point of balance is called grounded responding, which is not overreacting to other people’s overreactions. And the fourth point of balance is called meaningful endurance, the willingness to tolerate discomfort for growth.
And so when the couple comes in, I will assess them across these four basic points and get some idea of where they are in their level of development. Also, one of the interesting things about differentiation is that if people are together for any length of time, they are at the same level of differentiation. You don’t find couples that are together for some time that are remarkably mismatched. So by pegging one person, you very often can get a very good assessment about the differentiation level of the partner and that’s the differentiation level of the relationship. So it’s done in a fairly pragmatic, straightforward way.
TS: OK, just [for some] clarification about the very first point you mentioned: Having a solid and flexible self, what do you mean by that? Solid and flexible?
DS: Yes, that catches a lot of people, because most of us don’t understand what “solid” is. Solid is, on the one hand, that ability to hang onto a set of core values and not be swayed simply by circumstance. But the other part is that people who really have a solid sense of self can change over time. They can change those values when it’s appropriate, but they don’t do it with pressure from the outside—they do it from the inside. It’s a very determined decision.
So the hallmark of a well-developed person is not [just] a person who can stand on their own against pressure to conform and at the same time flex and bend when circumstances [require]. Anybody who knows anything about Buddhism—you know, it talks about flexibility being the strength. And so a human being, a real human being, a well-developed human being, has both the ability to transcend circumstances and maintain that core, and at the same time [has] the ability to change.
So somebody who is screaming, “Don’t tell me what! I know what’s right and wrong!” and who never changes their values, that’s rigidity. The hallmark of a well-differentiated person is not like a knight in armor clanking around where they’re in this kind of carcass and they can’t move or change like a lobster. Basically, it is the ability to be flexible over time.
TS: Now here is the really critical question, I think, for this work on passionate marriage: What is the connection between a couple’s level of differentiation and the level of hot sex they’re having or not having?
DS: Well, that’s a really, really good question, and that’s the one that really attracts so many people to the approach. That it’s not just [a] theory, that it gets to be very pragmatic. To really understand the connection, you have to understand the natural ecology of sexual relationships. Sex is not simply a collection of techniques or values. It turns out that when two people come together and have a sexual relationship on an ongoing basis, there are ecological rules that are as built in as the rules of world ecology. It’s not just that we can come together and do whatever we want in relationships.
When humans form relationships, there are rules. So, for instance, one rule in emotionally committed relationships is that sexual relationships always consist of leftovers. You get to decide what you don’t want to do. I get to decide what I don’t want to do, and we do whatever’s leftover. That’s why sexual relationships always consist of leftovers. This is absolutely normal, and what happens is that people don’t realize that sexual boredom is built into ongoing relationships for just that reason. Because regardless of how sexually developed you and I are, if we do the same thing over and over again for five years, we are going to be bored out of our minds.
Human beings like monogamy, but they also like sexual variety. The way you get that without having affairs or breaking up your relationships is you have to expand your sexual repertoire. But the elegance of the grand design, the sort of great Oneness showing up inside our relationships, [exists] because we’ve always gone through this. Sex always consists of leftovers routine.
The only way that you can now have a vibrant sexual relationship is a couple of things. You have got do something new, and that means, regardless of what it’s going to be, it’s going to be outside of both of your comfort zones, because we went through that initial process. The other part is when one of us suggests something new your partner is not going to say, “That’s a wonderful idea, thanks for sharing. Let’s go rip off our clothes and do it!” Your partner is more likely to say, “That’s a disgusting thing to do,” because you’re taking them outside of their comfort zone.
And so all of a sudden, the Four Points of Balance come into play right there in simply curing sexual boredom, which we all have to do. You have to have a set of values. You can’t overreact to your partner. You have got to take care of your heart because people say difficult things when they’re uncomfortable. And you have to have meaningful endurance.
So now if we’re going to keep hot sex alive in our relationship, presuming we had it to begin with, we’re going to have to apply the Four Points of Balance. And if you and I are poorly differentiated—meaning we have weak Four Points of Balance—we’re going to bog down like many, many couples do. We’re going to start taking the fact that we don’t have good sex personally, we’re going to begin to tell ourselves common but wrong ideas like, “The chemistry is gone,” or “We’ve fallen out of love,” or “We’re sexually incompatible.”
If that’s the case, then we’re poorly differentiated, and we’re not only going to get our feelings hurt, we’re going to withdrawal from each other and we’re going to have a lousy relationship—presuming we stay together. Or by doing things that you’re not used to—that seem to be not “you” yet because they aren’t a part of your sexual identity—it you’re going to challenge the first Point of Balance, that flexibility. You’re going to challenge the second Point of Balance about keeping your anxiety under control. You’ve also got the third Point of Balance; we can’t be overreacting to each other. And we need the fourth Point of Balance because we have to hang in there and we have to go through some uncomfortable times to get to where we want to go.
