At the Annual Meeting in Arlington, Va., David Schnarch, Ph.D. (AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, Certified Supervisor), winner of AASECT’s first Professional Standard of Excellence Award, delivered a talk on “Passionate Marriage: Sex, Love & Intimacy in Emotionally Committed Relationships.” The following excerpt from his talk focuses on the topic of foreplay:

What I want to do is I want to share with you a non-pathological approach, a healthy approach that says emotionally committed relationships are more sophisticated and more wondrous processes than our models address, or than many therapists, counselors, educators and researchers have had the faith to believe in.

Not all sexual problems are meant to be solved. They’re not to be removed or avoided. They are not problems that come up by ignorance. Rather, these situations are built into the natural processes of emotionally committed relationships. Their purpose is for us to live through them. Because in living through them, we become the solution.

Often what we havedone in the field of sex therapy is, rather than facilitating emotionally committed relationships, we’ve encouraged people to have “emotional committee” relationships. We get together as professionals and adjudicate how relationships should be. And whatever deviates from that is thought to be wrong or pathological. But all you have to do is to take a look at the topic of foreplay to see how our field can evolve.

When I talk about foreplay I am not talking about the stimulation and arousal that prepares one for intercourse, because this is inherently heterosexist and phallocentric. I am not referring to the time to communicate sexual preferences and preferred techniques, in part because couples always communicate. Foreplay is not just a time to “ask for what you want,” because the trouble with foreplay is that couples can’t stop communicating, whether they like it or not. And finally, I’m not referring to non-demand, non-genital pleasuring, because there is always a demand.

So what am I talking about?

I’m talking about foreplay as a system of negotiation for the level of intimacy and meaning and eroticism of what will follow.

Have you ever worked with couples who fight over the way their partner kisses? Have you ever tried to change your partner’s kissing technique? No matter how you instruct your partner to make his/her mouth–a little softer, more open, softer, drier–it’s never the right thing. That’s because your goal is to get your partner to kiss you your way.

The truth is that couples always kiss the right way–even when one partner can’t stand what the other one is doing.

To comprehend this, I had to throw away most of my professional training. One of the hallmarks of modern sex therapy is that we tell people what to do. My training said that sexual problems are caused by four “I’s”: Ignorance, Ineptitude, Inhibition and Ineffective Technique. However, now I start by assuming that sexual behavior is purposeful and rich in meaning, no matter how painful those meanings. No matter how apparently dysfunctional a couple’s interaction. No longer do I dismiss their sexual style as faulty or inadequate, to immediately be replaced by my superior technique.

The reason more people don’t want to talk to sex therapists about their sexuality is that they immediately assume that we are listening for what they are doing wrong. Why should they want to tell us anything when they know that we are listening for their inadequacies? The important thing to do is to assume that they are doing it right. And the therapist’s whole job is to figure out right about what.

Once you understand that couples always do foreplay right, you can have a new perspective that can revolutionize your practice and your own marriage* (see note below), as well: Couples don’t kiss wrong, because the issue isn’t technique. They are always intuitively expressing what they are feeling. They are already expressing what is and isn’t happening between them. And they are negotiating for what will and won’t occur next.

Foreplay is a form of implicit communication. And the very fact that we tell people to “tell your partner what you want” assumes that they’re not already doing that. We, as therapists, unwittingly screw up the system by telling them something that destroys the natural process that is already occurring. Because sex therapists focus on mechanics, we destroy the meaning that already exists, and fail to help couples interpret the meaning that is already there.

Sex is a language. But often couples don’t know how to read that language and they need a clinician to help them.

Sex is a window into people’s lives and their souls, which is one of the beauties of working in this field. Sex revolves around meaningfulness. All too often we don’t realize that this is what human sexuality is all about.

For instance it is the sameness of meaning, not just the sameness of behavior, that makes sex boring. Adding another behavior to a repertoire only adds novelty and new meaning for a short period of time. It is very hard to instill novelty in emotionally committed relationship if you’re just going to focus on body parts. There are a limited number of ways that two sets of orifices can be juxtaposed. But there is an infinite number of ways that human beings can bring meaning to sex. Being capable of that meaningfulness requires human development.

