Traveling the Pathways to Intimacy: Some Useful Tools for Your Journey by John S. Shealy, PhD

Section I. The Basic Tools of Relationship
A. Understanding Ourselves
1. Stuff in the attic, stuff in the cellar. (Family of Origin/John Bradshaw)
2. Deciding where we're going and how we're getting there. (7 Habits/Stephen Covey)
B. Sharing with Our Partner
1. I'm listening.
2. May I please get a word in here?
3. My friends understand me. Why can't you? (Communication/Deborah Tannen)
4. Looking and listening beyond the words. (5 Love Languages/Gary Chapman)
5. That was good for me.Was it good for you, Dear?

Section II. Going for the Brass Ring
A. Who has time for relationship? (Voluntary Simplicity/Duane Elgin)
B. In love and loving it. (Road Less Traveled/Scott Peck)
C. Can I really depend on you? (Hugh & Gayle Prather)
D. Let's grow mindfully together. (David Richo)

Section III. Relationship as Spiritual Path
A. You and I are indeed One. (Stephen & Ondrea Levine)
B. Relationship as a People-Growing Machine (David Schnarch)

The following material was complied for use in a variety of interactive workshops for both committed intimate partners as well as for singles interested in establishing enduring partnerships. This material is the fruit of my efforts at integrating my personal experience with marriage, my work with couples in psychotherapy and information I've gathered from many wonderful books and various courses over the years. As you will see, many of the articles are written around books that my clients have found especially helpful over the years, and I have included their titles and publishers for your later reference.

I am offering this material to anyone seeking to deepen their understanding of this wonderful dance we know as "intimacy" regardless of their current relationship situation. While my focus is primarily on traditional, heterosexual marriage, the topics discussed apply to any "committed, adult, emotionally-connected" couple regardless of sexual orientation.

This booklet is intended to help get you started on a journey to a more healthy relationship. It is not intended to serve as an all-inclusive self-help manual. My hope is that you will find this material interesting enough to continue exploring the topics that most closely relate to your current struggle, confusion, frustration or pain. While there is certainly overlap among the topics covered, the material seemed to naturally break into four sections. The information included addresses the basics skills of interpersonal interaction and moves to a level of commitment to relationship which is rarely found in our culture.

The material in first section addresses the importance of self understanding and values clarification in establishing a solid foundation for relationship. The second section focuses on the critical skills of interpersonal communication and intimate exchange in their many varied forms. The third section offers guidance on moving a relationship beyond the level of pleasant co-existing into a place of sincere commitment to personal and spiritual growth. The last section offers encouragement for committing to seeking the highest potential of relationship, relationship as spiritual path.

I suggest you begin working with the topics that address the most obvious problems or concerns in your relationship and once you reach a comfortable level of resolution with these problems, move along to more subtle issues. Remember, relationship is always a work in progress so try to be both gentle and disciplined in your approach.

Several things will be helpful in getting the most from this material: an open mind, a good sense of humor, curiosity, patience, an attitude of forgiveness and appreciation toward your partner and yourself, and acceptance that your problems may take time to resolve. Growth and progress are often gradual, but the results can have life-altering effects. I hope that you will enjoy the journey!

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Part One:: The Basic Tools of Relationship

A. Understanding Ourselves

1. Stuff in the Attic, Stuff in the Cellar.

As our very first intimate relationships are within our family- of-origin, it seems reasonable to start with a discussion of common family issues. How we experience the early years of our life can shape our future in powerful ways. We can leave our family with unconscious motivations and conditioning which can hinder our growth and our freedom to act from our highest wisdom. Understanding how our past has impacted us allows us to better direct our future.

Family Systems Theory is, in my opinion, one of the best and easiest-to-understand theories relating our childhood experiences to how we act as adults. There's a wide variety of excellent material available today including a host of books and audio and video tapes. With some dedicated effort and some time invested in reading, we can begin to figure out where we came from and how our early experience is shaping our life and our intimate relationships today.

One of my favorite books on this subject is John Bradshaw's On the Family. From Bradshaw's perspective, we all have some left-over baggage we carry away from our families. It's not that all families are "bad" or "abusive", simply that none are "perfect". And even if they were, the world isn't and we would still have a hard time getting along with everybody. Imagine trying to adjust to the real world if you never had a disappointment or experienced any pain or losses. The argument goes that whether positive or negative, unless we are familiar with our scars and our wounds, and our strengths and our trophies, they will influence our life without our knowledge or control. We miss the negative, so we can't fix it. We miss the positive, and we can't appreciate our blessings and use them in seeking health. We are left unaware of our "true selves" and carry our excess baggage everywhere into every relationship.

Bradshaw proposes that there is great value in examining our individual experiences within our family. He encourages looking at the mix of our personality with the personalities of other members of the household. We can explore how our motivations may have been shaped by "family rules" and the "unspoken expectations" of others. With this self-understanding, we can take control of our motivations and direct them where we choose not simply respond to some vague ghosts or echoes from the past.

I see such lack of self-understanding played out often in marital problems. One partner's "shoulds and oughts" will clash with the other's. Both partners hold fast to their notion of reality is "the reality", and their way is "the only way" to do whatever. It is always difficult to merge two sets of family rules into one that both can live with. With a little insight into where the "shoulds" came from, each can begin to "give a little" and begin to accept some of the other's viewpoint. A shift can then occur from defensiveness to curiosity, which is the first step to growth within the marriage and resolution of the conflict.

I find that a little understanding can go a long way in dealing with interpersonal problems that stem from old roles and ways of behaving that were "inherited" from our family of origin. Give it some thought. Maybe check out some of Bradshaw's or another author's self-help material on "Inner Child" or "Family of Origin" issues. Remember, it's not the stuff we know about ourselves that causes us problems, it's the stuff that we don't know.

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2. Deciding where we're going and how we're getting there.

In my work with couples, I often see painful and frustrating struggles around issues of values and life goals. Very often neither partner has a good understanding of their own, let alone their partner's value system nor have they spent much time working on life goals together. It is as though these questions were never considered; each just assumed there were no important differences between them. At the time of marriage or other commitment, each simply hitched to the communal wagon and began pulling. All went along fairly well until they came to the first crossroads and both "clearly knew the correct way to go" and the wagon began to pull apart without their even noticing. The normal "push and pull" of long-term relationships has begun. The trust and illusion of "two becoming one" is beginning to shatter and feelings of comfort are being replaced by feelings of loneliness and isolation. Sound familiar?

Stepping back a minute, it seems reasonable that two people coming from two different places, two different families and in some cases, two different cultures would have very different "assumptions" about things: what is right and "proper," what roles a man can fill and what roles a woman can fill, how kids are raised, how extended family members are treated. And more generally, what's all this life stuff about anyway? And how do we go about figuring it all out?

A book I have found very helpful for both individuals and couples dealing with the topic of personal values and life goals is: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Covey encourages the reader to look seriously and "long-term" at their life through a number of "exercises" such as "writing your own funeral announcement" and developing a "mission statement" much like corporations do to keep themselves on track. I encourage couples to work through these first on their own, and then to get together and work through them again as a couple. This process provides an excellent opportunity for getting to know each other's values and setting goals for the relationship that are comfortable for both.

"The Seven Habits" that Covey outlines are very practical and useful in developing all types of goals and in keeping yourself working toward them. By having a clear understanding of where the relationship and both partners are headed, much of the frustration and feelings of distrust and abandonment associated with confusion over "which way do we go?" can be avoided.

You know, a wagon generally pulls easier if both horses are headed in the same direction. Think about giving yourself and your relationship time to work on clarifying your values and setting some long- and short-term goals for your relationship. The hours you spend now may save you years of pointless struggle later on, or may just keep the wagon and the whole farm in one piece.

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Part Two: Sharing with Our Partner

Interpersonal communication is a complex subject and we begin by looking at two of the basics: active listening and assertiveness and then move to discussions of more subtle nature. Recent research offers some interesting data on differences in how men and women function in conversation, how the genders often process information differently and have different priorities.

The non-verbal languages of love we speak and hear are grounded in our early experiences of feeling loved and being appreciated by others. Understanding our love languages can be tremendously helpful in establishing a flow of give and take within relationship.

The sexual dance between partners is one which seems to bring as much misery as bliss and is an area I strongly encourage any couple to spend some time exploring. This is an area where a little knowledge, curiosity and effort can pay off in a major way. Often sex is an area where many unspoken fears and resentments act out their energy with devastating results. When entered into with clarity and playfulness, sex can be the glue that holds a relationship together during trying times as well as a strong foundation of deepening intimacy.