It’s not only the case that better-differentiated people handle this process better, but the elegance of the great design is that this is how poorly differentiated people become well-differentiated people. You don’t do it by going to a monastery or by taking a course in sex. You do it by getting into a relationship and going through this incredible developmental process that is built into all emotionally committed relationships. And so the process of taking our relationship from boring sex to the one where we’re so happy we stayed together because we’re having better sex than ever before is the natural way that nature helps us all to become more differentiated.
When you begin to think that sex and differentiation and development of the self and the human brain are all entwined, I thought that this was an incredible idea. This is what made me take the next step beyond Passionate Marriage and write the latest book, Intimacy and Desire. But it’s perfectly consistent with Passionate Marriage and it’s still amazing to me that everything that we wrote about and talked about in Passionate Marriage and in The Secrets of a Passionate Marriage, they still hold true to today. We just built on it, but that is really the core of that approach.
TS: There are so many questions that I have here, but I’m going to try to hit it very succinctly. You said, “Human beings like monogamy” and I had a moment where I thought, well, is that true? I mean, I like monogamy, but I certainly know a lot people who wouldn’t say that.
DS: Well, when we’re talking about human beings, we’re not talking about your opinion or my opinion. We’re talking about a million years of human evolution. We’re talking about 2,000 years of civilization. And if you look over it from an anthropological and sociological view, it is very clear that the basic human mating is serial monogamy plus affairs. That’s it. That’s not really disputable.
Now, whether or not people are going to say that they like monogamy, that’s a different issue. But there are enough of us that like it enough that pair bonding is one of the basic characteristics of human relationships.
TS: Why is it in your work that you have decided to focus on increasing sexual pleasure and fulfillment in committed relationships versus looking at it in just sexual interactions in an open way?
DS: Well, because sex always occurs in the context of a relationship. There is no such thing as non-relational sex to a human being. That doesn’t make a difference whether we are talking about a one-night-stand or we’re talking about you masturbating. When people masturbate they’re having a relationship with somebody in their head, maybe a brief encounter. But it’s still inherently relational because the human self is basically relational, and the human self, which emerged about 1.7 million years ago, emerged at the same time that the human desire was developing. Selfhood relationships with other people and sexual desire are [so intrinsically intertwined, they are] basically almost one in the same. So that is why I started working with sex and relationships.
Another reason I started working [with the idea of] sex in committed relationships is because the more I did work with couples, the more I saw that really emotionally committed relationships, particularly when it comes to sex, are people-growing machines. I started seeing more than just people having whoop-de-do sex or just sex to the point to where it was transcendent. What I saw was couples going through the problems they were having—which was sort of their worst nightmare—and that was how they became more evolved. And as they became more evolved, both their sexuality and their spirituality became more evolved. It was something that just knocked me out. I wanted to be a part of it. So we developed an approach that lines up with the natural way that [being] emotionally committed works. That’s why the approach is not only so powerful but also so successful.
So now Passionate Marriage is an international bestseller, and basically, it transcends culture. It transcends sexual orientation. It transcends race and religion. When you find something that works that [is] broadly distributed, you’re going down into the very core of how humans relate to each other and how we fall in love. I wanted to line up with that. And that’s why I work with couples in committed relationships. We don’t take a stand and say that one-night stands are bad by any stretch of the imagination. We’re not in the morality business. But we have found that by helping people grow themselves up with sex, they do develop more as moral people.
TS: Now, I know you’ve worked with hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands—I don ‘t know how many couples who have come to you and have said, “We have this challenge or this issue in our sexual relationship. We want to go deeper. We’re not having as much as sex as we want.” Or one partner wants more sex than the other. And I’m curious, do you ever find couples and just think, “Wow, you know, these people really are really just sexually incompatible? It just doesn’t work?” Or is there always a chance if people are willing to engage in this type of growth that you spoke of that their sex life can become fulfilling?
DS: Well, let’s do that in two steps. Number one, let’s broaden out the kind of people that I get to see so that the listening audience will then understand the real meaning of the answer that I’m going to give you. We not only see couples who are dissatisfied with their sex—meaning that they [wish they] had more sex, it’s not frequent enough, it’s not erotic enough. We see lots of people that have not had sex in 20 years.
I worked with a couple last week where the man had rapid orgasm for 26 years. And when you have things like that going on for that long, it’s no longer simply in your bedroom; it is now permeating all aspects of your relationship. People take bad sex very, very personally, and get their feelings hurt. So a lot of the people I see are on the verge of divorce. Some of them have already signed their divorce decree. You really need to understand the severity of the people that we work with here. We do a fly-in, four-day therapy program—people fly in from around the world to get this approach. So most of the people we see have failed in therapy three or four times, because Evergreen, Colorado, is not generally on your way home.
