Chapter 1: Nobody's Ready for Marriage -- Marriage Makes you Ready for Marriage
From Passionate Marriage: Sex, Love, and Intimacy in Emotionally Committed Relationships
By David Schnarch, Ph. D.
Published in 1997 by W. W. Norton & CO (hardback) and 1998 by Owl Books (softback) ®
Copyright 1997 by David Schnarch, Ph. D.
All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author
Marry and with luck
- it may go well.
But when a marriage fails those who marry live at home in hell.
Euripides, 408 B.C.
“We came here because we had a sexual problem, but you've helped us recognize it's something much larger.” Karen and her husband are leaving my office after our final session. Her smile and gratitude make clear her intent. She speaks like a person who has stumbled upon new possibilities, not like someone who has learned she is more damaged than she thought.
Karen and her husband have flown in to see me for three-hour therapy sessions on three consecutive days. We've come a long way from where Ken, age fifty-seven, opened our initial meeting with his characteristic wit. "Our relationship is good and we want to make it better. Karen asked for time to work on our sexual difficulties, and I gave her twenty-four years! That's my contribution to our lack of sexual progress."
Karen, age fifty-three, showed the courage that would surface in our subsequent encounters. "Initiation became my responsibility. Five years into our relationship I was unhappy sexually - so unhappy that I researched the leaders in sex therapy at the time, and Ken and I went to one of them. We did sensate focus exercises… and it totally glossed over my problem. My therapist thought we were a model couple in treatment we always look better than we feel." Ken nods from the sidelines, giving Karen center stage.
“Sex is routine when we have it,” Ken adds. "I know I should be more aggressive, but I'm not and for that I feel guilty towards Karen. My motivation for sex used to be more physiological. I've lost some of my sex drive in recent years."
“My lack of sexual desire has always been a problem, too. Karen sounds like she wants everything out in the open once and for all. "I never want sex until we're actually doing it. I like the physical pleasure of touching and orgasm, but it's always a struggle for me. I went on estrogen last year, which helped my lubrication, but it did nothing for my desire. I even tried testosterone for six months but nothing happened so I stopped."
Karen is a tall, comfortable-looking woman who dresses well. Her easy laughter and eagerness to please are likely to put men at ease and signal other women that she'll be no threat. When she's nervous, she echoes the last words of your sentence to show she's following you. Her sincerity and caring, however, don't come from insecurity. Underneath there is a solidity about her.
Ken is taller and thinner, and his tousled white hair and graying beard make him look like the stereotype of an eccentric professor. His appearance is clean but his clothes are rumpled. Few people can match his intelligence, and his esoteric work in theoretical mathematics makes shop talk in social gatherings impossible. Although warm and friendly, he is awkward sharing his feelings with others. He's quiet, apparently used to keeping his thoughts to himself.
As if suddenly self-conscious about their disclosures, they lapse into silence. After several quiet moments, I ask, "What else should I know?"
“Well,” says Karen slowly, "I have another problem that's hard to talk about. I've always been upset by my sexual fantasies. Ken knows some of this because I get lost in my fantasies while we're having sex. He can tell sometimes I'm off somewhere. When we have sex and I'm not aroused, I turn myself on with these fantasies - even though I feel bad about them."
“How often are you off in your fantasies during sex with Ken?”
“I've been less fantasy-dependent since we attended your Couples Retreat. I still go in and out of fantasy to get fully aroused and reach orgasm. But now I want to be with Ken.”
“Yes, that's our big progress,” Ken quips, "now I have her some of the time. She use to be gone about half the time. Now it's maybe 25 percent."
“It's gone from 95 percent to about 50,” Karen says gently. She monitors his response, trying to avoid hurting him. "I envy how easily Ken gets aroused. He's a great lover. He's patient and he stays with me. If I get more erotic, he gets more aroused. I want to be aroused sooner, even before Ken actually touches me."
I can see Karen is trying to share the spotlight with Ken, who prefers not to speak unless he thinks he's got something worthy to add. She's walking the marital tightrope of trying to reassure him everything is good while also pushing for change. As they sit near each other on the couch, neither pulls away when they touch by chance. She reaches for him often, reassuring both of them. "What else is happening?" I ask.
“Two months ago I told Ken that I don't find the way he dresses to be very sexy - he rarely buys clothes. I said, 'I get attracted to sexy men, and I want to have those feelings towards you.'” Anxiety in the room shoots up a notch.
“I don't feel like a sexy man,” Ken says defensively when he thinks it's his turn. "And I don't like pretending to be one."
“I'm on the other side pretending not to be sexy. I usually don't dare let on what's inside me,” Karen adds emphatically.
“Oh, this is great!” Ken is doing his best to appreciate the irony. "You have no desire and you're hiding your sexiness. My desire is diminishing, and I wish I had something to hide." Karen reaches out to reassure him. She looks hurt and withdraws her hand when he continues to look dejected. I try to keep the session moving forward.
“It sounds like you folks are playing hide-and-seek with your eroticism. How often do you actually have sex?”
“For the last five or ten years it's been once a week,” Ken speaks with the assurance of someone comfortable collecting data, but his tone hints that he's feeling inadequate. "When I was hornier, I thought about initiating every night."
Karen senses that he is feeling inadequate and communicates on two levels simultaneously, partly stating her preference, partly reassuring Ken. "Frequency is less important to me than feeling freed up during sex. I want more quality to it. Now it mostly occurs on Saturday mornings."
“Because that's a time you're both relaxed and refreshed, or because you're both already there and no one has to do much to initiate?”
Karen's response is instantaneous. "Because it doesn't take much initiative or creativity." I notice Karen doesn't always have to support Ken or defend herself. She can say it straight. Ken nods wistfully in agreement. "When sex is good, we usually don't try again soon. I worry that it won't be as good the next time," he confesses.
“For me it's just the opposite,” Karen says. "When it's good I'm more hopeful, but then I don't act on it."
“Why don't you?” I ask, adding, "not that you're supposed to."
“I don't know. Sometimes I think about it before Ken gets home, but I lose it when he's here.”
“Wait a minute,” I cut in. "It sounds like you have sexual imagery and get aroused at least sometimes before you have sex. That's different from what I thought you said before."
“That's right. That's also changed since the Couples Retreat. Sometimes now I get aroused before we start, but it doesn't last.”
Do you find it curious that someone who complains about not having sexual desire gets lost in richly detailed fantasies during sex? I do. If anything, it sounds to me like Karen has a robust sexual fantasy life. When people examine the apparent contradictions in their sexuality, it becomes their window into new ways of living. To Karen, her lack of sexual desire and uncomfortable intrusive fantasies are two separate problems. I begin to wonder how they might be connected.
Later in the session Karen tells me she reaches orgasm one way or another in almost all their sexual encounters. Ken's orgasm is never in question, although in the early years of their marriage she rarely touched his penis. He, on the other hand, usually fondled her breasts and genitals trying to arouse her. Ken always made sure Karen had her orgasm before he ejaculated. "He never has a problem getting an erection," she says, half envious and half complaining.
