A Conversation with Dave Schnarch about Resurrecting Sex

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This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald on July 20, 2002.

You will hear me use the word marriage a lot, he says. "Working with sexuality in committed relationships is a major fascination for me. But I only use 'marriage' as a form of shorthand. The principles apply equally to newly formed couples, singles and golden-anniversary marriages."

In the world of sex-perts this man has been given the persona of a deity for his three ground breaking books, Constructing The Sexual Crucible, Passionate Marriage and Resurrecting Sex and for his paradigm-smashing theories developed from 20 years of conducting seminars on sexual matters and unraveling the truth for struggling couples. In some circles he is hailed as the best thing since William Masters and Virginia Johnson and, the blurb says, he has inspired audiences in many countries through his books and workshops.

When I ask him how many copies of Passionate Marriage have sold he is dismissive: "I've no idea but I know it's had 25 reprints."

That's any publishers' dream. So what makes this man's work so effective? "What you hear or read from me you won't have come across before," he says. "My methods show couples how to turn the worst sexual disaster into growth and connection and the promise of the best sex in their lives."

He has my complete attention.

His first paradigm-smashing premise is that sexual problems are normal. They are an inherent part of a relationship. Everybody has them sometime and they happen for a purpose. Healthy people have sexual difficulties to help them resolve their personal and relationship issues and grow as human beings."

But surely life behind two sex-perts' bedroom curtains is sizzling and seamless? "Not at all," he says. "I have had almost every problem you can think of at one time or another. Any one who has ever been in a committed relationship knows that its not 'happily every after'. Many therapists say 'you have to work on your marriage.' I say stop working on your marriage. Let your marriage work on you. Your marriage is there to teach you lessons. The biggest problem is that you just don't want to learn them."

Resurrecting your sexual relationship, Schnarch continues, "isn't as simple as learning new touch techniques, improving your communication skills or rescheduling your time priorities. It involves growing. A sexual problem is not just about genitals that won't do as their told. It involves two people with very complex feelings about themselves, each other and the world. Context is everything. Your sex life shapes your relationship and your relationship shapes your sex life. If you have a sex problem, you have to get your relationship to a state that supports good sexual functioning."

According to Schnarch one of the things that makes us quintessentially human is our ability to be intimate, which in turn gives meaning to sex. But people can become so adept at hiding, even from themselves, that a couple can live side by side, do what society tells them to do, don't divorce, raise their children and pay their taxes - and they're living next to a stranger.

That's one reason why people stop having sex, he says. "It's not that they are afraid of intimacy, but there is so little intimacy available to them that the sex is not worth having."

In Resurrecting Sex Schnarch states that solving sexual dysfunctions involves modifying the three components of total stimulation: first is body responsiveness. Response thresholds differ greatly, but for you to have "normal" sexual function, sensation must be transmitted from a remote part of your body to your spine and brain and then back to your genitals. Your genitals have a complex biochemistry all their own that must be intact. Anything that interferes with this process reduces your sexual responsiveness.

Next is physical stimulation, which involves the amount and quality of sensory input you receive during sex. However it's not as simple as how many places you're touched, or how fast or how long or how hard. A setting that is comfortable, pleasant smelling and a joy to the eye works better than rumpled bed sheets and smelly socks.

The final component comprises emotions, thoughts and feelings. These can so profoundly impact your sexual function that you might swear you have a serious physical problem when none exists. "Some people have come to see me, mistakenly reporting they feel ' absolutely nothing' or have ' absolutely no response' during sex," says Schnarch.

I get to see so much unhappiness in committed relationships. I get to see people who can't even touch each other anymore, who feel totally inadequate, or who are falling over each other to measure up and failing. I have to tell you that there are many people in pretty horrible relationships who would do things differently if only they knew what to do.

And doing things differently is what Schnarch says he is all about.

He reiterates: "My stuff is not about pole vaulting into bed or having better erections or orgasms or a better roll in the hay. I don't isolate any part of the actual workout as the problem but look at what happens in the bedroom as a result of what is happening in the relationship."

This is not so ground breaking in itself but Schnarch's approaches to therapy tend to turn existing theories upside down.

One of the old ways was to try and improve couples' communication, and while there is some validity in that, it often doesn't work because the causes of the problem are much more complex than they first appear. You know the old thing about 'ask for what you want (in bed)' and there was the expectation that he or she was just dying to give it to you. Well, there is a lot of withholding in relationships for all sorts of reasons and sex is a perfect place for withholding. Your partner knows what you want all right but pretends that he/she doesn't. So 'why' that is happening is what you have to unravel.

You see, most people think it's the absence rather then the presence of a connection that makes sex and marriage grind to a halt. But the most common picture I see is what I call emotional fusion, when partners become enmeshed in a kind of gridlock - like Siamese twins - fused at the hip, passing anxiety, validation of identity and lack of self-worth back and forth between each other. That type of relationship can soon become a cesspit of contention, alienation and resentment. Arguments are repeated over and over and go nowhere, and left unraveled the situation will most likely end up in divorce for irreconcilable differences.

It's not a pretty picture but, he says, "gridlock is actually the people-growing machinery of marriage in its early stages. It's when the comfort-safety cycle of a relationship ends and you and your partner are into the growth cycle."

Now comes one of the paradoxes, says Schnarch, "Intimacy is the key to great sex but the path to intimacy is a process I call differentiation - that means keeping hold of your individuality."

Schnarch pauses with his hand in the air to let me absorb this.

Uh huh. I can feel myself looking blank.

That is the cornerstone of my therapy, he goes on. "You see, whatever your sexual situation is, or is not, it is a picture of who you are and you have to play hard ball with yourself to see the picture. It takes work and courage to figure yourself out."

The less differentiated partners are, the more likely it is that their sex life will disintegrate, their marriage will bog down and it will require a crisis or a therapist to get them through their emotional log jams.

Intimate connection with a partner first requires solid connection with yourself. Even though it sounds ironic, it is the development of your own identity -an internal sense of self that you value, maintain and live by - that will lead you to greater sexual pleasure and intimacy. Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up you relationship to maintain your individuality.

This sounds good, but I have to dig deeper to find out exactly what he means.

I also call it 'holding on to yourself', says Schnarch, "and it comprises a four-pronged tool: the art of holding to your values in the face of opposition from your partner; the ability to sooth yourself in the face of hurt and anxiety; to stay non-reactive when you partner is anxious or provocative; and to tolerate pain for growth."

Another important influence on the way we carry on in the bedroom, he says, has to do with the attitudes and expectations instilled in us by society and family. If you look at sexual desire, for instance; for a long time Western people's self-worth was measured by their ability to destroy their sexual desire with their mind. In the last three decades that view has reversed and now we've gone beyond making it okay to want sex to the point where we're supposed to want it (unless you are excused for a medical or mental condition).

When I was training as a sex therapist, says Schnarch, "I was taught that low desire was a characteristic of people who were poor candidates for treatment. Two decades later therapists see low desire as treatable disorder - and in some cases a lucrative industry."

What is often not pointed out is that desire is not necessarily something that occurs naturally. Our thinking ability modulates desire to a large extent and so does they way we attribute meaning to sex. If that sounds complex, it's because it is.