Having said that, no, I don’t see couples that I say to myself, “These people are sexually incompatible, or these people really ought to bag it and get divorced,” because sexual compatibility is not what people think, number one. And number two, very often the relationships are going bad not because they are bad relationships, but because of operator error, because people are normal, because they have these normal but wrong beliefs that may people had, and when you believe these things, it destroys your relationship, and you think it has to do with your childhood or you picked the wrong person.
But going back to what sexual compatibility is: Sexual compatibility is not finding someone who wants to do what you want to do and doesn’t want to do what you don’t want to do. That’s what you find at the beginning of the sex-is-going-to-become-leftovers process. That’s what you’re doing there. You’re finding somebody that wants to do what you want to do and doesn’t want to do what you don’t want to do. And when you find that, you guys think, you guys were made in heaven. But that is the recipe for the most boring sex down the road.
We teach people that real sexual compatibility is the ability to make room for each others’ differences and preferences. The ability to accommodate differences is what makes people really compatible. And [it’s] is also what makes them have lots of interesting sex. It keeps the sexual relationship really broad. Both people are bringing new things in. But since most of us get our reflected sense of self from our sexuality, how we look, how people respond to us, and what we do or don’t do sexually, it’s very, very rigid for most people. So changing your sexual behavior is not like picking up a copy of the Kama Sutra. It is rooted in your guts. It belongs to your sense of identity.
People who are really sexually compatible often want different things, but they can accommodate those differences. So if you look at that—we’re talking about sex now—and we go back to what we were talking about earlier, and go back to the Four Points of Balance and solid flexible self and the ability to calm your heart and calm your mind, those—you now see that those Four Points of Balance are really the individual underpinnings of what true sexual compatibility really is.
TS: So my partner says to me, “I want try this new thing and I’m a little nervous bringing it up. I’m not quite sure how you’re going to respond, but it’s important to me and it’s exciting to me.” So the response of someone who is well-differentiated would be: I might feel the anxiety and excitement that I feel about that, but I wouldn’t shut down or freak out. I would go with it and be experimental?
DS: Yes. That’s exactly what you would do. It doesn’t mean that you’re not uncomfortable and it doesn’t mean that you’re not anxious. That’s one of the beauties of a differentiation-based approach. When you’re doing the safety and security attachment-type stuff, it sort of pitches marriages as safe wombs where you’re never disturbed, you’re always comfortable, and your partner never asks you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. The reality is that there are a lot of things in life that make us nervous, but the hallmark of an adult—and an also good marital partner—is that you don’t let your anxiety control you. That’s the difference.
And so yes, if you and I are fairly well-differentiated people and you say to me, “I’d like to try this,” I might say, “You know what? That makes me nervous, it really does. But why don’t I hold onto myself as you hold onto me and we’ll give it a go and see where it goes? The first time around, I’m not promising sexual Olympics or that my techniques are going to be wonderful, but basically, I’ll take care of myself and we’ll take care of each other, and we know that we already have a really good relationship. We’ve gone through difficult times before, the least of which is going to be in our bedroom. Let’s give this thing a go!”
This is what welds people together for life, because what’s also happening as we’re doing this, by the way, [is] we’re going through a time of heightened activation followed by a period of calm, and that is one of the seven conditions that promotes positive brain wiring. So when you and I go through this, we’re not only starting to have some interesting sex, but part of the grand design is that people expand their sexual relationship. They are going to produce, without realizing it, the seven conditions that promote positive neuro-rewiring in the human brain. And that is how we get attached much deeper than simple oxytocin can do.
TS: You mentioned previously this idea that there is something in the development of the human brain over time that relates to our current desire… Actually, I didn’t really follow what you were saying, so maybe you can help me understand it.
DS: This is why I had to write Intimacy and Desire, because Intimacy and Desire is all about how the human brain and the sense of the human self evolved, and that [evolution] now shows up in the battles that couples have in their relationships today. It’s the first explanation of why normal, healthy couples have sexual desire problems.
Basically, 1.7 million years ago, the human brain was evolving. The cranial capacity of the brain doubled in a very short period of time. That’s about the time that socio-anthropologists think that the human self emerged. Before that, there was no self. So for instance, before 1.7 million years ago, nobody felt sexually inadequate, because they didn’t have enough of a self to feel sexually inadequate. And they didn’t have enough of a a reflected sense of self to start comparing their bodies to other people’s bodies, which is one of the problems we now have because of this magnificent brain we’ve developed.
So, basically, that’s how the human raced evolved, and now this is the way each of us, in our own relationships, goes through that developmental process. And it shows up in sexual desire problems. For instance, when couples are getting together, they never think they’ll have sexual desire problems. They can’t keep their hands off each other. They can’t wait to talk to each other. They just delight in each other’s presence. The thought that they are going to end up like their parents is just implausible to them. And it turns out that [everybody has] the problem that nobody thinks they’re going to have.