Karen also tells me she's been getting more active and experimenting sexually in recent years. She often strokes his penis and occasionally mounts him for intercourse. "I've experimented letting Ken come in my mouth twice this year something I'd never do before."
“She’s still not really keen on it,’ Ken adds.
“I don't feel adequate doing it yet,” Karen says with a trace of defensiveness. "I'm particularly uncomfortable with it if he's been inside me."
“Why is that?”
“I'm uncomfortable tasting my vagina. I've read all the women's lib books, but I guess I still think it's unclean.”
Another emotional window suddenly appears. "Tasting your husband's penis doesn't bother you?"
“That's an interesting form of self-rejection. You think your partner's genitals are cleaner than yours.”
Karen eyes widen in sudden recognition. Something she already knew about herself has surfaced where she never expected - oral sex. "I've always rejected myself," she says unhappily, "I don't like that about myself."
Her quiet decisiveness suggests that Karen has reached a turning point. I decide not to push her to say more about it. If and when she's ready to do something about it, I want it clear that she's acting on her own.
I start to wind up the session, thinking we've already witnessed the main event. Almost as an afterthought, I ask, "You've told me a tremendous amount in a very short period of time. Anything else I should know now?"
Karen and Ken eye each other for a long moment. She finally turns towards me. "I'm troubled by the content of some of my fantasies."
Which fantasies? I have the sense we're about to enter a whole new level.
“One or more men forcing me to have sex in painful or degrading ways S and M fantasies that embarrass me because they turn me on. They've gotten better, but they still bother me.”
Karen obviously thinks what she's saying is embarrassing only she doesn't seem to be feeling embarrassed. She seems to be gaining strength as she talks. Ken is staring at her. He's gone from feeling protective, to being proud, to being in awe of her. He's heard some of this before, but he's never seen her so unashamed. I sense a demonstration of an important link between fantasy and actual sexual encounters is about to unfold.
“In what way have the fantasies gotten better?”
“They changed after therapy. There's still an authoritarian man or men telling me what to do but it's things that arouse me. Sometimes I'm asking them to teach me about sex. The fantasies seem more consensual. I still feel guilty about them, especially when I'm having sex with Ken.”
“Did you know that your arousal pattern and imagery are common?”
“I'm not the only one?! What's causes them?”
“I'll gladly discuss that later, but I don't want to talk theory. For now, let's stick with your experience. If the theory is useful, we'll arrive at the same place by following what's true for you.”
“I don't have any more to say about it.” Karen looks disappointed and waits a few moments to see if I'll tell her what she wants to hear. I don't, and she changes the topic.
“What's true for me is I don't initiate now because I'm afraid of looking pathetic and fraudulent. Body-image - being fat has always been a problem.” Karen realizes I'm looking at her. "I'm not that heavy now, but it really was a problem when I was younger. Occasionally I fantasize taking off all my clothes and coming to bed wearing just a necklace, but I don't have the nerve."
I don't say anything for a few moments. "Nerve…or integrity?" I ask quietly.
“Look at yourself through the lens of your sexuality. When you look at the issue of wearing only your necklace and a smile, what do you see?”
Karen's insight from the oral sex discussion is still fresh. This time it only takes her a moment. "I'm putting myself down, telling myself I'm not attractive, that only beautiful women should do that." She's proud and upset in the same instant.
“So the issue isn't just lacking the courage of your beliefs. It's not just that you feel bad and then don't follow through. When you back down, you denigrate yourself.”
Karen is taking it all in. "But what does this have to do with integrity?"
“Integrity and integration are one and the same. You're describing a lack of integration between who you think you are and who you aspire to be. In fact, if I've read you right, when you said 'I don't like that about myself' during our discussion of oral sex, you were coming upon it as an integrity issue - not as a genital issue.” Karen's eyes widen.
“Absolutely! All my life I've never felt good enough.”
“Good enough for whom and what?”
“I used to think, good enough for Ken - or anyone else! Good enough to act the way I think a real woman would!”
“Is that an integrity issue?”
“I guess it is.”
“Is the issue of tasting your own vagina the same thing?”
“You act as if Ken's penis is clean enough to taste but your vagina is too dirty. Are you putting yourself down while you're making love? Does it ever bother you that Ken gets more pleasure from your body than you do?”
“You're not just talking about sexuality! This is the story of my life. Everyone gets more pleasure from me than I do. That's starting to piss me off. I belong more to everyone else than to myself!” Karen pauses to glance at Ken. "It's staring me in the face! I'm amazed I could avoid this for so long."
“Sexuality is a powerful window into who we are.”
Karen's personal development is starting to take off.
Ken decides it's time to speak up. "Can you do that with me - see me through our sex practices?"
“Sure. This may sound strange, but it's like sex hasn't really been personal for either one of you. Karen is lost in her fantasies, and you've had sexual desire out of hormonal drive. You've wanted to reduce your sexual tensions, but not necessarily because you crave her. You think the problem is that you're getting older, that the hormones are tapering off. But if you want to keep your sex alive, you have to grow up - we all do. The solution involves shifting from desire out of horniness to desire for Karen - wanting to share something with her. It's the shift from impersonal sex, like boys have, to having sex like a man.”
Ken doesn't say much, but he's ready to hear more. "We can also understand your sexual pattern in another way. If you accept Karen's report at face value - which I'm not telling you to do - the fact that you can't tell when she's 'gone' during sex means either that she is a fantastic actress or you don't have much experience being close to the people you love. Like in your childhood family."
Ken stifles his surprise. "We loved each other," he says, not totally believing it, "but my family was sort of distant. We traded ideas, not hugs, and we didn't talk about feelings. I spent most of my time reading in my room." He pauses several seconds, silently redigesting his youth. When he returns from his solitary review, it's as if he's on a different track. "Karen wants to 'dress up' for sex even - if it's just a necklace. She wants me to dress better, too. I've always been afraid to draw attention to myself, in bed or out. It's just not me. Do I have to?"
Suddenly it's clear I have more traction with Ken by staying in the present than talking about the past. "I can't answer that for you. It sounds like you want to maintain a low profile the same way you did growing up, even though you don't want to live now in that kind of house. You decide if you want to continue living that way."
“I'm not as good at dealing with this as Karen.”
“You may not be as good at it, but you seem to have the same problem: you're tugging against the limits of your self-image 'leash' being a 'sex object' and wearing nice clothes. As long as you dress down, you don't bump into your low self-esteem.”
Ken nods, more to keep me talking than because he fully agrees. He's used to keeping his own counsel and he needs time to think about this. There's no point pushing him. I turn to address both of them.
“You can get in bed as the person you know yourself to be or as who you'd like to be. That doesn't necessarily mean you're not being yourself. The process of becoming means your behavior can lead you to act in ways that still exceed the limits of your self-image. In doing what we aspire to be, we become that person. But you decide.”
I nod towards Ken. "Is refusing to wear nice clothing your way of defending yourself against pressure from Karen or a response to your anxieties and insecurities? If the clothes really feel phony to you, I hope you don't buy them. I never encourage anyone to sell themselves out." Ken seems to be wondering if I'm on his side or not.