1. I'm listening.

Don't we all have people in our lives that at one time or another we just wish would shut up and listen! If so, it's a safe bet that this same someone has had these thoughts about us at some point too! It's generally easier to talk than to really listen and carefully attend to another.

Active listening is an important skill to learn and practice. To really hear what another person is saying with their words, tone of voice, eyes, body and attitude is work. But without first listening, any conversation is rather meaningless. They're just two people with separate voices trying to get two separate points across. Or, they're just burning up time with chatter. For intimacy to grow, we need to listen and to hear as much of our partner's message as we can before shifting into our ever-ready "talk" mode. We have to learn a little patience.

To really listen we need to fully focus our attention on the other person, listening for their opinions, feelings and wishes while keeping our need to express our own "in check" for the time being. It may be helpful to break the process of active listening into three stages: (1) prepare (2) listen and clarify, and (3) acknowledge.

- Prepare yourself by becoming aware of your feelings and needs. Are you calm enough to listen patiently, will you invest the time and energy to hear them out? If not, plan another time when you feel you can.

- Listen carefully to their perspective, hear their needs, wants and feelings. If you are at all unclear, ask them to expand or to clarify with more information. Ask related direct questions until you feel comfortable with your level of understanding.

- Acknowledge them by giving honest, unemotional feedback on what you heard them say and on what you understand about their feelings, wants and views. Then, express your feelings about what they shared with you. What emotions did this conversation bring up for you? Let them know how they have touched or effected you. Finally, show your appreciation for their effort and encourage more of the same.

These guidelines may seem very simple yet most people find it difficult to put them into practice without first making a conscious commitment to do so. It may all begin by noticing how you listen during our everyday exchanges. Do you listen with part of our attention while developing a quick-fire response to what's being said. Or, do you take a breath, relax and let yourself get lost in the other's sharing without a thought to having "the right answer" the instant you can spit it out.

Remember, intimate communication is not about having "right answers" or simply "problem solving." It's about growing in the process of sharing with each other. So give yourself a break. Relax. Listen. Understand. Then respond from a position of concern for your partner's feelings and opinions.

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2. May I please get a word in here?

One of the major "nuts and bolts" skills of really effective conversation is assertiveness or how to get at least some of what you want without beating up the other guy in the process.

Assertiveness can be thought of as an attitude or way of acting in a situation where you need to, (1) express your feeling, (2) ask for what you want, or (3) say no to something or someone.

Contrary to what some believe, assertiveness is not being "rude", "pushy" or being a "bully." It is not even being "selfish" or "disrespectful of others". These descriptions better fit with "aggressive" which is stepping on other people to get what you want without regard for their feelings. Assertiveness on the other hand, is simply standing up for yourself and your legitimate rights while showing respect for the rights and feelings of the other guy.

The other extreme of aggressive is "passive" or not standing up for yourself and not showing yourself the respect you deserve. Obviously, this is not healthy either and will also interfere with effective communication. Both of these "non-assertive" habits prevent honest exchanges and only lead to more problems rather than solutions.

Many people find they are comfortable being assertive in many situations but have problems "finding their courage" in others. Expressing our needs within an intimate relationship is often one of these difficult areas. We may feel that the stakes are too high, "my partner will get mad if I take a stand," or too low, "there's no point in going any further with this, he/she will never give an inch on this one." When we do this, we give up on ourselves and this often results in feelings of anger or resentment that can then feed a destructive process such as depression, venting rage on others (e.g. your kids, your partner or your pets) or being passive-aggressive (e.g. spitting in someone's soup when they aren't looking when you really want to spit in their eye). All for the sake of avoiding a little honest talk between friends!

Often we may not know our own feelings about an issue and this contributes to our discomfort. We may feel angry or threatened by something and not know why. We may be afraid we'll hurt the other person without meaning to. Just being patient with ourselves and taking some time to sort through our feelings and reach some level of self understanding will allow us to deal more assertively with our partner. It is important to avoid venting misplaced anger or becoming defensive during these uncomfortable times. Just stay with the feeling. "I feel uncomfortable" is a great place to start an exchange between two people. Be as open and honest as possible and focus only on the current issue.

So, assert yourself within your intimate relationship, let your feelings and needs be heard! After all, you have rights too! For further information on this topic, check out: "Don't Say Yes When You Want to Say No" by Herbert Fensterheim and Jean Baer, Dell Paperbacks.

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3. My friends understand me. Why can't you?

Research has revealed interesting differences in the how men and women react to the words and process involved in intimate conversation. Of course, none of the following statements will be true for all men or for all women. I am simply exploring common stereotypes of verbal behavior seen in our culture. I hope that you will take from it what is helpful to you and simply leave the rest. I will draw from the best-selling book, You Just Don't Understand Me: Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., published by Morrow and Co., NY, 1990

Tannen's research as a sociolinguist focuses on how common differences in socialization between men and women in our society affect the very complicated process of conversation. She proposes that the way boys are raised leads to a more defensive and competitive style while common ways of rearing girls leads them to focus more on peace-making and cooperation. It is as if men and women are raised in different cultures even within the same family. The "rules of conversation" are different. This may not be a big problem but nobody knows what the other guys rules are! Without meaning to, both partners assume the other is playing by the same rules. Tannen's research and everyday observation by any interested party suggests otherwise. Just watch an average couple (or yourself) in heated debate about a commonplace issue. Do they always act like they are on the same page or even in the same book? Miscommunication between the sexes is so common we may just assume it's unavoidable. If we began to understand each other, what would the stand-up comedians do for material? What a boring place the world would become. Hey, just kidding! We're nowhere close to fixing the communication problems between the sexes, just working to keep our head above water seems like a full-time job!

How many times have you found yourself in an argument with an intimate partner without being able to say just what all the fuss is about. It may have started out innocently enough with some well-meaning comment by one of you that was misinterpreted, blown out of proportion, turned over the emotional bucket and your partner suddenly became the focus of your anger or the source of your pain and hurt feelings. What is interesting about Tannen's perspective of this common situation is her finding that both partners may have equally valid conversational styles. Nobody is at fault! It's not a case of one being "right" or "better" than the other. It's just a misunderstanding and a lack of appreciation and respect for the differences that Tannen traces back to our culture and common ways of bringing up our kids.

This "no-fault" approach will hopefully make it easier for couples to cooperatively begin the complex process of understanding what emotions are behind their words so they can address them directly without fear of blame or embarrassment. From this view, it is not that "men don't communicate well" or that "women are just too sensitive for straight talk." Both are simply reacting to their respective training and attempting to play out roles they didn't know they were playing.

Some of the couples that I work with have found this book to be very useful in getting past long-standing communication blocks, senseless anger and hurt feelings. It is not a cure-all for dysfunctional relationships. It simply offers help for those wanting to better understand how they and their partner can see the same words, spoken at the same time in the same conversation in such incredibly different ways, and both be right!

If some of the problems described here sound more than a little familiar, I encourage you to invest the energy needed to work through this best-selling book. Remember, a little understanding goes a long way.

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4. Looking and Listening Beyond the Words.

It is easy to understand that effective communication skills are vital if we are to deepen our level of intimacy with our partner. We most often think of verbal communication in this regard but in his book “The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate,” Dr. Gary Chapman makes a strong case for the importance of a broader, more inclusive form of communication. The ways in which we naturally show our love to another and the ways in which we naturally feel loved by another are often ignored in our effort to connect. As Dr. Chapman illustrates, when we don’t have a clear understanding of this more subtle form of intimate communication, we can find ourselves working harder and harder to experience love in our relationship while all the while slipping backwards into greater and greater frustration for both parties.

It's like two people speaking different languages trying desperately to connect more deeply by speaking more loudly. The words are the same only the volume and effort applied have changed. Each partner can never get enough of what they really don't want so both come to see pretty soon that they're giving more and more and getting less and less appreciation in return. The reward for this futile effort is an ever widening intimacy gap. The very opposite of what both are working so hard to accomplish.

The resulting frustration and feelings of isolation this cycle can produce often lead to an ending of the relationship. All because of a simple misunderstanding. Both are offering what each feels are loving actions, both are seeking loving actions of a different form. It's clearly time to learn how to effectively communicate love in a language that each partner understands.