Showing people the message in their foreplay is a very powerful opening move to therapy. It sets the framework for an approach to therapy that is surprising, and meaningful, and intriguing to people.

Why does kissing drop out more quickly than intercourse? What do most clients think? They’ll say: “Intercourse is more important to my partner than kissing me. I’m not important to him/her anymore.” And, ironically, it’s exactly the opposite in most cases.

Kissing drops out because it’s too intimate. It’s not that we are unimportant to each other over the course of time. We become too important to each other. Kissing becomes too intimate and so we move away. It’s not that we’re moving towards what’s important. We’re moving away from what is too important. When couples begin to realize that their picture is wrong, therapy quickly shifts.

I’m not talking about a fancy “reframe” here. I’m talking about putting people more in touch with Reality, with the way that emotionally committed relationships truly work.

Which way would you rather go forward in therapy? With the thought that you’re not important enough to your partner, and your therapist is suppose to find a better way of selling you to your spouse? Or would you rather go forward realizing that you’re more important to your partner than he/she can stand. And that the reason they’re having an affair is that they’re screwing somebody else who is unimportant enough that they can handle it. That they can hold onto themselves in the face of that partner who isn’t too important. How about the idea that you’re too important to kiss. That you are too important to have novelty with. And that you challenge his/her very sense of self.

This is an entirely different picture than one that might emerge through traditional sex therapy. And it allows people to move forward.

One of the things I do in therapy is “simply” to raise the question: “Who decides when foreplay is over?” Even if a couple doesn’t have intercourse, they usually have a mental defining mark between foreplay and the main event. How do partners know when it’s time to shift? When I asks this question, one partner usually replies: “I don’t know….I just know.” That means he or she is getting the message, but not paying attention to who’s saying it and what it’s about.

If you persist, asking couples how they know when it’s time to shift to intercourse, people start saying things like: “When he or she seems impatient. When he strokes and touches my genitals for awhile. When he gets an erection and I know he’s afraid of losing it. When I’m afraid he’s going to ejaculate. When I’m afraid I’m going to lose my erection. When I’m bored. When my partner’s bored. When I sense my partner just wants to get it over with.” It helps you begin to realize that people are not hell bent to get to the “big event.” Instead, very often they’re moving away from having their hearts broken.

None of these answers have anything to do with intimacy or passion or eroticism. They reveal the impatience. They reveal the fears of inadequacy that permeate sexuality for most couples. That partners are acting out of their awareness of alienation. There’s the sense that if they grab enough mucous membrane they can convince each other that they’re really having a good time. And if they focus on technique, they can actually fool themselves into thinking they are really together.

The reason our field has been so successful in promoting technique is that, as long as we offer people synchronized technique and they don’t get out of step with each other, they think they’re actually together. Each person in the couple has sex with his/her own technique, not with each other. And as long as those two sets of techniques roughly mesh, they think they’ve arrived.

But by asking, “Who decides about the shift away from foreplay?” you can draw the couple’s own awareness to the question of: “Who’s really running the show?” By the way, you can tell when you’re talking to the person who actually makes the decision of when it’s the time to make that shift, because that person says: “We both decide.”

Foreplay reflects and embraces the politics of intimacy and power in emotionally committed relationships. Just helping couples become aware that foreplay is not a matter of technique, that it is a negotiation, allows couples to manage that negotiation much more consciously. And in so doing, they raise to the fore the process of differentiation that is playing out in their relationship….

When we get into bed, we are telling each other the story of our lives. Clinicians often don’t realize that, but it’s what makes our field have so much to contribute. We’re telling each other who we are, where we came from, where we think we are now. What we think about ourselves. What we think about each other, and where we think we’re going. Which is why most of us close our eyes and turn the lights out and have sex with each other in the dark. It’s to reduce the intimacy ….

The problem is not how do you keep intimacy alive in marriage, it’s how do you get people to stop killing it. Intimacy is more available in marriage than most people can tolerate. And normal sexual styles are designed to do two things at the same time: To get one or more people to reach orgasm, and to reduce intimacy to a tolerable level.

When you start looking at your own or your clients’ behavior that way, you have a revolution right there.