Karen jokes, "His idea of dress-up is L. L. Bean." Ken shrugs sheepishly. "Whatever it is," I reply, "it's his body. If you are interested in dressing up, why not check out what's new in necklaces? Another client I worked with once said to me, 'Doc, I finally got it. You don't think your way to a new way of living. You live your way to a new way of thinking.'"
Karen and Ken give each other another long look. They leave my office quiet and hopeful, holding hands, lost in their own thoughts.
Karen and Ken enter our second day's session all smiles. They sit closer on the couch than they had the day before. "Sex was different last night!" they both volunteer. Karen says with pride, "I walked into the bedroom wearing only my necklace! Ken's eyes were bulging out in disbelief. Once we started, every thought that came to mind I said. That's very unusual for me - no screening." Ken smiles in agreement.
“You had a taste of self-validated intimacy. It's the key to intense sex and intimacy.”
Karen looks puzzled for a moment and then brightens. "I remember you discussing self-validated intimacy at the Couples Retreat. That's when you don't expect your partner to validate or accept what you disclose. You validate yourself as you show your partner who you really are. But how does that apply to what we did?"
Weren't you doing exactly that when you wore just the necklace? Isn't sharing your thoughts without screening - without focusing on your partner's possible response - an even better example?
“Now I get it!” Karen beams in recognition.
“I guess I'm a little slower than Karen,” Ken says apologetically. "I really screwed things up. I made my usual move: I asked Karen what she wanted me to do for her sexually, instead of revealing what I wanted to do. I played it safe and tried to get her to stick her neck out. As soon as I realized what I was doing, I backed up. Karen realized what I was doing and laughed."
“I saw Ken slip back into his old style, but he was really trying.” Her eyes are smiling along with her lips.
What stands out as I listen to last night's happenings is the difference in tone - there are nuances of meaning that make all the difference in the world. In this case, the tone was lighter. The message between them was "this is going to be different." Karen had opened with a high ante in her bid to jazz up their sex. Ken made a counter-offer to lower the self-disclosure, but didn't fold when Karen called him on it.
“If you look at what happened, you can see that the level of intimacy and eroticism between you is negotiated early in the encounter. It's that way for many people, although we rarely recognize it. No wonder your former strategy of 'let's keep going and maybe it will get better' doesn't work.”
Karen's eyes twinkle as she holds Ken's hand. "I think we had another example of self-validated intimacy. I took Ken inside my head while we had sex. I told him about a fantasy I was having as it unfolded. I imagined I was going to a sex club where men take care of women and give them peak sexual experiences. Ken listened for several minutes, and then I said, 'I have an idea, why don't you leave the room and come back in and let's see what happens.' He did, we did, and it triggered more pictures in my head. I told him and we did them. It was amazing."
“I have no doubt!” I said, "Behavior needs to follow the internal connection, not the other way around."
Ken suddenly stops making moon eyes with Karen and turns towards me. "Say that again I've never heard that before."
“You let the sense of connection between you determine your behavior. By sharing the fantasy you followed your connection and did what came out of that. You didn't touch each other hoping to produce emotional connection, do. You used to touch the way you thought would make you feel connected - such as stroking each other's genitals. When it didn't work, you thought there was some problem in your technical skill. Maybe now you can see you were barking up the wrong tree.”
Ken is processing this and hits a snag. "Wait. Aren't you contradicting what you said last session about behavior leading self-esteem? We were talking about me wearing nice clothes and Karen wearing just her necklace to bed. You said we could stretch our self-esteem by doing things that seemed beyond who we saw ourselves to be."
“I'm glad you're thinking this through for yourself. I don't think I'm contradicting myself, but don't take my word for it. Check this out from your own experience: if you want to expand sex and intimacy between you, you have to do things that seem beyond the person you've always been. But in the same moment, you have to establish a basic sense of connection with your partner to start with, and then let it dictate the sexual things you do together. This comes together if you think of it this way: what part of you do you use to touch meaning make contact with your partner? Do you touch your partner from the best in you? Or do you reach out from the part that feels inadequate or wants to hide? If you do it from that part you'll drop the emotional connection and resort to touching each other's genitals to try to get something going.”
Karen looks meaningfully at Ken. "I'm realizing I don't have sex with you when we're together. I shut you out, and shut myself out of what we can have."
“You're not the only one!”
“That's quite a revelation! I want to underscore what's happening between them.”
“Well that's not all,” Karen says proudly. "I woke Ken up at five this morning to have sex. That's another first I never do that. I was lying in bed having a sexual fantasy, and I told it to him. Ken picks me up at a bar. Literally. I go there first and wait for him."
“This sounds like it isn't just a fantasy. Do you want to play this out for real?”
“Absolutely! But in the fantasy I had this morning, another man sits down next to me and tries to pick me up. I tell him I'm waiting for my husband to pick me up. He says, 'Oh, your husband is meeting you here?' I say, 'No, he's going to pick me up, just like you're trying to do.' He's jealous. I tell him he can watch, but he has to stand to the side, out of the way. The idea of him watching turns me on. Ken shows up in a sexy silk shirt, and after we kiss a little we leave to have sex.”
Ken finds his voice. "As we were having sex last night, Karen told me how to tease her. The way she was talking turned me on just as if she was stroking me."
“If I understand right, you're not just talking about teasing as a style of touch. You're talking about an attitude. Teasing someone is a mind-set. It's not effective if it's done without the emotional engagement.”
“Correct! We didn't just 'go at it.' I felt less responsibility for making everything right,” Ken affirms.
“That's not all!” Karen adds with a flourish. "I tasted myself! It was part of our fantasy. When I talked about it with you last session, I imagined an awkward experience like giving myself a medical exam. Instead I told Ken, 'I want to suck your penis, but I want you to enter me first. I think it would be nice to taste both of us instead of just you.' It was entirely different from what I had anticipated. I had no fear or revulsion."
“At the end of the evening Karen burst into tears.” Ken doesn't seem totally sure this is good.
“I felt so much love for him. It hurt - bittersweet. I was aware we wouldn't always be together. My fantasies didn't tune him out. The way we used them this time brought us together. Suddenly fantasy and reality came together so intensely. I cried a long time.”
“That sure doesn't sound like autistic sex! You challenged yourselves and it resulted in an intense connection.”
Ken nodded. "While all this is going on I'm wondering, Is she playing a role or is this a side of Karen I've never seen before? It's like I'm with a new woman. I'm fifty-seven, she's fifty-three, we've been together twenty-six years, and I can hardly believe we're doing this."
“Correct me if I'm mistaken, but the belief you're referring to is believing in yourselves.”
“Yup!” said Karen. "That's it! It's getting the inside outside. It feels great! I have a totally different experience of my fantasies now they're a resource in our lovemaking. Finally, it's literally like making love. I can feel the difference!"
“So when you look at yourself through your sexuality now, what do you see?”
Karen pauses to take stock. "A woman. I'm no longer embarrassed by my fantasies…actually, I'm rather proud of myself."
“I'm not sure I can keep up with this new woman.” Ken is praising Karen and telling me his fear at the same time.