The analogy of languages and dialects within languages carries the message of Dr. Chapman's book very well. While there are five typical patterns in his model, there are many variations within the patterns and many of us are bi- or even trilingual. Many if not most of us, have a couple of languages that we naturally speak well and perhaps some that we speak in a limited manner. The more we understand about our own and our partner’s love languages, the more effective we can be at showing our love and commitment and feeling loved in our relationship.

Dr. Chapman proposes that the communication patterns of love can be fit into five basic categories: (1)Words of Affirmation: words of encouragement, kindness, and appreciation. (2) Quality Time: time spent together giving each other focused attention, having quality conversations, doing interesting activities together. (3) Receiving Gifts: large and small signs of being thought of, not necessarily expensive gifts, just the act of thoughtful giving, the gift of self, making sacrifices for your partner, being there when needed. (4) Acts of Service: washing the dishes, working hard at your job, making a meal, washing and ironing the clothes, keeping the cars or yard up. (5) Physical Touch: holding hands, having sexual intercourse, touching one another as you pass by in the normal flow of activities, giving foot and back rubs.

Dr. Chapman uses examples that just about anyone who has been in a committed relationship for more than a year or two (i.e. past the “in love and lust” phase) can easily recognize. The book is a quick read and one that I highly recommend for couples who find themselves working hard to keep love in their relationship alive but are finding that one or both are suffering from what Dr. Chapman refers to as “an empty love tank.”

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5. That was good for me. Was it good for you,Dear?

Judging from my work with couples, the research I have read and my limited personal experience, sex is surely one of the most powerful areas of intimate relationships. For many, sex serves as a reflection of the overall functioning of the partnership. "If sex is working well for both of us, it must mean we're OK". For some of the couples I see in marital therapy, sex seems to be both the chicken and the egg, both the cause and the effect of good and bad feelings. An active, mutually-rewarding sex life can help smooth over minor annoyances and aggravations that otherwise might lead to major arguments.

On the other hand, frustration with sex (e.g. too much, too little, too early, too late, too gentle, too rough, too creative, too boring) can lead to fights and resentments over even the most insignificant of problems. If a couple is getting along in other areas, barring some physical limitations (self-induced or otherwise) sex will commonly be seen as satisfying, if the emotional connection is troubled, their sex life generally follows suit.

Problems with sexual intimacy can take many subtle forms and have roots in the distant past but often result in disinterest by one of both partners. Research showing that twenty-five percent of Americans (one third of women and one fifth of men) suffer from "inhibited sexual desire." It is recognized by sex therapists as the most common sexual problem and is a growing problem among those in their 20's and 30's, in their physical prime of life. Obviously sexual desire for one's partner is not based solely in youthful lust and vitality. Lack of understanding, unrealistic expectations, poor communication, stress and frustration often drain the energy even from young lovers who only months before enjoyed an active and rewarding sex life.

In addition to inhibited sexual desire, research suggests two common sources of disruption in sexual performance in an otherwise healthy couple: alcohol use/abuse and underlying depression. A third common cause is side effects of medications taken for physical problems (e.g. high blood pressure, side effects from medications) that lead to motivational and functional problems with sex. Left untreated, these problems can lead to a cycle of rapidly deteriorating desire and ability to perform. As this is an area most people treat extremely personally, it is one where open honest communication can be the most difficult. Hurt feelings, anger and resentments often lead to performance anxiety where the issue of sex is avoided or only tolerated without emotional investment or intimate sharing. It is often very difficult to break through the defensive walls between partners once this destructive cycle has been running for some time.

Fortunately, there are many options available to a couple seeking to break such a deadlock or to a couple simply looking to add some new excitement to an already satisfying sex life. For many, several sessions of marital therapy or even a "Marriage Encounter Weekend" may offer the greatest hope of working through the issues interfering with their sexual relationship. If the lines of verbal and emotional communication are open and active, a "Couple's Massage" course or similar activity may help reintroduce gentle, caring touch while providing a wonderful release of physical tension for both partners. The bookstores offer a growing number of books aimed at helping couples find long-term sexual happiness. Many of the video stores offer what many consider "soft porn" that seems aimed more at the stereotypical male viewer than at increasing intimate sexual communication and sharing between a couple. For some, such videos might add some spark to a dull situation but for many, such videos only increase feelings of isolation, separateness and dissatisfaction.

On the other hand, there are "video programs" available which address couples' sexual issues in a manner that is respectful of the emotional involvement of a committed relationship and offer some good advice in the "how to" category as well. Some of the best I know of come from a research group at the
University of North Carolina: The Better Sex Video Series. If you’re interested in moving your sex life into even greater intimacy and connection, check out The Secrets of Sacred Sex . Each video costs between $20 to $35 and can be well worth the investment.

A website that has some very helpful information about mature sexual behavior is GoofyFootPress. Their book "Guide to Getting It On" is an easy and fun read with tasteful drawings (not graphic photos) and lots and lots of information... everything you always wanted to know about sex but didn't know who to ask. I would encourage anyone who is interested in perking up the sex life within their relationship to spend some time researching your favorite bookstores and video shops. Perhaps it time to add a few toys to your sex play toolkit as well. You'll find lots of options to choose from at "Good Vibrations." Invite your partner to join you in this search to insure that the materials and toys fit both of your value systems. That way, these purchases will more likely enhance your relationship, not add fuel for further conflict and disappointment. Happy coupling!

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Section II: Going for the Brass Ring

A. Who has time for relationship?

Moving into a higher level of commitment in our relationship obviously requires a greater investment of that rare commodity, time. Without making some often difficult lifestyle changes, our best intentions for setting aside time for working on our relationship will not be met.

Many of the couples I see in therapy report feeling overwhelmed and being constantly stressed out and exhausted. And they often blame each other for these problems. As we explore more deeply, we come to see that the culprits are the couples' lifestyle choices. The material accumulation years of the 20's and 30's rather than coming to a comfortable end, are in many cases extended into the 40's and 50's and beyond. If we expect to move into a space of greater intimacy with our partner, we must shift priorities in this direction. We have to make time for relaxed communication and intimate sharing of our deepest selves.

Often this insight is not well received by those who up to this point, have invested their life in getting more and more of the creature comforts and luxuries which are our culture's obsession. They find it difficult to step off the ladder leading to what's bigger, better, more expensive. However, others respond gratefully to this shift in understanding and are open to cutting back on work and business obligations and scaling down in areas of excess. A handy guide to this liberating process is Duane Elgin's book Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple and Inwardly Rich (William Morrow, New York).

Elgin interviewed a large number of working men and women who have reached a comfortable level of "success" in our society who have simply chosen "to live a more simple lifestyle". These folks share a number of interesting habits and beliefs such as: (1) spending a great deal of time with partners and children; (2) working toward a well-rounded life with regular exercise, emotional growth, taking classes, following spiritual interests; (3) feeling a strong personal connection with nature; (4) having a concern for and a kinship with the world's poor and needy; (5) consuming less, buying fewer clothes, less jewelry; (6) eating less meat and more vegetables; (7) recycling; (8) practicing some form of holistic health care; (9) using less expensive and less damaging forms of transportation like walking, bikes and buses instead of cars or trucks.

It is important to realize that Voluntary Simplicity is not about embracing poverty. It is not giving up on your job or your important commitment. It is not rejecting civilization by living in the woods without modern conveniences, rather it is choosing to invest less energy in selecting, buying and caring for things, making room for deepening self-understanding and intimacy with your partner. And this can be done while maintaining an acceptable level of creature comforts and luxuries in your lifestyle.

Think about it: Less stress and less worry. More walks and hikes in the woods. Less TV and more books. Fewer times eating out and more simple healthy meals at home. Fewer objects and unhealthy habits and more room to add new interests and activities. Not a bad sounding deal, huh? And your relationship will thank you for it. For another resource on this topic, click here. For a recent interview with the author, click here.

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B. In love and loving it.

A great deal of time and money is spent on maintaining the illusion of "being in love." We watch romantic movies, read romantic books, are fascinated by the romantic conquests and entanglements of stars and sports figures. Love is often presented as some bewitching power that makes all things possible, all pains not only bearable but somehow worthwhile and meaningful. While this overly-romantic notion of love may be appealing on some level, in reality striving to keep this illusion alive leads to frustration and disappointment. Perhaps worst of all, chasing this illusion costs us the opportunity of moving beyond our biological drives and the "thrill of the chase" to an actively growing intimate relationship.