Everybody, every couple, will eventually go through sexual desire problems, because it’s not about the chemistry being used up—which is a negative view—it’s about how sexual relationships are people-growing machines. What happens is that shortly after you get into a relationship—and “shortly” can be anywhere from between a couple of months to five years—what happens is we start getting into the battle of selfhood. It starts getting into, “Why do [we] have to have sex the way I want?” Or I start complaining, “How come I have to make all the initiation?” And you start talking about how I’m taking you for granted, and I’m not letting you be your own person because I expect sex when you don’t really want it. And we also start fighting over space in the closet, and who’s potted plant is going to go where, because our sense of self gets attached to all these different things in our house as well. It gets attached to our sex, too. So eventually we get into emotional gridlock because our integrity goes on the line, which couples never anticipate. We feel like our sense of self is starting to diminish or disappear. We begin to feel subservient to our partner or controlled by our partner, which are all issues about selfhood. And when that happens, you can kiss sex goodbye.
Traditionally, therapists have talked about three drives of sexual desire: One is
lust, driven by testosterone. Another is romantic love, driven by norepinephrine and serotonin and dopamine. And the third is attachment, driven by oxytocin and vasopressin. But more recently, I propose that there is actually a fourth drive of sexual desire, and that fourth drive is more powerful that the other three combined: the human drive to develop and maintain the self. The urge to maintain the self is all these other things.
For instance, as a woman, you can be at the peak of your hormonal frenzy. Meaning, at some point in your ovulatory cycle, you experience some biological increment in sexual drive. But when you are at that peak, driven by hormones, and I’ve treated you badly for the last three weeks, when you’re in this heightened state of arousal, we don’t have sex because of how you think I’m treating you, and how you think I’m seeing you outweighs any kind of sex drive you have. And if you’re still horny, you’ll take care of it by yourself.
The human self, and the issues of selfhood in couples—which nobody anticipates because it has never been looked at like this before—is what invariably causes normally healthy sexual couples to have sexual desire problems. And handled well, going through the gridlock and holding onto the four points of balance are what help you develop a self out of your sexual difficulties. The Crucible Four Points of Balance are the pillars of the human self.
So if you don’t have much of a sense of a principal self, you ain’t got much of a self, because you don’t have any core values. And if you can’t quiet the mind and calm the heart, you aren’t going to have much of a self, because you’re going to be simply so controlled by your emotions that there isn’t going to be any stability to what you’re doing that lines up with your sense of integrity. If you are overreacting all the time to everything that’s going on, you aren’t going to have much of a self.
If you’re not willing to have meaningful endurance and tolerate discomfort for growth, you’re not going to be able to accomplish any of your goals. And the self has goals. So this is the incredible way that differentiation and selfhood are built into emotionally committed relationships, but the ride is a lot tougher and lot less ideal than many of us would like to picture it.
TS: One thing that I think might be helpful and interesting would be to hear from your own life, and how this process of relationship differentiation has manifested. Maybe a challenge you had related to, having this solid but flexible self, and how you went through it?
DS: Well, I must tell you, Tami, the reason I joke that I need a book that says, “How to struggle on $10 million.” Because everything I write about I end up having to live. And if that’s the case, I may as well write about something like…
TS: Make it $100 million while you’re at it!
DS: We’ll split it between us! [Laughs]
DS: One of the things that made Passionate Marriage popular, and we know this now from reader feedback, was the fact that Ruth and I were willing to disclose that differentiation doesn’t make you perfect and doesn’t sanitize you. You have the same problems that everybody else has, you just handle them a lot better.
So with my relationship with Ruth—one of the things I wrote about in Passionate Marriage was the time where Ruth wanted to have a baby much more than I did. And when we first got together we had an agreement, which was I didn’t want to have a baby that I would end up regretting, and if I was going to have regrets, I’d rather not have the baby and regret that. I explained that to Ruth and she agreed. Time went on, and Ruth was saying more and more that she wanted to have a baby. And I was saying, “No. We had an agreement.” Ruth was taking birth control pills at the time, and she looked at me and said, “OK. I’m going to stick to our agreement but I’m not taking birth control anymore because this is crazy. I want to have a baby. You don’t want to have a baby so why don’t you use birth control?”
Well, this just really ticked me off! [Laughs] My initial reaction wasn’t, “Oh, how wonderful! How differentiated of you! You’re standing up for yourself.” It was, “What the hell do you mean? You’re shaking up the boat! I don’t appreciate this. And I don’t like using condoms. Why don’t you just keep taking the pills? It’s easier for both of us if you just take the pills. It doesn’t kill our sexual satisfaction that much.” Ruth said, “No.” That really pissed me off. And it also made me respect her.