“You can't if you approach her with that tone of self-defeatism.”
“I think he can! I loved seeing the little-boy excitement and playfulness in him particularly since this had nothing to do with being a little boy. The man in him stepped out to meet me. In fact, Ken played out different men in my fantasy. He changed his voice and mannerisms as he took on different roles. He never lets himself play like that!”
Ken isn't totally comfortable being so complimented or exposed. He shifts the topic slightly by telling me something else of importance: "Now that I'm older, I last longer during intercourse. I use to think it allowed us to experiment with more positions. Now I see it another way. What you call our 'tone' is different. We can relax. I don't have to tune her out to delay orgasm like I once did." Ken turns to look at Karen for a long time. "I'm realizing how orgasm-focused we've been. I've been! If you'd have asked me a week ago, I would have denied it. I just couldn't see it. I'm realizing I bring Karen to orgasm first all the time because I'm afraid I won't have an erection after I climax. That's just another version of being orgasm-focused, isn't it?"
Suddenly, we've got meaning everywhere! Ken's insight is so accurate and important it would be easy to agree. But I'm also clear Ken isn't really asking me a question he's already pretty sure of the answer and anticipates praise for his insight. He's making a bid for me to validate him. Out of respect and belief in him, I'm not going to take the one-up position he's offering. But how far can I go before Ken feels like he's back with his uncommunicative family?
My clients pay me to help them, not to nurse them, but sometimes it's not easy doing what needs to be done. Trading on everything we've developed, I look Ken in the eye and invite him to join me as a competent man. "If you're becoming more of a man - especially, your own man - why not answer your question for yourself?"
Ken clearly isn't expecting my response. We talk a few minutes more. He walks out a little shaken. Karen looks a little worried.
Ken opens our third and final session with unusual vigor. "We're having a wonderful time, but we're not getting to see much of your beautiful town. We're spending lots of time having sex."
“I had this idea to switch roles,” Karen says, not missing a beat. "I showed him how I want to be seduced."
“We've never done anything like this before,” Ken adds. "I'm getting used to this new woman. And to make a bad pun, we're putting our issues to bed."
Karen and Ken explain his comment. The previous evening they successfully discussed a bad experience that had hung over their marriage for fifteen years. Their tradition was to take turns surprising the other with dinner at a restaurant on their anniversary. Fifteen years ago Karen surprised Ken by bringing him to a resort where they could have sex in a private hot tub. Ken felt threatened and couldn't get an erection - a rare experience for him. His response was to shame Karen into backing off. Karen was confused and hurt by his response and began to doubt herself. She withdrew sexually for many years thereafter.
“Last night we talked about it,” Karen says. "And then we did something about it. I did him! I tied his hands to the bed to make the point. Ken had the courage to let me take him."
Ken starts to blush. "I felt selfish just taking from Karen," he confesses.
“Do you enjoy going out to dinner with someone who always insists on paying the check?” I ask.
“No, I don't.” Then Ken realizes the question applies to him. "You mean my giving to Karen can be selfish?"
“You decide. It sounds like letting her give you sexual pleasure challenges your identity and self-worth. Good for you! You-“
“Thanks a lot!” Ken cuts in with mock anger. He's grinning from ear to ear. "Go ahead, I know what you mean!" We're all laughing now.
“You like sending your wife 'into orbit' and hearing her moan. Why shouldn't she have the pleasure of feeling her own sexual abilities and listening to you scream? And if you're feeling generous, why shouldn't you be the one to give it to her?”
“I wish we'd done this earlier, Ken says wistfully.”
“What makes you think you could have? It's taken every bit of development you've got to do what you did last night. The sex you're starting to have is not for kids - or for immature adults. You can't go forward berating and rejecting yourself. Do you want to turn your most recent accomplishment into inadequacy retrospectively?”
“No, I just wish we could have shared this sooner.”
“It takes a long time for a human being to mature sexually.”
"Well, at least we're on the road. This is what I thought our honeymoon was supposed to be. We did something else last night that has been a long time in coming. When Karen untied me, I did her!”
“Yes indeed he did!" Karen smiles like the Cheshire Cat. "But what I'm seeing is that it's really not about sex in the usual sense. This is about who we've been, where we've come from, and becoming who we can be.“
“I couldn't have said it better.”
A New Picture of Sex and Intimacy
Does Ken and Karen's process seem remarkable? It's the kind of thing I've learned is possible from watching my clients do it. But it still amazes me every time it happens. And it happens frequently.
This wonderful couple revolutionized their sex and intimacy in part because they received a therapy that's a revolution in integrating sexual and marital counseling. You may have been surprised at different points by the frankness of our dialogue, or by how they found personal meaning in their sexual behavior, or by the ways in which they were challenged to grow. These are just some of the ways in which this approach differs from conventional sexual or marital therapy. The fundamental changes go much further right to the ways we understand sex and intimacy and how best to handle marriage.
It will take this whole book to explain these new ways to understand emotionally committed relationships. Along the way we'll challenge ideas so widely accepted as truths that at first you might wonder why we're bothering to consider them at all. Some are such sacred cows that it seems like hubris to suggest they are wrong. But by the book's end you'll probably shed many popular beliefs, if your experience is anything like Karen and Ken's. You'll see yourself, your partner, and your marriage in an entirely new light. And more importantly, you'll have new ways of using physical contact and intimate connection to bring yourself and your relationship alive and keep it that way.
I believe married couples suffer under the burden of several misunderstandings that have been so widely accepted that we don't even suspect this possibility. These distortions, which concern how we understand intimacy, "good communication," and sexuality, all involve a similar kind of error. In each case we've seen only a portion of the process and convinced ourselves that our truncated view defines the whole thing. In other words, the way we commonly think about how intimacy and sex work in marriage is only part of the picture. As a result, many couples establish false expectations through which they conduct and evaluate their relationship.
For example, we've taken one kind of intimacy the type in which our partner accepts and validates us and convinced ourselves this is what intimacy is. Thus, we assume that intimacy hinges on acceptance and validation from our partner. Likewise we've confused "good communication" with being understood the way we want and getting the response we expect. We never consider the kind of intimacy where we validate our own disclosures when our partner doesn't. This is self-validated intimacy the kind of intimacy that made Karen and Ken's marriage more intimate and expanded their sexual repertoire. (Chapter 4 is devoted to discussing self-validated intimacy.)
If you're asking yourself, "You mean intimacy doesn't involve acceptance and validation from my partner or feeling secure enough to disclose?" You're having the same reaction I did when my understanding of intimacy fell apart and eventually coalesced into something more meaningful and useful. As you'll learn in later chapters, intimacy is nature's latest "experiment" (because it uses the part of our brain that evolved last), and we're still trying to understand what it is and how it works in long-term relationships.
