By Elizabeth Devita-Raeburn, published on January 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
When my husband and I started dating, we quickly became one of those obnoxious couples who couldn't keep their hands off each other. We kissed every time we stopped at a crosswalk—in New York, that's a lot. At Starbucks we were so grotesque—staring into each other's eyes, stroking each other's arms—that when the branch removed its tables and converted to carryout, we wondered if we were the reason. Once, during a protracted public goodbye, a group of teenagers actually screeched at us to get a room.
We did more than that. We got married. Like most couples in the throes of passion, we were smug, convinced that all the cliches about things slowing down described partners who weren't meant to be together in the first place. But slowly, things did cool off. We still loved one another, still held hands. But the crosswalk kissing and the subway platform clinches faded away. Instead of long weekend mornings in bed, we started getting up early and going to the gym.
I couldn't help (a) noticing, and (b) torturing myself about what it meant. You'd have to be hiding under a rock for the last decade not to know that half of all marriages now end in divorce, and that sexual difficulties are one of the leading complaints of unhappy couples. Was this how it begins?
It's some consolation that many other Americans face the same question. In the benchmark survey of desire, roughly one-third of all adults reported having some kind of sexual problem during the previous year. Some pundits blame gender politics, job stress and cultural changes. Others, more cynical, point to the monotony of marriage. But these plausible (and socially acceptable) explanations obscure a more disquieting truth. Sex, and more importantly, intimacy, are grown-up skills, and most of us, metaphorically speaking, are still in junior high. We're still clinging to the idea of romance, when real intimacy requires something a lot more difficult: pushing past your own limits to become a more fully developed human being.
Conventional wisdom holds that an intimate couple thinks pretty much the same way about most things. You connect seamlessly—especially in bed. But according to the radical ideas of the marital and sex therapist David Schnarch, we've got it all backward. "Sex is inherently based on intimacy. The problem is that most people have a very misguided idea of what intimacy means," he says. "There's this idea that your partner is going to make you feel good and validate you." It's our cultural template for "true" love. Think Tom Cruise in Jerry McGuire declaring his love for Renee Zellweger: "You complete me," he says, with trembling lip.
Except that no one has a marriage like that. What's more, says Schnarch, no one should. Sure, the you-complete-me stuff works fine in the beginning. It's even fun. Like two people cinched together for a three-legged race, there is satisfaction in getting the groove of operating side-by-side with perfect fluidity. But when you try to keep those tethers on indefinitely, reality intrudes. Two people aren't going to agree on every move. And they'll get tired of always accommodating the other—by keeping quiet, by moving the same way, by propping the other one up.
Sooner or later, a lot of these three-legged marriages wind up in gridlock: Each partner is increasingly frustrated by the other's apparent unwillingness to get on the same page—and each becomes increasingly annoyed and worried about it. It's in this juncture, where the conflict between real intimacy and wishful thinking rears its head, that many of us notice the sex ain't what it used to be. But while we fear that this is the beginning of the end, Schnarch says it's often when things finally start to go right. It means marriage is beginning the relentless process of doing what it's supposed to do, nudging us away from the Renee-Tom model of partnership and forcing us to figure out who we are as individuals.
Real intimacy is frightening. It requires a kind of openness, honesty and self-respect that most of us aren't used to. But Schnarch's 30 years of counseling couples has convinced him that it's worth it. A truly intimate connection between adults is less volatile, because couples aren't ticked off about what their partner is or isn't doing to prop them up. It's more solid, because it's based on reality. "Ultimately, you get through gridlock and get to a place of more honest self-disclosure, where the focus is on being known, rather than being validated," he says. Best of all, the sex often becomes more relaxed, creative and connected. Literally and figuratively, no one's hiding in the dark anymore.
When couples do try to address their sexual problems, they often focus on mechanics: Viagra, lingerie, trying out new positions. But sex—even terrible sex—isn't engineering, says Schnarch. It's a language, and its content is everything else happening in the marriage. The woman who doesn't say a word but barely opens her knees for her husband is actually speaking volumes. Ditto the man who is so intent upon pleasing his unpleasable wife that he frequently loses his erection. "Even the way couples avoid having sex is a window into who they are together," he says.
