Dr. David Schnarch is a therapist and recipient of the professional standard of excellence award from the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists. He is the author of two books, "Constructing the Sexual Crucible" and "Passionate Marriage," and co-founder of the Marriage and Family Health Center in Evergreen, Colo. The center sponsors workshops and public lectures offering Schnarch's unusual approach to marital counseling. He recently spoke with Third Age about his approach to strengthening marital intimacy.
Question: How is your approach to marital counseling different from traditional approaches now in vogue?Answer: Our approach focuses on people's adult strengths rather than their childhood wounds because what's good and solid in us is what can change us - and our relationships. We help people stop trying to get acceptance from their partner and instead finally understand and accept themselves, because that's what makes it safe to love. We don't focus on communication skills per se because communication is no virtue if you can't stand the message or you can't stand truly being known. We focus on developing self-soothing and self-validation because these abilities let us speak and hear difficult truths.
Question: What do you mean by self-soothing and self-validation?
Answer: I'm referring to our ability to validate our own perceptions, feelings and self-worth, and soothe our own heartache when the inevitable marital disappointments, frustrations and misunderstandings occur. These aspects of our "relationship with our self" determine how we handle the good and bad times in our relationships with others, how intimate we can be, how much we can afford to love someone else, and whether we feel like we're losing our self or even just bailing out when the relationship becomes more important or more difficult.
Question: You use the term "marriage" in a unique way. What do you mean?
Answer: I use the term "marriage" to refer to any emotionally committed relationship. Marriage creates a complex system, and part of loving and living with someone involves dealing with difficult conflicts - where simple solutions just won't work. These conflicts will surface around issues like kids, money, in-laws and most especially intimacy.
What makes these issues unique is that common solutions either don't work or they destroy sex. . . . One partner's behavior dramatically affects the other. For instance, you can't "agree to disagree" about sex, and "compromise and negotiation" usually destroy desire and passion.
Question: Do you see other problems in our common beliefs about marriage?
Answer: Although people usually assume that marital problems are caused by their past or "what's wrong with them," I have found that many common beliefs destroy relationships, such as "sex is a natural function," and "compromise and negotiation are the key to marriage." A particularly destructive development is the expectation and demand for empathy, understanding, acceptance and validation from your partner.
There's nothing wrong with validation and acceptance, per se, but our dependence on them - especially when our relationship is contentious - creates two things: First, it destroys intimacy; and second, it creates emotional gridlock and freezes the relationship because both partners are dependent on validation from the other.
Question: Why do you say that most people don't reach their romantic potential until their fifth or sixth decade of life?
Answer: Society mistakenly assumes that adolescence is the sexual prime of life, because we commonly confuse genital prime with sexual prime. For intimacy during sex, the more mature person is usually a better partner. Men and women often become more sexually compatible as they mature.
Question: Why do you say that Third Agers bring more to the experience of sex and intimacy? More of what?
Answer: More selfhood, more capacity for meaningfulness. The more "self" you have to disclose and the greater your ability to disclose it, the greater your capacity for intimacy. When you've been around for five or six decades, you know yourself - for better and worse. When you know who you are and you stop apologizing for yourself. Third Agers are more likely to recognize that they won't live forever, and neither will their partners. True friends, intimate friends, are to be cherished, and that's one of the most powerful aphrodisiacs there is.