A sociologist once observed that the prevalence of "intimacy" themes in mass media, pop psychology, and "alternative lifestyles" suggests that we're driven by hunger for intimate union. It may look like this on the surface, but my clinical work has helped me realize that there's actually something else going on. We're driven by something that makes us look like we crave intimacy, but in fact we're after something else: we want someone else to make us feel acceptable and worthwhile. We've assigned the label "intimacy" to what we want (validation and reciprocal disclosure) and developed pop psychologies that give it to us while keeping true intimacy away. We've distorted what intimacy is, how it feels, how much we really want it, and how best to get it. Once we realize that intimacy is not always soothing and often makes us feel insecure, it is clear why we often back away from it.
The same "mistaking the part for the whole" distortion has occurred with sexual desire. In 1929, humorists James Thurber and E. B. White published Is Sex Necessary? In it they wrote:
Sex is less than 50 years old. The sublimation of sex, called Love, is much older although purists question the existence of Love prior to 1885, on grounds there can be no sublimation of a non-existent feeling.
Quite regardless of whether the urge for food or sex came first, the sex "urge" creates a much greater stir… Sex urge has upset the whole Western World because, while the urge to eat is a personal matter concerning only the hungry person, the sex urge involves (for its true expression) another individual. It is this "other person" that causes all the trouble.
What may escape attention on first reading is that Thurber and White considered sexual desire to be a drive to satisfy a biological hunger, much like our need for food. That's because the "biological hunger" view of sex is deeply rooted in society. So deep, in fact, that it permeates the way many therapists approach problems of low sexual desire. Using the same rationale as humorists Thurber and White, they refer to it as "sexual anorexia" a sexual "eating disorder." The notion behind this is that, since desire for sex is supposedly like desire for food a basic biological drive, you have to be pretty screwed up not to want either one.
Superficially, the common idea that sex is a natural biological drive seems reasonable. After all, isn't sex drive a function of hormones? Isn't sex encoded in all animals? If sex drive weren't "normal," wouldn't our species die out?
While there's some truth to these notions, they limit our perspective on human sexuality and interfere with sexual satisfaction. We don't realize that seeing sex as a "drive" makes us focus on relieving sexual tensions rather than wanting our partner. It may be true that the more tension ("horny") people feel, the more they tend to seek release (meaning their partner) but if that's the only reason you think your partner wants to be with you it tends to kill sex and intimacy in marriage. It's hard for couples to approach this any other way: even the diagnostic manuals used by physicians and therapists conceptualize sexual desire as eagerness for sexual behavior rather than desire for your partner. Focusing on desire as motivation to start having sex overlooks the many couples who struggle to increase desire (passion) during sex. (Chapter 5 focuses on an intimacy-based view of sexual desire that corrects this.)
Seeing sexual desire as a biological drive sets us up to believe we're automatically supposed to know how to have sex - although humans take longer to reach full sexual maturity than any species on earth. It also makes us think we should want sex all the time although human sexual desire is more affected by circumstance and meaning than in lower species. This was partly why Ken felt pressured to want sex and assumed he was inadequate when he didn't. But you can't make sex more intimate or ever feel wanted (chosen) using this approach because hormones, hunger, and sex "drive" don't choose. It doesn't help couples like Karen and Ken keep sex alive as their hormonal urges taper off with age.
But what I said earlier to Karen and Ken holds true for the rest of us: examining the contradictions in our sexuality can become our window into new ways of living. Espousing "be with your partner!" and "communicate!" doesn't shield us from how society has developed approaches that jump-start arousal but destroy intimacy in the process. For example, common but misguided encouragement to "focus on your sensations" takes you away from your partner and causes some people to feel pressured to have an orgasm. It promotes a mechanical approach to sex that often leaves partners feeling ignored and "used."
Consider the fact that techniques used to treat low sexual desire often create low sexual desire when couples do the same thing spontaneously. For instance, some therapists encourage embittered couples with low sexual desire to "bypass" (ignore) their partner and fantasize about someone else. Although sometimes it "works," bypassing seeks minimally effective stimulation by limiting contact with the partner. But when you realize your partner is touching you and pretending you're someone else, does that fill you with desire? Sexual desire problems are difficult to cure when treatment has nothing to do with the eroticism, intimacy, and passion that we anticipate and demand.
The same thing holds true for the "squeeze technique," long regarded as a principal method of treating rapid ejaculation. While somewhat effective in stopping ejaculation, it stops intimacy, too. Imagine a man whipping his penis from his partner's body as his orgasm approaches and squeezing it. Long before that he's stopped focusing on his partner, awaiting the proper moment to perform the sexual Heimlich maneuver. This approach has gone largely unchallenged because it teaches troubled couples the same intimacy-incongruent sexual styles used by most people.
Our near-sightedness blinds us to the ways our incomplete views of sex make us feel inadequate: once you adopt the seemingly sex-positive view that "sex is a natural function," the only way to explain sexual dysfunction or disinterest is to look for pathological explanations. When something goes wrong sexually we're set up to ask ourselves, "If sexual response and interest are natural, then why am I not responding or even wanting to respond?" If you remember, this is exactly what Ken was asking himself - and feeling inadequate in the process.
Ken and Karen's therapy sessions demonstrate a new approach that emphasizes intimacy during sex. They realized they often weren't with each other when they made love. Karen was lost in her fantasies and Ken was preoccupied with his anxieties. Ken was shocked to learn just how much Karen was "gone," that he often couldn't tell, and that this had personal meaning for him: it was related to his prior lack of experience being intimate with the people he loved. In treatment, this couple focused on reducing the time their minds were apart while their bodies were together. They even found a new way to use fantasies to bring them closer. Karen displayed a classic example of self-validated intimacy by saying everything she thought while they had sex and letting Ken into her head. She showed Ken her strengths, and Ken let her see his limitations.
Until couples go beyond viewing sex as a biological drive, they presume sexual behavior is a good measure of sexual desire and that orgasm always involves high arousal and satisfaction. Common experiences of married couples disprove both assumptions. Both Karen and Ken were regularly orgasmic, even though their sex lacked intimacy and eroticism.
Like the joke about the three blind men who try to imagine what an elephant looks like from feeling its trunk, ear, and tail, we've developed distorted notions about intimacy and sexuality in long-term relationships. We might say our resulting view of marriage is a joke - if it didn't also contribute to many tragedies, particularly the social tragedies that half of all marriages end in divorce and many who stay married are sexually unhappy and alienated. Our cherished distortions fuel the even higher divorce rate among second and third marriages. It's not simply that some people don't learn from experience: their feelings of inadequacy lead them to try harder and hold tighter to common beliefs that create relationship problems.
In the midst of marital discord few of us have the courage to consider that the beliefs and practices we share with many couples are the source of our misery. We usually think problems with sex and intimacy are caused by how we're uniquely screwed up. I propose, instead, that they're often caused by being normal. If you're well-adjusted to ill-fitting beliefs that permeate society, you're going to have trouble.
When we talk about developing a fuller, deeper understanding of marriage, many people automatically think of unconscious feelings or repressed experiences. We've grown accustomed to looking at life's struggles as a reflection of unconscious processes. When we're unhappy, we look within ourselves for past traumas that incapacitate us in the present. The notion of uncovering repressed feelings has become synonymous with mental health, as if progressively stripping away façades and unearthing unconscious anxieties will liberate our innate vitality and creativity. In this view, therapy is a method of peeling away the layers of your character like an onion. Often, however, the problem is not a matter of peeling away layers but of developing them - growing ourselves up to be mature and resourceful adults who can solve our current problems.