Often, sexual disconnect has a similar refrain: I can't show you who I really am. People's mistaken ideas about intimacy have made them overly reliant on a partner for their own sense of self. You demand that your partner approve of you, and you begin to count on him or her to reassure you that you're normal and that your feelings are valid. This makes it difficult to be completely open or honest with each other anymore. One or both of you begins to feel suffocated, and the intense vulnerability of sexual passion that was so easy in the early days becomes impossible.
Tammy, 36, and her husband, Jack, 34, struggled for years with mismatched sexual desire. Jack wanted to have sex all the time. Tammy avoided it. "I pretty much didn't care if I never had sex again," she says now. For her marriage's sake, she'd tried supplements and testosterone cream to increase her desire. They hadn't worked. Nor had a therapist who'd advised Tammy to try a little novelty—like running a hairbrush all over her husband's body. "I already didn't want to have sex," says Tammy, still irritated, "and I definitely didn't want to do that." By the time they wound up at Schnarch's office, they were inches away from divorce.
Through three intensive days in therapy, it became obvious that Tammy's problem wasn't biological. Jack was needy, emotionally, and looked to Tammy to make him feel better, in and out of bed. Tammy, like many women, played the caregiver role to the hilt. She was a teacher, she had two small children, and she was even contemplating a new career as a nurse.
They began to realize, with Schnarch's guidance, that although they felt estranged from each other, they were in fact completely interdependent. Jack didn't know how to soothe himself when he was feeling anxious. He looked to Tammy, and to sex, for that. For her part, Tammy had no idea how to take care of her own feelings, or even what they were. Nor did she have the energy, because so much went to propping up Jack. In some unconscious way, by avoiding sex with him, she was saying no more.
For their relationship to survive, each needed to take a step back and change how they individually dealt with their own emotions, rather than leaning on—and resenting—the other. Jack had to learn to deal with his neediness on his own, and recognize that he couldn't expect his wife to do it for him. Tammy had to figure out who she was and what she wanted, or live her life without really ever knowing herself—much less getting to be known by anyone else. And she had to speak up when she disagreed, rather than keep quiet in order to not rock the boat.
A year later, Tammy and Jack are utterly honest with each other. No hiding. "Before we would just not talk about any of our problems because we didn't want to get each other upset," Tammy says. Now, she says, they always say what they are thinking or feeling, regardless of the reaction they anticipate. "It can be very uncomfortable," she admits. "And I'm still working on tact." But in their case, she says, it changed everything. Over the course of several months spent learning to be themselves together, Tammy's sex drive returned. They're happier than they've ever been, she says: "We just renewed our vows in Vegas."
Schnarch's way of thinking about the interdependence of sex and intimacy is a big shift from the traditional focus on anxiety as a primary cause of sexual difficulty. Problems in the bedroom are too often seen as distinct from the emotional struggles of marriage and partnership. But Schnarch—and a few other therapists—have developed an alternative view, one that puts partnership at the heart of sexuality and puts both sexuality and intimacy at the center of human development. Sexual difficulties are a kind of emotional Rorschach test that offers a glimpse into not just the dynamics of the relationship, but the continuing agenda of growing into a fully autonomous human being.
Schnarch says that what happens with many troubled couples is analogous to what happens in children as they mature emotionally. A key developmental task of adolescence is to form separate and unique identities from our parents. (That's what the dismissive remarks and the skin piercings are all about.) We assume that by the time we're married, we're past all that. Not true, says Schnarch. We've merely switched our focus from our parents to our spouses. Temporarily, some of us adopt joined-at-the-hip intimacy as an archetype of marriage. But the rebelliousness, the need to separate ourselves, kicks in again. You know it, Schnarch says, when you begin to find yourself more at odds with your partner and less sexually attracted to each other than you used to be.
Or you know it when you engage in something he calls arguing about reality. That is, you both experience an event—a movie, or a remembered moment from your past together. But you see it in entirely different ways, and you can't stop arguing until one of you caves in. Schnarch describes one couple's memories of the birth of their first child. The wife thought it was the closest moment they'd ever shared—but her husband remembered being nauseated by the blood. Their contradictory views of this event became part of a bitter argument that surfaced again and again. Because neither of them would accept the other's point of view, they felt that they were drifting apart. In Schnarch's view, this difference of opinion was normal, not an indication that their relationship was falling apart. They are, after all, two different people.