When the "honeymoon is over", we realize developing intimacy and keeping love alive is a difficult challenge. At this point we must shift from an easy and passionate "in-love" to a more difficult and often frightening "loving." We begin to move beyond our biological drives and toward true emotional intimacy.

The experience of being intimate and vulnerable with another person is often frightening. Pushing beyond our usual comfort level usually means some anxiety and discomfort. We may retreat from this task and simply build walls to keep us safe. This "safety" only leaves us feeling shutout, cutoff and empty. We may try to fill our emptiness with distracting and unhealthy habits that only deepen our sense of isolation. In our confusion we blame our partner for our own emptiness because, "he/she isn't making us happy anymore." Then we can leave (or worse yet storm out of) the relationship and seek another partner where we repeat the same pattern with the next partner until we catch on that the problem's not "them," the problem is based in our misunderstanding of how healthy relationships work.

One of my favorite books, The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, contains a wonderful chapter on love. Peck proposes that in a mature, healthy relationship, rather than "fall hopeless and powerlessly in-love", an active choice is made to love the other person. He proposes that "work" and "courage" are needed to keep intimate love alive. The "work" is following through on our commitments to struggle and hang in there with the rough times and to make time for sharing our deepest thoughts, fears, joys and concerns. Courage is needed to keep ourselves open with our defensive walls down, even when we hear things that are threatening or critical of us.

It often takes a great deal of courage to face the bare truth about ourselves, our faults, our weaknesses and our needs. From Peck's view, work and courage from both sides allows a relationship to become a source of spiritual and psychological healing and growth. Work and courage on just one side, by only one partner can help create an atmosphere where communication can grow and deepen. One partner's efforts at listening and sitting still in the face of anxiety and fear can allow the other partner room to relax a bit. With time and a great deal of patience, even a wounded partner can overcome mistrust or doubt and move into a more healthy, less-defended style of relating.

It's very difficult to step back and observe ourselves and change the way we deal with our partner, to move from defensiveness which adds distance, to curiosity which adds closeness. Opening ourselves up in the presence of another person can be very frightening. The reward of this brave effort is a marvelous opportunity to come to know ourselves and another in all of our glory and all of our shame.

Scott Peck's views of loving relationships don't match what Madison Avenue and Hollywood are selling. His views are not flashy and wouldn't sell many cars, much make-up or beer. They are simply powerful ideas for dealing with real world struggles between two people bravely attempting to share their lives.

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C. Can I really depend on you?

In discussing commitment, I will draw from a book written by Hugh and Gayle Prather, both ministers and counselors, entitled: "Notes to Each Other" (1990, Bantum Books). This couple's marriage has survived many significant obstacles (e.g. infidelity, dishonestly, betrayal) and they speak with the "earned wisdom" of those who have been there and been through it. The book came simply from thoughts scribbled on a pad at the couple's bedside over the course of several years. It begins:

"This diary begins with the commitment we made to each other in 1965 to remain together for life. We were soon to discover that this act alone, although fundamental to creating a climate of trust in which love can grow, does not solve all problems, and we want you to understand that we did not begin as a well-matched couple or with any other advantage except this commitment. We were not brought together through signs and wonders; we did not even particularly love each other. We were married on impulse the night of our third date without 'hearing a Voice,' and things went rapidly downhill from there."

Within an intimate relationship, I think of commitment as having the courage and strength of will to struggle endlessly to understand one's partner. For me, this means having (internal) and showing (external) a willingness to tolerate discomfort (e.g. fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, etc.) without giving in to distractions or diversions and not withdrawing from or overpowering the other but simply sitting, listening and trying to hear. It's sort of like Scott Peck's view that "real love requires work and courage" with a much stronger focus on the work part. We can decide and work to commit ourselves to an intimate relationship with another person. We can chose to let that commitment grow into a calming, centering force in our lives that can be more powerful than the misery and disappointment we may face, no matter how grave. As the Prathers put it: "Any form of pressure on a relationship - infidelity, the death of a child, a business failure, children from another marriage - can be walked beyond. This is always a possibility."

One of the common problems with long-term commitment is our tenancy to look for greener pastures when the going gets rough. The Prathers state, "perhaps the primary way we subvert our happiness is to carry with us the question of whether there is something better that what is at hand... thus we prevent ourselves from having the experience of devotion, out of fear that we might blind ourselves to a good change."

It is as if we thought that having "the right partner", would allow us to arrive at a place of constant happiness without having to put so much effort into the process of being "a couple." We may think: "It should get easier than this. I shouldn't have to work this hard to keep this feeling of closeness." The Prathers argue otherwise:

"The essential recognition is that two people do not finally arrive at a state in which concentration is no longer needed and can now fall back into separate egos and rest. Separateness offers no rest, and the world never stops presenting sufficient reason to be miserable."

So, it must go on forever, this struggle to find and to know ourselves within this relationship dance with another. This book offers an entertaining look at this never-ending process. It offers encouragement to keep putting one foot in front of the other, concentrating on loving the other while respecting our selves, simply because, "We promised that we would never leave each other." Maybe an old-fashioned idea, but a very powerful one in moving through the maze of society's many diversions that are often only opportunities to lose sight of our direction and purpose.

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D. Let's grow mindfully together.

In his book, "How to be an Adult in Relationships: the five keys to mindful loving," David Richo (Shambhala, 2002) presents a useful model for integrating the practice of mindfulness into our intimate relationships. He proposes that five keys or necessities are required in our movement into full adulthood: attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection and allowing. Dr. Richo states, "The five A's are not extra. They are the components of the healthy, individuated ego: attention from others leads to self-respect. Acceptance engenders a sense of being inherently a good person. Appreciation generates a sense of self-worth. Affection makes us feel lovable. Allowing gives us the freedom to pursue our own deepest needs, values, and wishes."

Attention is at the very heart of mindfulness. Within a relationship, attention requires genuine interest and curiosity in our partner. A superficial connection is not adequate to meet this need.

Acceptance means that we are received respectfully with all our feelings, choices, and personal traits and feel supported through them.

Appreciation gives depth to acceptance. It is a validating, a loving and cherishing without conditions or demands.

Affection refers to a closeness on both a physical and feeling level. It includes playfulness, thoughtfulness, romantic gestures as well as physical touch and sexual intimacy.

Allowing gives one permission to be themselves, to have their own thoughts and feelings without fear of being judged or criticized. By allowing, we create spaciousness for our partner to grow to their fullest potential.

Perhaps it's no surprise that some of these keys were not adequately provided by our parents. As a result, we can enter adulthood lacking the skills for giving and receiving these key elements of successful adult intimacy. And there's more. Being unaware that these deficiencies lie within ourselves, we tend to blame our partner when they are not satisfied rather than assuming responsibility for them ourselves. This projection only deepens our pain associated with these unmet needs. The relationship becomes just another place we feel unloved and trapped within our limited range of expression.

The good news is that we can come to recognize our level of incompleteness regarding the five keys and take steps to come into fullness. Mirroring is an important aspect of this process and we can learn to mirror love not only as we need it mirrored to us but also as our partner needs to have it mirrored by us. It just takes commitment, courage and work to move beyond our ego barriers onto a mutually-satisfying intimate relationship.

Richo also offers useful suggestions and exercises for choosing a partner, for recognizing when it's time to separate from a partner, when love has become an addiction. There is much to learn from Richo's writings on the art of bringing mindful attentiveness to the dance of intimate relationships.

More information about this author and this book is available on the web. For more information about developing and deepening the skill of mindfulness, see: meditation information.

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Section III: Relationship as Spiritual Path

A. You and I are indeed One.

Once we identify and unpack the baggage from our respective pasts, establish mastery in the basic relationship skills and deepen our commitment to personal and spiritual growth, we are ready to move into a place of transcendence, a place beyond our separate egos into the loving space of the Divine. In their book, "Embracing the Beloved: relationship as a path of awakening," Stephen and Ondrea Levine share their path of relationship as inward journey. This couple describes how opening one's heart to another and facing fears that arise in this process can lead to deeper levels of self awareness and ultimately to the experience of union with "The Beloved," the non-dual space from which all arise and into which all returns.

If you think this sounds like these guys are coming from a Buddhist perspective, you're right. Meditation practice and eastern thought are cornerstones of their individual work and their path together. From the introduction: "We recognize the enormous power of relationship as a vehicle for mutual healing: physical, emotional and spiritual.