I had this paradoxical reaction of, on the one hand, being angry at her, and on the other hand, having more and more demonstration that Ruth was the kind of person I wanted to have a baby with if I was going to have it with anybody. So I started thinking, “OK, well, let’s have a baby.” And then I had to do another thing that comes with differentiation: I had to confront myself about, was I selling out? Was I going to have a baby because I simply didn’t want the pain of using condoms and I also didn’t want the pain of having a vasectomy? I went through that and struggled with that for some time, and decided that, indeed, I did want this child. I have to say that our daughter is probably one of the most deliberately conceived children in the human race. And I think that’s also why she is so absolutely wonderful. If I had had a child when I was younger, I don’t think Sarah would be the person that she is today. So that is how Ruth and I have lived it out today. And there are many different ways in which that comes up with us as well.
TS: One of the points that you make in Passionate Marriage that I think is so interesting is that we don’t go through a process of differentiation once; that it’s a continual process in our relationship. And as we become closer and closer to our partner and more at risk of losing them—more of a sense of the level of loss that we would have if they died or if something happened to our relationship—that that actually requires greater differentiation the more in love or attached we might be. And I’m wondering if you might be able to talk some about that.
DS: Well, now you’ve made me settle down. I hear a lot of people talk about the idea that it’s not just a once-through process. Actually, it’s more like a helix, where you return to the same point but at a higher level as your level of differentiation is increasing. You’ve touched on something that a lot of people don’t really talk about: that it does require going through repeatedly. As you become more involved, more invested, as both of you become better differentiated, and as you both become much more unique people and irreplaceable to each other, that that alone drives the process of differentiation. It isn’t just our pain and the fact that our relationship is lousy that will do it. It also works on the top end as well.
As couples get older and more mature as they spend time together, they do have to learn to counterbalance the incredible investment that they have each other with being able to hold onto themselves, with being able to soothe themselves, because eventually one of you is going to bury the other. And if you can’t take that hit, then you will do what many of us do, which is withdrawal from your partner as you get older so that by the time that they’re dead, the loss isn’t that great.
But if you really have respect for what it means to love somebody, and you really want to see what human beings have been able to do to have relationships that really do border on something spiritual, then you have to pay your dues and you better have a strong Four Points of Balance. And you do go through this. You go through this when your wife develops breast cancer. You go through this when you lose a family business or you’re out of work and the funds aren’t there. Or your child gets ill.
I’m watching this happen now sort of awestruck as my parents go through this.
My parents just celebrated their 89th birthdays and they have been married for over 65 years. I’m fortunate to have two parents who are alive. But I must say I am completely intimidated when I contemplate both of them looking at each other, knowing that at some point, one of them will not be there. It’s not just some idle or abstract idea. For them to continue to love each other on life terms is an absolutely awesome thing to me. So if I’m lucky, I’m watching now what Ruth and I will go through. I think that’s also why [sometimes] people don’t have these kinds of amazing relationships, because the price of success is so high.
TS: The price being facing that loss? Actually having to go through that loss? So we defend ourselves against it by not really opening to it and not really being there?
DS: Yes, if you’re going to really love somebody and have that much time invested. I mean, 65 years together. All their friends are dead now and they are the only two [left]. They are the people who now store the memories and keep them alive, including of each other. To love like my parents love—I think I’m very, very lucky to have those kinds of parents—is a real act of integrity. And you better be able to take care of your own heart. You better be able to have a real core sense of values and not bail out like a lot of people do.
TS: Now, it’s interesting that you use the word “integrity.” “It’s a real act of integrity.” That’s an interesting use of that word. What do you mean by that?
DS: A lot of people say that integrity [means] you don’t steal. But integrity is the internal consistency of the self. You know, before there was a human self, nobody had integrity, because there wasn’t any integrity to lose. When we do our work, we often talk about “integrity” in the Crucible Approach. People are often stunned to hear it used this way because they never think of themselves of possibly lacking in integrity, meaning that they are not internally consistent. Their values don’t line up with their other values or what they do. And one of the things that emotionally committed relationships always do is they challenge your integrity.
One of the things that people don’t realize, particularly early in relationships, [is] one partner can always force the other to choose between either staying married or keeping their integrity. Your partner can put it to you—and often does—where you really do feel like your integrity is on the line. Because people have always thought about marriage as [being] run by attachment and safe-havens, the idea that you could go through this soul-twisting, gut-wrenching crucible where it really does test what kind of integrity you have, people just don’t anticipate it, but it’s built into the heart of emotionally committed relationships.
Your children will challenge your integrity. Your children will push you to basically try to cut corners or give them slack or violate your values or things like that. And so there are integrity challenges built all throughout married and family life. When you have an approach like we do that mainstreams this—this isn’t just if you have an issue of integrity or morality, you run and see a clergy person. This is well within what emotionally committed relationships do. That’s why I like working with them. And this is also what apparently people like about the Passionate Marriage tape and book, that it talks to them in a way that they aren’t used to, and when they hear something like this, it opens up tremendous opportunities for them to live a much better marriage and a much better life.
TS: So, going back to the idea of your parents married 65 years, when you say that it takes tremendous integrity to stay supremely open-hearted, when there is this risk of loss, can you still help me understand what you mean by that? What’s the integrity there?