Schnarch's treatment usually involves intense four-day sessions, and doesn't lend itself to quick tips. All the same, there are basic behavioral shifts that he finds can benefit many unhappy couples. They all involve the same process: Each partner takes responsibility for his or her own emotions and learns to tolerate the idea that his or her partner is not a spiritual twin. That means no longer expecting a partner to validate you—so that he or she can admit that sometimes your ideas are half-baked, rather than always reassuring you that you're right. You examine your own behavior and see what you expect others to do for you that you could be doing on your own—for example, learning to feel good about yourself without requiring someone else's praise and compliments.
But don't expect your partner to applaud when you tell the truth about yourself. Learn to lick your own wounds—it's not your partner's job to soothe you, it's yours. Try to tell the truth for the right reason. Being honest doesn't mean being vindictive. "The idea is that you are telling each other the truth, even when it is difficult, out of caring and commitment, not because you're pissed off and want to carve each other up," he says. The irony, says Schnarch, is that rather than increasing conflict between couples—as you would think might happen—emotional honesty has the opposite effect. The issue is no longer about what your partner does or doesn't do: You can accept that they, like all people, have their own limitations and failings. Instead, the focus shifts to you, and whether you're being a grown-up—or not.
Schnarch is still something of a maverick in the field of sex therapy. Talk to 10 sex therapists (I did), and you'll get 10 strong opinions. Some think he's done the sex and marital therapy version of cracking the code of DNA. Others find his ideas interesting, but don't believe that they apply to all couples. Many say they incorporate a little of what he preaches into their practice—like a spice in a tomato sauce." The Atlanta-based marital therapist Frank Pittman, author of a self-help book called Grow Up: How Taking Responsibility Can Make You a Happy Adult, is one whose approach resembles Schnarch's. "What he's doing is teaching people the joys of adulthood," he says, "of the wonderful things that can happen in a relationship when you take responsibility for yourself, whether you've got your pants on at the moment or not."
The reward for all of this hard work, say Schnarch, Pittman and others, is a kind of intimacy that helps you be more of the person you want to be and supports an intense lifelong bond. In return you are seen, known and understood—truly—for who you are. And loved and desired, to boot. It's a rare thing, perhaps the most powerful connection we can hope for.
With this outing of yourself, so to speak, goes a greater freedom in bed. You're no longer pretending. Schnarch considers the ability, for example, to look into your partner's eyes while engaged in a sexual act or in the midst of orgasm to be the height of intimacy. It's an act of mutual self-revelation that cannot be matched almost anywhere else in life. "Once people try it, they totally get what real intimacy is about," he says.
Eye-to-eye sex is not for the faint of heart. Even Schnarch's wife, psychologist Ruth Morehouse, who now works with him as a marital and sex therapist and uses his techniques, confesses to having had her doubts. At the time that her husband was developing his ideas in the 1980s, she says, she wasn't crazy about them. She describes herself at that time as fairly reliant on others to give her great feedback about herself, personally and professionally. She wasn't too keen to grow up, in the way her husband advocated. And the eyes-open thing, well. "At first, I was mad at him for even suggesting that this is something that people were supposed to do," says Morehouse. "It was a stretch for me. At first, I literally couldn't keep my eyes open. After a couple of times, I was able to do it, and it made sex more emotional and meaningful. It's now a routine part of my sex life."
Does this mean that all sexual issues can be solved this way? Probably not. Growing up won't do a lot for a faulty blood vessel that's contributing to an erection problem. Or for the couple who are genuinely exhausted from chasing small children around all day. But it maps out some promising new territory, where personal growth and existential concerns become as much a part of sexual therapy as do anxiety and pathology. Schnarch is creating a new way of thinking built on growth and possibilities. Making relationships, and sex, better. How could anyone not be fascinated by the potential?
As for me, I suspect I still have a lot of growing up to do. (Arguing about reality? Guilty.) And I haven't dared bring up the idea of eyes-open sex with my husband yet, for fear he'll take me up on it. I have a feeling I'd have to keep my eyes open with pliers. But I am intrigued. And now, as I stand on subway platforms or street corners, watching couples who really ought to get a room groping one another without shame, I don't feel as if I've been banished to the land of slippers and ratty bathrobes. Because according to Schnarch's model, in which sex only gets better as you get older and wiser, I'm ahead of the game. Or at least those couples. And that makes me feel smug all over again.