Many marital therapists believe childhood wounds drive marriage, leading us to reenact our family problems with our adult partners. I do not. While I don't ignore unpleasant childhood experiences, I also don't believe they are the only or even the strongest factor shaping a marriage. Childhood wounds have their impact, just like parental modeling and social conditioning. I believe other aspects have at least as much - if not more - impact on marriage than our childhood or unconscious processes. These involve how sex and intimacy operate within marriage as a system with rules of its own. (I'll discuss these shortly.)
Misguided emphasis on childhood wounds does more than send couples off in the wrong direction. The resulting "trauma model of life" ignores everything outstanding about our species' determination to grow and thrive. When Pulitzer Prize winner Ernest Becker said our social "maps" trivialize life and destroy any opportunity to feel heroic, this is an example of what he meant. Likewise, in Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore observes "we like to think that emotional problems have to do with the family, childhood, and trauma - with personal life - but not with spirituality." Passionate Marriage is about resilience rather than damage, health rather than old wounds, and human potential rather than trauma.
I'm not proposing that we ignore past events that limit our present efforts. Awakening creative effort, however, requires leaving personal tragedies behind rather than constantly revisiting and revising them. This is neither as difficult nor as undesirable as it might seem. Presumably you're reading this book because you're interested primarily in improving your relationship. If you also have important childhood issues to resolve, the approach I will be outlining can help. It offers ways to resolve the past in the present by focusing on what's currently happening in your marriage.
This "non-regressive" approach does not deny the impact of the past - but you don't necessarily have to go back into the past to resolve it. You can work on the past where it's surfacing in (causing or triggered by) the present. This gives meaning and utility to your current difficulties and provides an active way to work on your present and past simultaneously. You don't have to put your marriage on hold while you rework your past; often your current situation won't permit this, and there's no guarantee this will resolve your present difficulties anyway. When working on the past in the present, you're working directly on your current problem, too, so what's of immediate concern to you - your marriage - often improves. You don't have to decide from the outset what's causing what.
As mentioned above, when people think about going beyond a superficial view of marriage they often think about unresolved childhood issues. This is another place where we've "mistaken a part for the whole." Fifty years ago, child development specialists recognized the importance of infants' drive to bond (attach) to their caregivers. Unfortunately we've erroneously assumed this is the dominant and overriding drive for children and adults and popularized the image of infants being helpless and terrified when no one is there to comfort them. We've applied this same image to marriage and concluded our partner is supposed to soothe us and not do things that make us insecure. However, radically new information emerging from infant research over the last decade shows that infants have remarkable resilience and are able to regulate some of their emotional equilibrium by three months of age. (Chapter 12, which discusses self-soothing, explains these findings.) We've ignored how taking care of your own feelings is an integral part of maintaining a relationship and how it fuels attachment and self-direction. We've reduced adults to infants, reduced infants to a frail ghost of their resilience, and reduced marriage to providing safety, security, and compensation for childhood disappointments. In other words, we've eliminated from marriage those things that fuel our essential drives for autonomy and freedom. Common notions of interdependence emphasize our neediness but not our strengths.
There are many ways you can make sense of and respond to patterns and events that surface in your marriage. Our failure to understand the basic ways intimacy and sexuality ebb and flow within marriage has contributed to confusion about how best to use common developments that arise. You can respond in ways that use common "problems" for optimal gain or you can act in ways that increase problems and minimize any benefits derived.
I believe society has approached marriage the same as we have the environment (until recently): tried to bend it to our will and suffered for it. Today we recognize that the earth's ecology is a complex system of processes that operates as a whole with rules of its own. My twenty years of experience working with couples suggests that marriage operates similarly - if we have the wisdom to recognize and heed its operating principles.
We don't usually think of marriage as a system with its own rules. Like the earth's ecosystem, marriage can operate - more or less - according to whatever template we choose to place on it. ("Wounded child" theory is an example of a template. In this book you'll learn another.) The rules of a system are not mandates - we can bend them by ignorance or design, usually at our own peril. The more we try to force our marriage (or our planet) into a mode of operation that is antithetical to its natural processes, the more likely that it will reach a point of imbalance from which it cannot recover. But it's also possible to remove the blinders of conventional wisdom, discover the processes that govern intimacy and sexuality within emotionally committed relationships, and act accordingly.
What I offered Ken and Karen, and what I'll offer you, is a way to harness the natural processes of sex and intimacy and use marriage in radically new ways. In retrospect you can see that Karen and Ken used their marriage to help them become people capable of having the sex and intimacy they wanted.
Not only do sex and intimacy seem to operate according to some core principles, but they seem also to create predictable sticking points in marriages. Moreover, these patterns can be harnessed in fairly reliable ways that enhance sex, intimacy, personal development, and marital satisfaction.
In other words, marital problems arise for more reasons than our mistaken view of marriage. Mistaken beliefs create unnecessary marital problems, but some marital difficulties aren't "problems" at all. They're part of marriage that our ill-fitting beliefs don't prepare us to handle effectively. These issues inevitably arise because they are part of the evolution of the partners involved and their relationship. These "problems" are tied into a core process of human development that weaves through marriage. This process is called differentiation (which I'll explain shortly). How you handle differentiation gives your marriage its form and flavor. The issues and "problems" of differentiation are inevitable how you handle them makes the difference.
I have compassion for anyone who tries to understand how differentiation controls the course of marriage. This path causes people to discard lots of beliefs; that's the price of understanding something drastically new. The gain is that you can stop feeling inadequate about common developments in your marriage and use them in entirely new ways to achieve much better solutions. I, too, have gone through the painful process of feeling like an outsider with my professional colleagues. And I know some felt I was acting superior and condescending because I would not conform to prevailing ideas. My wife Ruth and I also went through all of this on a more personal level, we've had to discover differentiation by living through it and seeing how things worked for us.
How could society lose sight of the natural processes of sex and intimacy in emotionally committed relationships? Unfortunately quite easily, since we've hardly looked for them. Only in the last decade have sex therapists and marital therapists seriously attempted to integrate these two fields and to explore how marital sex and intimacy operate as a sophisticated system. This is no simple task because the foundations and working concepts of these fields are fundamentally different and often at odds. I say this from experience, because I've devoted the last ten years of my professional life to accomplishing this very thing.
But what makes this difficult also makes it powerful and useful to do. I found fundamental inaccuracies in contemporary sex therapy by looking at it through the lens of marital therapy and systems theory. Then I used sexuality as a window to see the gaps and inconsistencies in marital therapy. And in case you wondering, "What makes him think he's discovered how sex and intimacy operate as a system in marriage?" the answer comes from exactly this process. The clinical approach you'll learn here is the first application of differentiation theory from family therapy (developed by psychiatrist Murray Bowen) to problems of sex and intimacy in marriage. In Chapters 2 through 5 I'll share the details of my discoveries with you. But let me point out something now.