DS: Well, let’s see. My mother has had several major surgeries and my father has had both hips replaced. The divorce rate among marriages where there is a serious illness is astronomical. The divorce rate among cancer patients—there are a lot of people who drop like flies. There are just poorly differentiated. They don’t have enough inside them to hold onto their values. They can’t soothe their heart. They are worried about “being abandoned.” They’re thinking that maybe there is somebody better out there. Those marriages, particularly when they are under stress, they break up.
But other marriages get better because it stretches people’s integrity. It stretches what you believe in. And as I said, you can have all the values in the world, but if you can’t keep your emotions under control, you still won’t have integrity. If you’re not willing to do hard things, you won’t have any integrity. If you are overreacting to everything, you can’t stay consistent with what your real goals are.
Integrity is something that’s terribly important to human beings. Not to all of us, when we’re not well-developed, but the better developed you get, the more integrity becomes important to you. And then [you develop] more integrity, and then keeping that integrity intact is about keeping your sense of self intact. That’s what human beings are driven to do because it’s wired into the evolution of the species, of our brain. When you realize this, what it finally comes down to, it gets tested on your capacity to love on life’s terms.
A lot of people I see, they have a child who is mongoloid. They have a child who is deaf. They have a child with cerebral palsy and they often go through the feelings of, “I wish I had a different kid. Why did this have to happen to me?” There is a lot of research and the families who actually do better and survive these kinds of things are the kinds of families that are willing to have the feelings that I’m describing, which are less than ideal. The ones who try to keep a stiff upper lip, they are too rigid and they fracture. And so being able to hold onto yourself and acknowledge these difficult feelings for people, including the people that you love, and love them in spite of them, stick around in spite of them, go through the hard things, these are acts of integrity.
And so even loving kids… [Laughs] Maybe we don’t always love our spouse, but we always love our kids—the families of children who are seriously ill also break up at a very, very high rate. So my parents had to do that too; they were challenged and they stayed together when their peers broke up. We certainly see this in our age group. It happens in every generation. People walk away from families.
One of the things that I have learned through my years of therapy that has really made me hold strongly to a differentiation-based approach, as opposed to an attachment-based approach, is the realization that basic decency is not something that we can take for granted. It is sublime. We need to encourage it. We need to respect it. We need to reward and encourage it every way we can.
But there are many, many people who do not come from decent parents. They do not come from decent families. So basic decency is not something I take for granted, but basic decency is the kind of thing that my parents demonstrate. And this is why a childlike approach or an approach that reduces adults to children (which is very, very common is pop psychology) is an enactment, as far as I am concerned, because we’re not children. We may act like children but we’re not perpetual children.
And the hallmark of truly being an adult and also truly being a spiritual person is the ability to hold on through difficult times. And ironically you don’t have to be a saint. You don’t have to see a burning bush and God doesn’t have to give you the Ten Commandments. All you have to do is form an emotionally committed relationship and the great Oneness will visit you with all the normal, healthy, difficult problems that bedevil couples who simply want to stay together, love each other, and have decent sex and raise a family. Like my family did.
TS: Now, you use this phrase a couple times, “holding onto yourself.” What do you mean by that?
DS: “Holding onto yourself” and the “Four Points of Balance” are one in the same. Solid, flexible self. The ability to regulate your own emotional life. Quiet mind, calm heart—which is also emotional autonomy. That’s holding onto yourself. The ability to regulate your own emotions, and the interesting thing there is, if you want a stable relationship, the hallmark of stability in a relationship is not holding onto your partner. That makes the relationship rigid. It turns out that stability in an emotionally committed relationship resides in the individual’s ability to hold onto themselves.
The irony is, when you often let go of your partner and stop trying to get your validation, your identity, your reflected sense of self, and your soothing from your partner, and you learn to hold onto yourself—including not overreacting and meaningful endurance, those are the last two points of balance—that is the “holding onto yourself,” and that is what allows you to have a better and stable time holding onto your partner.
So if you listen to the things that you and I are talking about, they actually all fit together. They are one in the same. They are just different aspects of looking at the prism of the reflected light of relationships where you just see it parceled out into all of its pieces. But holding onto yourself is one of the unique things about human beings. We are self-soothing animals. Infants have the ability to self-soothe, albeit in rudimentary form, almost from the start of life, if not in utero. And so we are self-soothing animals, and we are able to control our own emotionality. We are able to control our own minds. That’s certainly what meditation is all about. That ability to hold onto ourselves is what gives you the basis for having a close, stable, intimate, rewarding, and also growing, living relationship with another human being.
TS: You know, I think related to this point is a very interesting comment that you made in Passionate Marriage, that “in a well-differentiated couple, blame and criticism stop.” And I was like, “Wow! Blame and criticism stop?” Not slowly go away but you actually use the word, “stop.”
