Want Good Sex? Start With Intimacy!
Therapist stresses couples’ closeness
By Barbara Hey
Reprinted from The Denver Post, August 6, 2002
As confirmation, Schnarch cites the National Health and Social Life Survey, which found that more than half of those studied had experienced sexual problems in the past year. Many more of us suffer with what Schnarch calls tepid sex functional, but not satisfying.
And worse. Many bedrooms he says are in the emotional deep-freeze, meaning nothing the least bit warm is going on in there at all.
If sex is natural, why do so many of us have trouble with it?
Because sexual dysfunction is natural, too, says Schnarch, psychologist and director of the Marriage & Family Health Center in Evergreen. Normal, healthy people have sexual difficulties and for good reasons. He discusses those reasons in his new book Resurrecting Sex (Harper Collins).
One good reason is that couples with intimacy issues are at a state of emotional gridlock, an unavoidable impasse that arises in all relationships, in all cultures, says Schnarch. And how you work through this gridlock makes all the difference.
Chronic conflicts involve four basic issues: sex, money, kids and in-laws, and often there is little room for compromise. The result: gridlock, the state in which couples fight incessantly but neither partner is willing to give an inch. Couples may interpret this state as evidence that they’ve fallen out of love, or that they have irreconcilable differences.
But, says Schnarch, there’s no need to run for the exit. Even at this stage, any emotionally committed relationship can be brought back from the brink. Doing so can not only resuscitate the marriage, but can lead to the greatest sex ever.
His counseling approach addresses both marital and sexual issues, a technique he calls the second generation of sex therapy.
Rather than discussing sex in graphic detail like the women of Sex and the City, he favors depathologizing it.
You’d think I’d be in favor of public talk about sex, but it’s misguided. It just contributes to the mistaken belief that it is inappropriate to have difficulty sexually, he says.
Calling sex natural sounds positive on the surface, but when sex blows up in our face which it inevitably does we feel there’s something wrong with us. If sex is so natural and it’s not working, we assume we are screwed up.
This attitude sends us hiding under the covers, says Schnarch.
Sexual dysfunction is the norm, he says. We’ve all been there, done that and on occasion, not been able to do that.
I’ve had just about every sexual difficulty a man could have. There have been times for me when I couldn’t have had an orgasm to save my life. It’s happened to all of us. The point is, there’s nothing going wrong. There is no inadequacy.
People ask me to fix their marriage, and I say it doesn’t need fixing. It is doing what it is supposed to do, says Schnarch. Stop working on your marriage, I say. It’s working on you.
The real job is forcing couples to reinvigorate the relationship to better fit the people involved. Married women are conditioned to adapt, to be useful and giving. Men are conditioned to be receivers, the ones less likely to compromise.
When either partner’s real self is absent from the bedroom, says Schnarch, sex suffers. Women may start to feel they are disappearing in the midst of their roles as someone’s wife, mother or employee. The marriage may then show fissures, and issues will manifest in the marital bed.
Inhibited sexual desire, unequal desire, difficulty with arousal and achieving orgasm are common, and to Schnarch are just signs that the relationship is working as it should.
If individuals look to their partner for validation, they’ll be in trouble.
Instead, they must restore their sense of self, a respect for who they are when standing alone from their partners. That’s the only way to have a solid union, says Schnarch. That personal growth, not new sexual techniques, will ultimately make the sex better.
When you like yourself, it’s the best aphrodisiac there is.
Schnarch (rhymes with marsh ) was drawn to sex therapy while in graduate school and has been counseling others for more than 20 years. A New York native, he studied at Michigan State and developed his theories while teaching at Louisiana State University. He met his wife there, psychologist Ruth Morehouse, who works privately and collaborates with him on seminars.
His current book is dedicated to their teenage daughter, who has been known to gently ask her parents not to talk business at the dinner table. But, says Schnarch, even being raised by two sex therapists won’t excuse her in the future from troubles of her own.
She has access to more information than she needs on sex and still she will have sexual difficulty, he says. It’s not an issue of what your parents teach you. It’s just the process of marriage.
Schnarch keeps an office in their home in Evergreen (with a view of Mount Evans), from which he conducts intensive private couple therapy for locals and those who fly in for days or weeks. His mode of operation is to conduct sessions for three hours straight, which he says, increases exponentially the effectiveness of treatment.
He knows first hand his approach to relationship impasse can bring a marriage back to life even after divorce papers have been signed. He wrote of his own back from the brink experience in a previous book, Passionate Marriage.
We were as out there as any couple I’ve ever seen, he says. His marriage is in its 16th year.
At that sick-of-each-other phase, it’s hard for couples to compromise and negotiate, the tenets of traditional therapy. Schnarch offers a different tactic, but admits it can get testy.
This is when partners would rather stick their fingers in one another’s eyes than stroke one another and make each other feel good, he says. At this stage, he makes a beeline to core issues, and the here and now.
I’m very matter of fact, no mollycoddling. I just ask, ‘What are you going to do now?’
Dealing with anxiety, a constant thread throughout life, often is the core issue. His therapeutic goal is not reducing anxiety, but teaching us to tolerate it. Growth comes by working through the anxiety that comes with the unfamiliar, he says, whereas avoidance means limitations and no growth.
Marriage is about tough choices between two anxiety-producing options, Schnarch believes. The good news is that with age, maturity and perseverance, we all become better in bed.
Our mistake is in confusing genital prime with sexual prime, he says. That leads to doomsday thinking when sexual problems arise. If you’re 55 and sex craps out, you think it’s over.
Not true. With age comes an increased capacity for intimacy.
Men become more willing to allow someone to know them, more likely to accept an equal relationship with a woman. And women accept their eroticism and stop pretending that men know more about vaginas than they do, he says.
And though his life’s work is serious stuff, he maintains a sense of humor about the foibles of intimacy and anatomy. He admires the length and girth of an impressive camera lens, the photographic equivalent of a body part post-Viagra, and then laughs at himself.