In twenty years as a sex and marital therapist, I've seen people achieve levels of intimacy and sexual satisfaction my training never prepared me to expect. In integrating the fields of sex and marital therapy, my clinical approach has pioneered the use of sexuality as a vehicle for personal development. Previously, sex therapy aimed mainly at curing dysfunctions and low desire. Reducing sex to issues of performance pressure, misinformation, and inhibition destroys the possibility of using it to make yourself grow. Resolving common marital problems requires personal development rather than skills and techniques.
What does using sex for personal development look like? Remember Karen's discomfort tasting her own vaginal lubrication but her willingness to taste Ken's penis? Or her rejection of her own body as unattractive? We used both these issues to help her enhance her self-esteem and integrity. We also used them to resolve the past in the present Karen took these as opportunities to work on her lifelong pattern of self-rejection. She also illustrated another pattern of personal growth. I've seen lots of clients whose fantasies change as they grow. I've even helped them work the process backwards using their fantasies to trigger self-confrontation and growth, just as we did with Karen tasting herself. Ken showed a similar usage of sex for growth when he realized that always making Karen have her orgasm first was selfish, and that letting her do him was an act of integrity that challenged his self-worth. (Highly erotic sexual styles of doing, being done, and fucking are discussed in Chapter 10.)
Revolutionizing your marriage isn't as simple as learning new touch techniques, improving your communication skills, or rescheduling your time priorities. It involves growing enough to be capable of the wonderful marriage you might think springs simply from love. I hope to do two things in this book: share with you information that's helped many people find meaning and possibility in unexpected places, and offer you the opportunity to find value in what is problematic in your relationship.
As you saw with Karen and Ken, sex can be used as a window into who we are. As Karen said, sex is about who we've been, where we came from, and becoming who we can be. And just as they did, you can use your sexuality as the stage on which you play our your life's drama and rewrite your script. They did this by shifting from doing predetermined sexual behaviors in order to feel connected to letting their behavior be determined by their connection. This shift from the familiar "sensation-based" approach to an intimacy-based approach emphasizes the "tone" and depth of connection rather than technique. (We'll discuss ways to do this in Chapters 6 through 10.)
As stated earlier, many marital problems occur even when we have an accurate picture. The more accurate picture simply allows us to anticipate common difficulties and use them to thrive. Accurate understanding makes it easier - but not easy.
The poorly understood processes of differentiation in emotionally committed relationships often give rise to a common pessimistic view that marriage inevitably kills sex and romance. According to the French philosopher Voltaire, divorce was invented about the same time as marriage about two weeks later, to be exact! And playwright Oscar Wilde said that one should always be in love and that's why one should never marry.
My work with couples suggests something entirely different: differentiation doesn't kill love, intimacy, or sex - it just looks like that at some points along the way. If you use your marriage in a particular way (which I'll illustrate throughout this book), it makes you more capable of keeping these alive in a long-term relationship. As my client said, "you don't think your way to a new way of living, you live your way to a new way of thinking."
Marriage is often like Procrustes' famous code of hospitality. Procrustes had a bed for his guests he built the same way we build a marriage: according to his own expectations. Shorter visitors were stretched to fit; taller folks were surgically shortened. Integrity-building processes of marriage are tenacious. Your spouse will try to change you into what he or she thinks you should be, just as you have fine-tuning in mind for your partner. Barbra Streisand once asked, "Why does a woman spend ten years trying to change her husband and then complain, 'You're not the man I married!'" Marriage is the procrustean bed in which we can develop and enhance our psychological and ethical integrity. It can be the cradle of adult development.
This is partly why my approach to therapy is known as the sexual crucible approach. The name describes how it often feels when marriage's classroom is in session. What's an example of a crucible in marriage? How about the fact that your spouse can always force you to choose between keeping your integrity and staying married, between "holding onto yourself" and holding onto your partner. These integrity issues often surface around sex and intimacy about what the two of you will and won't do together. They can just as easily arise over issues about money, parenting, in-laws and lifestyle. The more emotionally enmeshed you and your spouse are fused in my lingo the more you will push this choice right down to the wire. Stay in the marriage or get divorced. The key is not to lose your nerve or get overreactive or locked into an inflexible position. I know that's tough when you think your marriage is about to explode or you're about to sell out your beliefs, preferences, or dreams. But it's actually part of what I think of as the people-growing process in marriage.
There are other crucibles in marriage that embody what Carl Jung said about our realizing our full humanness in the sufferings of our life. There's a reality to long-term relationships that makes all spouses potential heroes: the end result is that one partner buries the other. Our choice is between losing our partner a little every day by withdrawing to lessen death's impact or risking the heartbreak of losing a beloved, cherished partner. Ernest Becker thought heroism was our willingness to persevere in the face of life's meaninglessness. I believe heroism is our willingness to confront life's meanings. Sometimes it's a tossup which is worse: thinking life has no meaning or realizing the meaning it has.
When you're oblivious to ways marriage can operate as a people-growing process, all you see are problems and pathology - and the challenges of marriage will probably defeat you. Your pain will have no meaning except failure and disappointment; no richness, no soul. Spirituality is an attitude that reveals life's meaning through everyday experience; however, don't bother looking for sanctuary in your marriage. Seeking protection from its pains and pleasures misses its purpose: marriage prepares us to live and love on life's terms. It's what Euripides called the "luck" of choosing a marriage that goes well and avoiding one that feels like living "at home in hell."
Facing relationship realities like these produces the personal integrity necessary for intimacy, enduring eroticism, and a lifetime loving marriage. Integrity receives a lot of attention in this book because a satisfying marriage cannot be created without it. How is integrity relevant to marriage? Integrity is the ability to face the realities I just mentioned. It's living according to your own values and beliefs in the face of opposition. It is also the ability to change your values, beliefs, and behavior when your well-considered judgment or concern for others dictates such a modification. Putting your partner's goals on par with your own and delaying your agenda accordingly takes (and makes) integrity.
This is exactly what Ken and Karen did after they returned home after our sessions. It wasn't always smooth sailing and their marriage wasn't perfect. But together they achieved a level of intimate erotic connection that neither had experienced or imagined themselves capable of having. They had to get beyond the common, but mistaken, belief that being in their fifties meant they were past their sexual prime; their experience demonstrated that they were just reaching theirs. But they had to do more than just give up misguided information that everyone believes.
Karen kept hoping Ken would dress nicer and act in ways she found sexually attractive but he didn't. Having faced her own integrity issues and stretched her self-image by taking off her clothes and putting on a necklace, as well as tasting her own body, she felt new personal pride that made her unwilling to settle for the way things were. Eventually Karen made it clear that she wasn't going to keep nagging and hoping Ken would change, but she also wasn't going to be eager to have sex with him if things continued as they had. At first Ken complained that Karen was trying to make him into someone he wasn't, but Karen maintained that he was entitled to be who he was and she was entitled to her preferences.