"This is not a book about how to 'make nice' in relationship. This book is about using relationship as a means for profound inner growth. Indeed, much in this book deals with embracing the pained mind that just wants to 'make nice' to maintain safe territory, cowering in the corner, unwilling to engage that which keeps us frightened and absent. This is about cultivating a relationship where the mind turns easy and the heart bursts into flame. This is about the enlightenment of relationship.

"This book approaches relationship as spiritual practice. It is a merging of techniques for clearing the mind and opening the heart."

The Levine's writing is inspiring and encouraging of our taking a deeper, longer-range view of intimate relationship. They show us that the path of spiritual union is indeed a wonderful journey to share with a committed partner. This path requires strong dedication to facing one's fears and working through the layers of armor that maintain the illusion of separateness. It also requires that we hold a mirror up for our partner and they for us so that we can better see where we need to work, where we need to open. This opening is the foundation of the experience of Oneness we all seek in one way or another. What a wonderful gift to move into that spiritual space of Emptiness, non-duality in the presence of another. The rewards of connection with the Beloved, the One, the All are sweet indeed. So much sweeter still when shared with a courageous, committed partner.

The Levine's material on mindful relationships is also available in an audiotape series entitled: "To Love and Be Loved" and may be purchased through Sounds

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An interview with Dr David Schnarch

In his book Passionate Marriage, sex therapist Dr David Schnarch asserts that the greatest sexual pleasure in life is possible in one's middle and later years, when a mature sense of self has been achieved and genuine intimacy is possible with another person. Dr Schnarch shows how the details of your sexual style -- from kissing to daring erotic behaviors -- are a window into you, your partner, and your relationship.

Q. What is this book about?

A. Passionate Marriage focuses on helping people reach their sexual potential and have the best sex and intimacy of their lives -- within a long-term relationship -- even after passion and desire have waned. It doesn't focus on dysfunction, but instead on growth and helping people really make contact with their partner during sex. Good sex isn't about just elevating your heart rate -- it's about elevating your heart.

Q. How does your approach work and how is it different from traditional approaches?

A. I help couples use the inevitable problems with sex and intimacy to grow -- so they can have sex with their hearts and minds, and not just with their genitals (there is no nudity or sexual contact in our therapy or workshops). All couples eventually hit emotional "gridlock": when partners are at each other's throats, arguing about everything and no one can give an inch or say they're sorry.

Gridlock is a natural stage in the evolution of both people and their relationships; it isn't caused by lack of communication and communication won't solve it. It can be the pathway to the hottest, most intimate sex you've ever had.

Passionate Marriage talks to people's strengths rather than to their weaknesses (i.e.: "childhood wounds" and "fears of abandonment"). It focuses on people's resiliency rather than their pain. Marriage operates at much greater intensity and pressure than we expect--so great, in fact, couples mistakenly assume it's time for divorce when it's really time to get to work. Unlike other methods, this approach may be used even when only one partner is willing to participate. By empowering the best aspects of a relationship rather than the lowest common denominator, this method helps couples on the brink of divorce, when empathy and listening skills offer too little and too late.

Q. Many experts stress the importance of communication in a relationship, including "asking for what you want" sexually. You take a different stand. Why?

A. Marital difficulties are often not about an inability to "communicate." We've confused "good communication" with consensus and feeling accepted and validated. Communication is no virtue if you can't stand the message. The path to good sex is not "telling your partner what you want." It involves dealing with what I call "normal marital sadism": your partner probably already knows what you want, and the fact you're not getting it means he or she doesn't want to give it to you.

Q. You disagree with the popular notion that relationship problems arise because "men are from Mars and women are from Venus." Why?

A. There's a lot more to marriage than communication and how men and women communicate differently. A much greater cause of problems is our similarities--our dependence and insistence on getting a positive self-reflection from someone else, and our inability to soothe our own anxieties. The problem is not how "distant" we are. It's that we're emotional Siamese twins, "fused at the hip" through our dependence on our partner's validation. Many "relationship problems" are really the unrecognized natural growth processes of emotionally committed relationships. Marriage is a people-growing machine.

Q. What do you mean when you say that intimate relationships are "people-growing machines?"

A. A good marriage is not smooth, and marriage is not reducible to a set of skills. People have difficulty with intimacy because they're supposed to. It's not something to be "solved" and avoided. Problems with sex and intimacy are important to go through because this process changes us. These are the drive wheels and grind stones of intimate relationships. The solution isn't going back to the passion of early relationships because that's sex between strangers; it's about going forward to new passion and intimacy as adults. If we use relationships properly they make us grow into adults, capable of intense intimacy, eroticism, and passion-having sex with our hearts and minds, and not just with our genitals.

Q. In Passionate Marriage you talk a lot about differentiation. What is this?

A. Differentiation is a natural process in committed relationships that involves developing more of a self while growing closer to your partner. Men often sacrifice their relationship to hold onto their sense of self. Women often sacrifice their sense of self to stabilize their relationship. Differentiation is about having it both ways: having a stronger sense of self and a stronger relationship.

Q. What is intimacy? How is your view of intimacy unique?

A. Intimacy is about letting yourself really be known, including parts that you or your partner don't like. But it's not just about letting "warts" be known. It often involves showing strengths you've been hiding, too. Most approaches focus on getting your partner's validation and acceptance when you disclose. But you can't count on this, and if you try, it inherently limits self-disclosure because you won't say things your partner won't validate. Resolving gridlock requires intimacy based on validating yourself.

Q. You propose that the very way we think about sex and sexual desire sets couples up to have difficulty. Please explain.

A. People have been taught that "sex is a natural function." However, the sex that comes "naturally" is reproductive sex; intimate sex is an acquired ability and developed taste. The notion that "sex is a natural function" leads couples to believe that sex and intimacy emerge full-blown unless some "blockage" is in the way. But usually, getting the sex and intimacy we want doesn't involve removing a block, it involves growing up. Usually we just think of sexual desire as physical cravings (like horniness and "blueballs"). Desire involves wanting your partner -- not just wanting sex -- and we often don't want to want our partner because it makes us vulnerable.

Q. Your book talks about spirituality at the same time that it is explicitly erotic. How do you put the two together?

A. Passionate Marriage is the sexual "road less traveled," an erotic "Care of the Soul" that integrates sexuality and spirituality in deeply positive ways. It is about real passion and wet sex. It's about how relationships are spiritual journeys. It's pragmatic, explicit, practical, and erotic, but it's not simplistic and doesn't focus on technique. It takes a down to earth, "in the trenches," unglamorized, honest view of relationships.

Q. What do you mean by "speaking to the best in people" and addressing strengths rather than weaknesses?

A. The most important thing in marriage is not trauma and childhood wounds-it's strength, resilience and goodness. This book doesn't speak to readers' fears, insecurities, or inadequacies. It speaks to what's good and solid within people, the part that recognizes difficult truths. Marriage isn't simply a replay of childhood controlled by your past; it's a "people-growing process," the birthplace of adult eroticism and the capacity to love.

Q. We've all been taught that compromise and negotiation is the heart of marriage. But you say that it's the road to boring sex. Why?

A. People think the key to marriage is compromise, but what they really want is a "no-compromise marriage." Marriage isn't about giving yourself up or compromising yourself, because this generally kills sexual interest and desire. And compromise creates what I call the "tyranny of the lowest common denominator." The key is holding onto yourself so you can have more of yourself and more with your partner. When you feel proud of yourself, it increases your sexual interest and your interest in your partner.

Q. You say people often have the best sex and intimacy when they reach their 40s, 50s & 60s. But people have been taught for years that adolescence is the sexual peak of life. How can this be?

A. We have confused sexual prime with genital prime. If you want intimacy during sex, there isn't a 16-year-old that can keep up with a healthy 60 year old. People are capable of much better sex and intimacy as they mature. Ask your audience, "How many of you are better in bed now than you were when you were younger?" Most people never reach their sexual potential, and those who do are generally well into the fourth, fifth & sixth decade of life. Cellulite and sexual potential are highly correlated.

Q. In Passionate Marriage you discuss at length what you call "tools for connection." What are these "tools" and why are they important to couples?

A. Amazing as it seems, many couples are not in emotional contact while they are having physical contact. They may both reach orgasm but they are emotionally isolated. I have developed a number of "tools for connection." New ways to establish deep emotional connection in and out of bed. I encourage couples to forget about technique, and "follow the connection" during sex to know what to do next. We also suggest hugging 'til relaxed, eyes open sex, and even eyes open orgasm.