DS: Yes. You know, I’m sure that there must be a moment where the Dali Lama loses his magnificent control on himself and he has a thought where he is blaming somebody else. [Laughs] Maybe the Chinese.
The best differentiated person—you know, we’re not perfect, and so when I say “stop,” I’m talking about couples that [are] at each other’s throats. They’re gridlocked. They’re contentious, they’re belligerent with each other. That stops because the conflict shifts from between people to inside people. I think it was Teilhard de Chardin who said, “True spirituality is taking the max amount of angst into oneself and digesting it and making the world a better place.” And that’s what happens when people become more differentiated. Instead of keeping the anxiety between the people—forcing your partner to adapt and accommodate and keeping the conflict between the two of you—you bring it into yourself. You shift from confronting your partner to confronting yourself. And the first move in a collaborative alliance is always confronting yourself first. And by confronting yourself and having the tension within you, the conflict between you and your partner stops. The blaming stops.
It’s not ethereal. It’s a very, very pragmatic process, and it really, really works.
It’s one of the reasons that people are willing to tolerate a very direct, adult approach. There are a lot of people who say, “Look, Dave, people want to hear that it can be easy. They’re going to want to go to a therapist who tells them, ‘Yeah, it is a childhood wound and your partner should be there for you all the time.’ Why do they stick around when you’re talking to them about self-confrontation and soothing yourself and learning to take care of yourself as part of loving somebody else?”
The answer is: because people like the results. And it doesn’t take a lifetime to change this. You don’t have to be Buddhist to have a good marriage, where you hope there’s reincarnation because it’s going to take you two or three lives to get this thing worked out. You can do it in one life. It really comes from The Four Points of Balance and becoming more differentiated, and that’s why the conflict stops.
Also, as you stop seeing your partner as an extension of you—that “acting badly” or “that needs to be controlled” or “that’s wayward”—you really begin to realize something that couples in emotionally committed relationships forget, even they’re going to the ashram each week, which is that their partner is a sentient being. It’s a lot easier to think that the rest of the world is a sentient being, but when you’ve got a partner that you think is defying you, who doesn’t like you sometimes, who finds fault with you and is angry with you for not picking up your socks and [making] a mess and [being] difficult to live with. Realizing that this other person is a sentient being and getting your anger and animosity under control, is really a big, big deal.
As you confront yourself, you are acutely aware of your own—not only your mortalities, but of being mortal in the sense that you have your own short-comings
(God knows you have a lot of them), and as you see that more and more, I think you become more forgiving of other people’s foibles, particularly people that you’re living with. And so that’s why the conflict simply stops.
Another reason it simply stops is that you realize that not only you’re wasting time, but if you have children, you realize that your children are watching you. You cannot go into the bedroom and have a private fight. This idea that you don’t fight in front of the kids, you can forget it. Your kids map you out and they know you’re fighting. And when you realize that you’re educating your children about how marriage is supposed to be, you’re really shaping the kind of person they are going to pick. When people realize that, it gives them a kick in the behind and it really says, “If you have any integrity, you can’t have a war of attrition for 25 years. You need to get your act together.” And that’s another reason why the conflict stops.
TS: Now, David, I just have a couple more questions for you. This first one is just sort of circling back around and completing this discussion, I think, in a very grounded way, which is: let’s say somebody is listening and when we started talking about being sexually dissatisfied, they thought to themselves, “You know, I would like to be having more of x, y, and z. You know, the challenge here really is my partner. My partner is this way or that way.” Or some type of criticism or blame came up in them about their partner and their current level of sexual activity and novelty. But they are listening to you and thinking, “OK, David is recommending a different approach, one that involved self-confrontation and self-soothing.” How does that person work with that information? What do they do?
DS: OK. There are a lot of different ways to do that. Some of them are going to be specifically in the sexual arena, if they want to have good sex. And some of them are going to be more general. I think particularly since we started off talking about sex, we ought to hit that one first.
Very often what you need to do is that you have to be able to sit down with your partner and have the conversation that nobody has. I’ve worked with a lot of couples. They’ve been copulating or trying to copulate for 25 years and they haven’t talked about it one time. So just talking about sex means that you’re going to have to apply the Four Points of Balance. You’re going to have to calm yourself down, not over react and not over anticipate your partner’s rejection and things like that. You need to talk from your heart as opposed to having your armor on.
Being able to raise the topic straight and say, “Look, I’m not blaming. Actually, I want to raise this topic and as I’m doing this with you, I’m also thinking about how
I’m complicit.” Or, “What am I not doing in the instated quid pro quo that you and I have developed that allows the sex to stay bad? I’m thinking about that and I’m also in the process of confronting myself about that. I’ll even tell you what it is.” And then you lay it out. You will have your partner’s undivided attention because they will want to know how the alien stole their partner and you showed up instead because they know. They have your mind map. And they know that you’re not thinking like you usually do. It’s not the words but the thoughts that get their attention. So going and opening your mind and showing a different mind to your partner is one of the things that really gets that sex conversation going. (By the way, mind-mapping is all described in Intimacy and Desire.)