When Ken realized Karen was serious and this could cripple their "honeymoon," he bought himself a silk shirt - three in fact. And to his surprise and delight, he liked wearing them. It was really to their mutual delight, because Karen not only liked to see Ken in them, she also recognized and respected how much self-confrontation went into Ken's decision. She knew more was involved than his caring enough about her and their relationship to do it. She realized how much Ken had to face his own lack of self-worth and stretch his self-image to get comfortable wearing the shirts. (It was another example of the way integrity and self-validated intimacy coincide in marriage.) Their relationship blossomed in and out of the bedroom.
And rather than feeling like he had capitulated to Karen, Ken felt proud of himself. He could have dodged his anxieties and insecurities and tried to cover them by demanding that Karen "accept him as he is." Understanding differentiation (as I'll explain in the next chapter) helped Ken confront himself rather than accuse Karen of trying to tamper with him. He could see she was merely holding onto herself and maintaining her right to her preferences. It let him shift from seeing his marriage as a procrustean bed to their springboard to adult sexual development.
Couples don't always start from the point Karen and Ken did when they came to see me. They were in their fifties and had struggled through many hard years together in their marriage. Even they had difficulty accepting how long it takes for a person to mature sexually, wishing they'd done this in previous years. But if we had we seen Ken and Karen in their late thirties they might have looked more like Bill and Joan, another couple who came to see me. Bill and Joan were struggling (and avoiding) issues that younger couples characteristically face. (Older couples face the same issues if they've dodged these for years.)
In our initial meeting, Bill blurts out his worst fears about their marriage. "We got married for the wrong reasons. I really wasn't ready to get married. I let her push me into it." Joan, twisted like a pretzel on my couch, immediately adopts a "Don't blame me again for that, it's your fault too!" expression.
For several seconds it's not clear where things are headed. Then I realize tears are streaming down Joan's cheeks. "Damn! I promised myself I wouldn't cry!" she stammers, trying to gain control, "I've…I've always known he never chose me. He just didn't want to give me up. I haven't been able to face it."
Bill turns beet red. "I told you I wasn't ready to get married! You know I've always been afraid to make decisions!"
The session seems to be rapidly deteriorating. And as usually happens, opportunity emerges out of nowhere. I speak to both of them, but I look at Bill. My tone is serious but not hopeless. "If you want to get over your fear of making decisions, then maybe nothing's wrong. That's exactly what your relationship is going to push you to do. I'm curious about why you're defensive about not being ready to get married and marrying for the wrong reasons. Many highly successful marriages start out that way."
Bill lowered his guard and looked interested, "What do you mean?"
“Is anybody really be ready to get married? I doubt it. Nobody's ready for marriage. Marriage makes you ready for marriage!”
Bill and Joan are finally facing the secret they thought would blow up their marriage. Much to their surprise, the long feared devastation doesn't materialize. Instead, there's a reasonable answer and a potential solution to what they thought was an insolvable problem. Bill seems so locked into their pattern of interaction that he hardly notices Joan has stopped crying. She seems to see new hope - but no guarantee - of getting chosen. Instead of berating herself and Bill, she is attentive and composed.
Bill rests his elbows on his knees with his chin in his palms. His fingers hide his facial expression from me; he's used to masking his feelings. He seems surprised that the browbeating he anticipates from Joan is not forthcoming. He doesn't know quite what to make of the fact that she is sitting quietly beside him, eager to proceed.
Why did I tell Bill that highly successful relationships are often launched for the "wrong" reasons? We get married for wrong reasons because we haven't matured enough for right reasons to exist yet. Struggling with wrong reasons for getting married can produce right reasons to stay married.
What are some wrong reasons to get together? Bill and Joan had a few:
- Both of them had low self-esteem.
- Bill was afraid of being lonely.
- Joan feared meeting the world as a single person.
- Bill needed someone to take care of him.
- Joan needed someone to care for.
- They both needed to be needed.
- They both believed two people can live more efficiently than one.
I've found stunning clarity in every couple's wrong reasons: they show us who we are, where we've been and who've we been with, how we're with our partner now, and where we think we're headed. And more importantly, wrong reasons provide the means to get there.
Troubled couples are often saddled by the illusion that their marriage has gone bad for simple reasons and that the problems can be solved with simple solutions. We like to believe that "communication problems" underlie most relationship difficulties because we welcome the idea we can literally talk our way out of anything. We love the fantasy that we can "understand" and "express" our way out of our dilemmas.
But this is not what happens. Instead, in unwitting partnership, couples unconsciously create emotional gridlock. Bill and Joan's relationship was like an intricate Chinese puzzle: one's movement was blocked by the other's equally stymied position. Joan complained that Bill drained her energy by having one crisis after another. Bill was furious that Joan wasn't "supportive." He demanded to be "number one" in her life. She found his neediness unattractive. He became more insecure and accelerated his demands - until they were trapped by their interlocking frustrating and frustrated needs. (In the next chapter I'll show you how Bill and Joan worked this out.)
After seeing this go on repeatedly in my office - and my own home - I've concluded that some dilemmas aren't meant to be "fixed." All problems aren't meant to be "smoothed." The solutions we seek sometimes come from living through them. We spin intricate webs until we have no way around them. We can escape the situation we've created (temporarily), but we can't escape ourselves. Our self-made crises are custom-tailored, painstakingly crafted, and always fit perfectly. We construct emotional knots until, eventually, we are willing to go through them. It may sound farfetched, but it's true, that sexual dysfunctions are blessings to couples who use them well. In like fashion, we sometimes create situations that ask to risk our marriage in order to receive its bounty.
Approached in this light, committed relationships become epic dramas of heroism rather than soap operas. The suffering and strife inherent in marriage are as purposeful as its delights. Hugh and Gail Prather write in Notes to Each Other:
Did I pick the right person? This question inverts the starting and ending points. We do not pick our perfect match because we ourselves are not perfect. The universe hands us a flawless diamond in the rough. Only if we are willing to polish off every part of ourselves that cannot join do we end up with a soul mate.
This polishing process in marriage is what I referred to earlier as differentiation. In a nutshell, differentiation is the process by which we become more uniquely ourselves by maintaining ourselves in relationship with those we love. It's the process of grinding off our rough edges through the normal abrasions of long-term intimate relationships. Differentiation is the key to not holding grudges and recovering quickly from arguments, to tolerating intense intimacy and maintaining your priorities in the midst of daily life. It lets you expand your sexual relationship and rekindle desire and passion in marriages that have grown cold. It is the pathway to the hottest and most loving sex you'll ever have with your spouse. Differentiation brings tenderness, generosity, and compassion - all the traits of good marriages.
Differentiation isn't a trait, however. It's a process - a lifelong process of taking our own "shape." Chapter 2 is devoted to explaining differentiation in detail. It doesn't surprise me that people have successful marriages in spite of our distortions and misguided beliefs - our will to grow and differentiate takes us beyond the obstacles we put in our own way. Differentiation involves one of nature's basic drive springs, a fundamental life force rooted in the evolution of our species. In subsequent chapters we'll explore how differentiation weaves through the various facets of marriage in the most subtle, intricate, and beautiful ways - including the most exquisitely intense sex you've ever had. You're about to discover that sex, intimacy, and marriage are more elegant processes than you ever dared imagine.