Q. What is eyes-open sex and eyes-open orgasm? And why are these important?

A. In informal surveys I've conducted around the world, it seems that only about 15-30% of all couples have sex with their eyes open, and only about half that number can orgasm that way. This means that most people have to shut their eyes to "tune out" their partner in order to be able to orgasm. Many people like sex in the dark with eyes closed because it's a way of keeping intimacy during sex to a tolerable level, not because it's more romantic. The intimacy and passion many couples seek is hiding right under -- or actually right above -- their noses.

This interview appeared on the educational website, She Knows

Passionate Marriage: Forever an Oxymoron? 

By David Schnarch, Ph. D.

Betty, a designer in a high-powered advertising firm, and Donald, a college professor bucking for tenure, had been married for 15 years. They spent the first 10 minutes in my office invoking the standard litany of our times as an explanation for their lousy sex life--they were both just too busy. Not that this focus precluded blaming each other for their difficulties.

 Betty gets home from work so late that we barely see each other anymore, let alone have sex, said Donald resentfully. "We're collaborators in child raising and mortgage paying, but we're hardly lovers anymore. I've taken over a lot of the household chores, but she often doesn't get home until 9 p.m.--and most nights, she says she's just 'too tired' for sex."

 Betty sighed in exasperation. "Sometimes I think Donald wants me to leap from the front door to the bedroom and take care of him," she said. "But I'm being swallowed up by a sea of obligations--my boss, the kids, the house, the dog, Donald, everybody wants a big chunk of me. Right now, I feel there's nothing left of me for me, let alone for him. He just doesn't get it that I need more time for myself before I'm interested in sex."

 I asked them to be specific about how the stress from their very demanding lives revealed itself in bed--exactly what happened, and in what order, when they had sex. Several moments of awkward silence and a number of false starts ensued before another, much more intimate, level of their marital landscape revealed itself.

 Betty looked hard at Donald, then at me. "The fact of the matter is, he doesn't even know how to kiss me!" she said grimly.

 How would you know? It's been so long since you let me kiss you! hissed Donald.

 When I asked them to describe their foreplay, Betty looked embarrassed and Donald sounded frustrated. "During sex, she turns her face to the side, and I end up kissing her cheek. She won't kiss me on the mouth. I think she just wants to get sex over with as fast as possible. Not that we have much sex." Betty shook her head in distaste. "He always just rams his tongue halfway down my throat--I feel like I can't breathe. Besides, why would I want to kiss him when I can't even talk to him! We don't communicate at all."

 Over the years, I've worked with many couples who complain bitterly that the other kisses--or touches, fondles, caresses, strokes--the "wrong" way. I used to take these complaints at face value, trying to help the couple solve their problems through various forms of marital bargaining and forbearance--listen empathically, give a little to get a little, do something for me and I'll do something for you--teach them the finer points of sexual technique and send them home with detailed prescriptions (which they usually didn't follow) until I realized that their sexual dissatisfactions did not stem from ignorance, ineptitude or a "failure to communicate." On the contrary, "communicating" is exactly what Donald and Betty were already doing very well, only neither much liked the "message" the other was sending. The way this couple kissed each other, indeed their "vocabulary" of foreplay, constituted a very rich and purposeful dialogue, replete with symbolic meanings. Through this finely nuanced, but unmistakable language, both partners expressed their feelings about themselves and each other and negotiated what the entire sexual encounter would be like--the degree and quality of eroticism, connection and intimacy, or their virtual absence.

 Donald and Betty had tried marital therapy before, but their therapist had taken the usual approach of dealing with each complaint individually--job demands, parenting responsibilities, housework division and sexual difficulties--as if they were all separate but equal situational problems. Typically, the clinician had tried to help Donald and Betty resolve their difficulties through a skill-building course on compromise, setting priorities, time management and "mirroring" each other for mutual validation, acceptance and, of course, better communication. The net result of all this work was that they felt even worse than before, even more incompetent, inadequate and neurotic, when sex didn't improve.

 Knowing that Betty and Donald were most certainly communicating something via their gridlocked sexual styles, I asked them, "Even if you are not talking, what do you think you might actually be 'saying' to each other when you kiss?" After a minute, Donald said resentfully, "She's telling me I'm inadequate, that I'm not a good lover, I can't make her happy and she doesn't me anyway." Betty defensively countered, "He's saying he wants me to do everything exactly his way and if I don't just cave in, he'll go ahead and do what he likes, whether I like it or not!" I asked her why she was willing to have intercourse at all if she didn't even want to kiss him. "Because he is such a sullen pain in the ass if I don't have sex, " Betty replied without hesitation. "Besides, I like having orgasms."

 Donald and Betty perfectly illustrated the almost universal, but widely unrecognized, reality that sex does not merely constitute "part" of a relationship, but literally and metaphorically embodies the depth and quality of the couple's entire emotional connection. We think of foreplay as a way couples establish connection, but more often it's a means of establishing disconnection. Betty was a living rebuttal of the common gender stereotype that all women always want more foreplay; she cut it short so they could get sex done with as quickly as possible--and Donald understood. Donald returned the compliment by "telling" Betty he knew she didn't like him much, but he was going to get something out of her anyway--with or without her presence, so to speak.

Clearly, foreplay for this couple was not simply a mechanical technique for arousal, amenable to the engineering, skill-building approach still dictated by popular sex manuals. Nor were they likely to improve sex just by being more "open" with each other, "asking for what they wanted"--another popular remedy in self-help guides and among marital therapists--as if they weren't already "telling" each other what each did and did not want, and what each was or was not willing to give. Instead of trying to spackle over these normal and typical "dysfunctional" sexual patterns with a heavy coat of how-to lessons, I have learned that it makes much more sense to help the couple analyze their behavior, to look for the meaning of what they were already doing before they focused on changing the mechanics.

Rather than "work on their relationship" as if it were some sort of hobby or home-building project, Betty and Donald, like every other couple I have seen, needed to understand that what they did in bed was a remarkably salient and authentic expression of themselves and their feeling for each other. The nuances of their kissing style may have seemed trivial compared to the screaming fights they had about money or the long days of injured silence, but in fact it was an open window into their deepest human experience--who they were as people, what they really felt about each other, how much intimacy they were willing to risk with each other and how much growing up they still had to do.

As in any elaborate and nuanced language, the small details of sex carry a wealth of meaning, so while Donald and Betty were surprised that I focused on a "little thing" like kissing, rather than the main event--frequency of intercourse, for example--they were startled to find how truly revealing it was, about their personal histories as well as their marriage. I told Betty I thought she had probably come from an intrusive and dominating family that never dealt openly or successfully with anxiety and conflict. "So now, you have a hard time using your mouth to tell Donald not to be so overbearing, rather than turning it away to keep him from getting inside it. You've become very good at taking evasive action to avoid being overwhelmed," I said. "You're right about my family," Betty said softly, "we kids didn't have any privacy or freedom in my family, and we were never allowed to complain openly about anything--just do what we were told, and keep our mouths shut."

Like grains of sand

funneling toward the "narrows" of an hourglass,

marriage forces couples into a vortex

of emotional struggle, where, to grow up,

each must hold on to himself or herself,

in the context of each other. 

On the other hand, I said, I imagined Donald had never felt worthwhile in his family's eyes. He had spent a lot of time trying to please his parents without knowing what he was supposed to do, but he got so little response that he never learned how to read other people's cues--he just forged blindly ahead, trying to force his way into people's good graces and prove himself without waiting to see how he was coming across. "Come back here and give me a chance to prove myself!" his behavior screamed. "Are you so used to being out of contact with the people you love that you can successfully ignore how out of sync you are with them?" I asked. To Donald's credit, he didn't dodge the question, though he seemed dazed by the speed with which we'd zoomed in on such a core issue.

Nevertheless, Donald and Betty discovered that their discomfort in describing, in exact detail, what was done by whom, when, how and where, was outweighed by their fascination at what they were finding out about themselves--far more than was remotely possible from a seminar on sex skills. Betty, for example, had suggested that once kissing had stopped and intercourse had started, her sexual life was just fine--after all, she had orgasms and she "liked" them. But when I asked her to describe her experience of rear-entry intercourse --a common practice with this couple--she did not make it sound like a richly sensual, erotic or even particularly pleasant encounter. During the act, she positioned herself on elbows and knees, her torso held tense and rigidly parallel to the mattress while she protectively braced her body for a painful battering. Instead of moving into each thrust from Donald, she kept moving away from him, as if trying to escape. He, on the other hand, clasped her hips and kept trying to pull her to him, but never got a feeling of solid physical or emotional connection.