So that’s how the sex part starts. The other things more generally are going to your partner, and this can be in the sex conversation that says, “Look, I no longer believe in communal genitalia. I no longer believe that your genitals belong to me, that you’re supposed to keep them ready and to go and give them to me whenever I want. I have learned the hard way that you belong to you, including your body. Your body belongs to you, too. I just hope that when that’s clear, you’ll be more willing to share.” Because people don’t share when ownership is being contested.
Letting your partner know that you really do see them as a separate entity from you is one of the best aphrodisiacs there is. Treating your partner with respect and confronting yourself in a way that is respect-worthy is also one of the best aphrodisiacs there is. Showing your partner that you recognize that sex is not just a bedroom behavior, but that you understand that the issues that are surfacing in the sex are not just about, “Are we going to do a new position?” but, “Are we going to grow as people? Are we going to always agree to live within each other’s limitations? Or are we going to have a relationship [where] basically both of us agree that we don’t want to live within our partner’s limitations anymore and we expect each other to stretch. Not just in the sex.”
You demonstrate that you’re willing to go first and open an artery by confronting yourself about something that you know is true. Your partner has told you for years that it’s true and you finally acknowledge it. And your partner’s mind and mouth drop open because they can’t believe you’re doing this. Those are the kinds of things that if somebody has been listening to this whole conversation between you and I and they want to apply it, that’s what you do.
Another thing that you can do that really helps is you offer to do “hugging to relax,” which is a long-duration, ten-minute hug that is described in Passionate Marriage. It really, really helps people settle down because so many people are so anxious during sex and they’ve always been so anxious that they had no idea that they are anxious because they’ve acclimated to it. The only time they realize how much anxiety they are carrying in bed is when they finally slow down and settle down.
When I help couples have better sex, most people think at first that [they have to go] to a gym or [get] a trapeze and [do] athletic maneuvers, but the best sex that people ever have really is about finally having peace. Peace in the arms of somebody you love is really, for most people, the best sex you’re ever going to have. So by offering “hugging to relax” with your partner, it does so many things at once. It gives the two of you a chance to quiet down and settle down because one-third of men have rapid ejaculation, which means that if they hug for ten minutes, it’s longer than most of them have ever had sex. You can’t relax in two and a half minutes.
When you say to you partner, “I want to hold you.” It challenges your partner’s self-worth because they might know why you want to have sex with them, but why on earth would you just want to hold them, unless it’s a come-on for sex? When it isn’t, and it’s just the two of you, for a lot of people, it touches their hearts, it blows their minds, and it really allows them to connect with a partner that they’ve never been able to do while their underwear is off.
So this is also differentiation because while you’re standing there, you’ve got to calm yourself down. Initially it’s a little awkward. You’re not used to that. You have to have meaningful endurance to get to the other side, to get to sense of peace. So when you put all of these pieces together, somebody who is listening to this and is saying, “Hmm. You know, I’d like to have a much better sex life. That sounds good to me. I’ll take two helpings of that!” It really is something you can do in a very straightforward, pragmatic way and it doesn’t take forever.
TS: Wonderful. That’s very helpful. So just one final question, David. Our program is called Insights at the Edge, and I’m always curious in people’s personal life—not so much your theoretical work, but really, in your life—what an edge might be for you currently in your own growth and development that you might be willing to share with us?
TS: I know! I can’t help myself!
DS: [Laughs a long laugh]
TS: I think that might be the best laugh I’ve ever gotten yet on the program!
DS: Tami, I gotta tell you, that was seductive! [Laughs]
TS: Have as much integrity as you want and only share what you want.
DS: Oh, oh. I’m being hoisted on my own card. Now that’s difficult. That’s difficult.
I think the cutting edge for me is really acknowledging the way that I see the impact of my own therapy work on me. I find myself becoming less rigid. I find myself becoming more self-disclosing, softer, and gentler. And that, much to my chagrin, pushes me to acknowledge what I have not been up to now. So I think that the growth edge for me is really making peace with the harder parts of myself that, up to now, I might have wanted to acknowledge. And also really celebrating what I see as basic decency and the goodness in people around me. Because the more I look into the darkness in people’s hearts, ironically, I guess, I see the light and the more I want to be a part of it.
So is that self-disclosing enough?
TS: It’s perfect. Thank you so much. Thank you for the laugh. And thank you for the wisdom and clarity and your pioneering work.
I’ve been speaking with Dr. David Schnarch. He’s the creator of a two-session, very quick-paced, provocative, helpful, and practical program with Sounds True called, Secrets of a Passionate Marriage: How to Increase Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Fulfillment in Committed Relationships. David, thank you so much for being with us. Thank you.
DS: My pleasure, Tami. Thank you for having me.
TS: SoundsTrue.com: Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.