In spite of the fact that both were able to reach orgasm--widely considered the only significant measurement of successful sex--Betty and Donald's minute-by-minute description of what they did made it obvious that a lot more was happening than a technically proficient sex act. I told Betty I was glad she had told me these details, which all suggested that she thought it was pretty hopeless trying to work out conflicts with people she loved. "I suspect you've gotten used to swallowing your disappointment and sadness without telling anybody, and just getting along by yourself as best you can," I said. "It sounds very lonely," At that point, much to Donald's shock, Betty burst into tears. I said to Donald that he still seemed resigned to chase after people he loved to get them to love and accept him. "I guess you just don't believe they could possibly love you without being pressured into it. In fact, I think both of you use sex to confirm the negative beliefs you already have about yourselves." 

For several seconds Donald looked at his lap, while Betty quietly cried in the next chair. "I suppose we must be pretty screwed up, huh?" Betty snuffled. "Nope," I said. "Much of what's going on between you is not only understandable, it's predictable, normal and even healthy--although it doesn't look or feel that way right now." They were describing the inevitable struggle involved in seeking individual growth and self-development within the context of marriage. 

Betty said she used to enjoy sex until she became over-involved with her job, but I suggested that the case was more likely the reverse--that the demands of her job gave her a needed emotional distance from Donald. Her conscious desire to "escape" from Donald stemmed from emotional fusion with him--she found herself invaded by his worries, his anxieties, his insecurities and his needs as if she had contracted a virus from him. "You may feel that you don't have enough inside you to satisfy his needs and still remain a separate, whole person yourself," I said. "Your work is a way of keeping some 'self' for yourself, to prevent being absorbed by him. That's the same reason you turn your head away when he tries to kiss you."

I suggested that Donald's problem was a complementary version of the same thing: in order to forestall the conviction that he had no worthwhile self at all, he felt he had to pressure Betty, or anybody he loved, to demonstrate they loved him--over and over. Donald, of course, did not see that he was as important to Betty as she was to him, but their mutual need for each other was really a function of two fragile and insecure selves shoring each other up.

Like most of us, neither Betty nor Donald was very mature when they married; neither had really learned the grownup ability to soothe their own emotional anxieties or find their own internal equilibrium during the inevitable conflicts and contretemps of marriage. And, like most couples after a few years of marriage, they made up for their own insecurities by demanding that the other provide constant, unconditional acceptance, empathy, reciprocity and validation to help them each sustain a desired self-image. "I'm okay if, but only if, you think I'm okay," they said, in effect, to each other, and worked doubly hard both to please and be pleased, hide and adapt, shuffle and dance, smile and agree. The more time passes, the more frightened either partner is of letting the other know who he or she really is.

This joint back-patting compact works for a while to keep each partner feeling secure, but eventually the game becomes too exhausting to play. Gradually, partners become less inclined to please each other, more resentful of the cost of continually selling themselves out for ersatz peace and tranquility, less willing to put out or give in. To the extent that neither partner has really grown up and is willing to confront his or her own contribution to this growing impasse, however, would prefer to fight with or avoid the other. It's less frightening to blame our mates than to face ourselves. The ensuing "symptoms"--low sexual desire, sexual boredom, control battles, heavy silences--often take on the coloring of a deathly struggle for selfhood, fought on the implicit assumption that there is only room for one whole self in the marriage. "It's going to be my way or no way, my self or no self!" partners say in effect, in bed and out--leading to a kind of classic standoff.

Far from being signs of a deeply "pathological" marital breakdown, however, as Donald and Betty were convinced, this stalemate is a normal and inevitable process of growth built into every marriage, as well as a golden opportunity. Like grains of sand inexorably funneling toward the "narrows" of an hourglass, marriage predictably forces couples into a vortex of emotional struggle, where each dares to hold onto himself or herself in the context of each other, in order to grow up. At the narrowest, most constricting part of the funnel--where alienation, stagnation, infidelity, separation and divorce typically occur--couples can begin not only to find their individual selves, but in the process acquire a far greater capacity for love, passion and intimacy with each other than they ever thought possible.

At this excruciating point in a marriage, every couple has four options: each partner can try to control the other (Donald's initial ploy, which did not succeed), accommodate even more (Betty had done so to the limits of her tolerance), withdraw physically or emotionally (Betty's job helped her to do this) or learn to soothe his or her own anxiety and not get hijacked by the anxiety of the other. In other words, they could work on growing up, using their marriage as a kind of differentiation fitness center par excellence.

Differentiation is a lifelong process by which we become more uniquely ourselves by maintaining ourselves in relationship with those we love. It allows us to have our cake and eat it too, to experience fully our biologically based drives for both emotional connection and individual self-direction. The more differentiated we are--the stronger our sense of self-definition and the better we can hold ourselves together during conflicts with our partners--the more intimacy we can tolerate with someone we love without fear of losing our sense of who we are as separate beings. This uniquely human balancing act is summed up in the striking paradox of our species, that we are famously willing both to die for others, and to die rather than be controlled by others.

To make a vital contact by feeling and experiencing each other's reality, I suggested that Betty and Donald simply caress each other's hands and faces while attending to what they were doing and feeling.

Of all the many schools of hard experience life has to offer, perhaps none but marriage is so perfectly calibrated to help us differentiate--if we can steel ourselves to take advantage of its rigorous lessons, and not be prematurely defeated by what feels at first like abject failure. Furthermore, a couple's sexual struggle--what I call the sexual crucible--is the most powerful route both to individual maturity and the capacity for intimate relationship, because it evokes people's deepest vulnerabilities and fears, and also taps into their potential for profound love, passion, even spiritual transcendence.

In the typically constricted sexuality of the mid-marriage blues, Betty and Donald's sexual repertoire consisted of "leftovers"--whatever was left over after eliminating every practice that made one or the other nervous or uncomfortable. The less differentiated a couple, the less they can tolerate the anxiety of possibly "offending" one another, the more anxiety they experience during sex and the more inhibited, rigid and inflexible their sexual style becomes: people have sex only up to the limits of their sexual and emotional development. Unsurprisingly, Donald and Betty's sexual routine had become as predictable, repetitious, unadventurous and boring as a weekly hamburger at McDonald's. This is why the standard advice to improve sex by negotiating and compromising is doomed to failure--most normally anxious couples have already long since negotiated and compromised themselves out of any excitement, variety or sexual passion, anyway.

And yet it would have been pointless and counterproductive to march Donald and Betty through a variety of new sexual techniques. Using sex as a vehicle for personal and relational growth is not the same as just doing something new that raises anxieties. Rather, it depends on maintaining a high level of personal connection with someone known and loved during sex--allowing ourselves to really see and be seen by our partners, feel and be felt, know and be known by them. Most couples have spent years trying not to truly reveal themselves to each other in order to maintain the illusion of complete togetherness, thus effectively smothering any true emotional connection, with predictably disastrous effects on sex.

Donald and Betty were so obsessed with sexual behavior, so caught up in their anxieties about who was doing or failing to do what to whom in bed, that they were not really emotionally or even physically aware of each other when they touched. Like people "air kissing" on social occasions, they were going through the motions while keeping a kind of emotional cordon sanitaire between them. Their sex was more like the parallel play of young children than an adult interaction--except that they each watched the other's "play" with resentment and hurt feelings. Betty complained that Donald touched her too roughly--"He's crude and selfish!" she said, "and just uses me to please himself." Her complaint undercut Donald's sense of self, and he defensively accused her of being a demanding bitch, never satisfied and fundamentally unpleasable--thereby undermining her sense of self.

In order to help them each find a self and each other I had to redirect their gaze away from their obsession with mutually disappointing sexual behavior, and encourage them to "follow the connection"--rediscover or establish some vital physical and emotional link as a first building block to greater intimacy. To consciously "follow the connection," however, requires the full presence and consent of both partners, each purposely slowing down and giving full attention to the other, feeling and experiencing the other's reality. For example, I suggested that Betty and Donald, who couldn't come up with even one way in which they made some sort of vital contact, might simply caress each other's hands and faces white attending to what they were doing and feeling.

The next session, Donald reported that he now understood why Betty felt he was too "rough"; he said the experience made him realize that he usually touched her with about as much care and sensitivity as if he was scouring a frying pan! But slowing down to really become conscious of what he was doing made him experience a sudden jolt of emotional connection with Betty. This awareness was an unnerving sensation for someone who had spent his life performing for other people (including his wife) rather than actually being with them.

Betty, too, was shaken by the jarring reality of their connection. She hadn't liked being touched roughly, but the concentration and attention in Donald's hands as he really felt and got to know her body was deeply disturbing; she found herself suddenly and unexpectedly sobbing with grief and deprivation for the warmth and love she'd missed as a child, and that she had both craved and feared in her marriage. Donald managed to keep his own anxiety in check during Betty's unexpected reaction, holding her hand while she cried her eyes out and gradually calmed down on her own. Later that night, they had the best sex they had experienced in a very long time.

Buoyed by this first success, more hopeful about their future together, they both wanted to know how they could enhance this new and still tentative sense of connection. I suggested they try something called "hugging till relaxed," a powerful method for increasing intimacy that harnesses the language and dynamics of sex without requiring either nudity or sexual contact. Hugging, one of the most ordinary, least threatening gestures of affection and closeness, is also one of the most telling. When they hugged, Betty complained that Donald always leaned on her--making her stagger backward--while Donald accused Betty of pulling away from him, letting go "too soon," and leaving him "hugging air."

I suggested that Betty and Donald each stand firmly on their own two feet, loosely put their arms around each other, focus on their own individual experience and concentrate on quieting themselves down while in the embrace--neither clutching nor pulling away from or leaning on each other. I never tell clients how long to hug, but few initially can take more than four or five seconds before they experience a kind of emotional "jolt" when the connection threatens to become too intimate for comfort. Once both partners can learn to soothe themselves and maintain their individual equilibrium, shifting their own positions when necessary for comfort, they get a brief, physical experience of intimate connection without fusion, a sense of stability and security without over-dependency.

While practicing hugging until relaxed with Donald, Betty found that as she learned to quiet her own anxiety, she could allow herself to be held longer by Donald without feeling claustrophobic. Just relaxing in the hug also made her realize that she normally carried chronic anxiety like a kind of body armor. As Betty calmed down and began to melt peacefully into the hug, not pulling away from fear that Donald would, literally, invade her space, he noticed his own impulse to break it off before she wanted to. After they had spent several weeks working on hugging till relaxed, they began to feel more centered within themselves when they did it; each no longer anxiously watched for the least little twitch in the other, or wondered what the other was thinking, or worried about doing it "wrong." When they each could settle down in the hug, they discovered that together they eventually would enter a space of great peace and tranquility, deeply connected and in touch with each other but secure in their self.

Soon, they could experience some of the same kind of deep peace during sex, which not only eliminated much of the anxiety, resentment and disappointment they had felt before, but vastly increased the eroticism of the encounter. Now that they knew what they were looking for, they could tell when it was absent. It was as if each had let slip away a hard, tough carapace, and allowed something tender and vulnerable to emerge. Later, in my office, while Betty gently stroked his arm, Donald teared up as he told me about the new sense of quiet but electric connection he felt with her. "I just had no idea what we were missing; she seemed so precious to me that it almost hurt to touch her," he said, his voice thick with emotion.

This leap in personal development didn't simply occur through behavioral desensitization. Sometimes, Betty and Donald got more anxious as their unresolved issues surfaced in their physical embrace. At times, when Betty dared to shift to a more comfortable position, Donald felt she was squirming to avoid him. It was my job to help them see how this reflected the same emotional dynamics present in other aspects of their marriage. Betty was attempting to "hold onto herself" while remaining close to someone she loved, and likewise, Donald was refusing to chase after a loved one to get himself accepted. Insight alone didn't help much; a lot of self-soothing was required. Ultimately, they stopped taking each other's experience and reaction as a reflection on themselves and recognized that two separate realities existed even during their most profound physical union.

Building on their new stockpiles of courage earned in these experiments with each other, I suggested that Donald and Betty consider eyes-open sex, the thought of which leaves many couples aghast. Indeed, Donald's first response to the suggestion was that if he and Betty tried opening their eyes during sex, they wouldn't need birth control because the very thought made him so anxious he could feel his testicles retreating up into his windpipe! But eyes-open sex is a powerful way of revealing the chasm between sensation-focused sex and real intimacy. Most couples close their eyes in order to better tune out their partners so that they can concentrate on their physical feelings; it is a shocking revelation that to reach orgasm--supposedly the most intimate human act--most people cannot tolerate too much intimacy with their partners, so they block the emotional connection and concentration on body parts.

Eyes-open sex is not simply a matter of two pairs of eyeballs staring at each other (indeed, people can hide behind a blank stare), but a way to intensify the mutual awareness and connection begun during foreplay; to really "see" and "be seen" is an extension of feeling and being felt when touching one another. But if allowing oneself to be known by touch is threatening, actually being seen can be positively terrifying. Bravely pursuing eyes-open sex in spite of these misgivings helps couples not only learn to tolerate more intimacy, it increases differentiation--it requires a degree of inner calm and independent selfhood to let somebody see what's inside your head without freaking out. "It scares me," said Betty, speaking many people's experience. "I don't like my body much and I don't like a lot else about myself, and I don't really expect him to, either."

But the experience was also exhilarating. As Donald and Betty progressed from shy, little, peek-a-boo glimpses into each other's faces to long, warm gazes and soft smiles, each found their encounters more deeply moving. Betty slowly realized that whereas before she had wanted to escape from Donald, now she yearned to see all of him, and for him to see all of her. "I felt so vulnerable, as if he could see all my inadequacies, but the way he looked at me and smiled made all that unimportant." Donald gradually relinquished the self-image of a needy loser; he no longer needed to pursue Betty for reassurance and found, to his delight, that she wanted him--a breathtaking experience. "Her eyes are so big and deep, I feel I could dive into them," he said in wonder.

In hugging 'till relaxed, Betty and Donald were to each stand firmly, put their arms around each other, focus on their own individual experience and concentrate on quieting themselves down while in the embrace.

Both began to experience an increasing sense of self-acceptance and personal security. "We're having better sex now than we've ever had in our lives," Betty reported, "And I thought we were getting to be too old and far too married for exciting sex." Donald agreed. Betty and Donald, like society at large, were confusing genital prime--the peak years of physical reproductive maturity--with sexual prime--the specifically human capacity for adult eroticism and emotional connection. "Are you better in bed or worse now than you were as an adolescent?" I asked them. "Most people definitely get better as they get older, at least potentially. No 17-year old boy is sufficiently mature to be capable of profound intimacy--he's too preoccupied with proving his manhood; and a young woman is too worried about being 'used' or too hung up about romance and reputation to really experience her own eroticism. Most 50-year-olds, on the other hand, have a much better developed sense of who they are, and more inner resources to bring to sex. You could say that cellulite and sexual potential are highly correlated."

So that's why I have such incredible erotic talents! said Betty.

As far as issues of gender equality are concerned, both men and women become more similar as they age and approach their sexual potential. Men are not as frightened of letting their partners take the lead in making love to them, and they develop far greater capacity and appreciation for emotional connection and tenderness than they had as young men. Women, on the other hand, become more comfortable with their own sexuality, more likely to enjoy sex for its own sake and less inclined to apologize for their eroticism or hide behind the ingenue's mask of modesty. As they age, women feel less obligated to protect their mate's sexual self-esteem at the cost of their own sexual pleasure.

Once a couple's sexual potential has been tapped, partners are no longer afraid to let their fantasies run free with each other. Donald, for example, let Betty know that he dreamed of her tying him up and "ravishing" him sexually--so one day, she bought four long, silk scarves and that night, wearing three inch high heels and a little black lace, she trussed him to the bed and gave him what he asked for, astounding him and surprising herself with her own dramatic flair. Betty had always secretly cherished a fantasy of being a dangerous, sexually powerful femme fatale, but Donald's clingy neediness had dampened her enthusiasm for trying out the dream--also she had been afraid it would make him even more demanding. But now, knowing he was capable of being himself regardless of what she did or did not do, Betty felt much more comfortable expressing her own sense of erotic play.

The Sexual Crucible Approach encourages people to make use of the opportunity offered by marriage to become more married and better married, by becoming more grown-up and better at staking out their own selfhood. But the lessons learned by Betty and Donald, or any couple, extend far beyond sex. The same emotional development that makes for more mature and passionate sexuality also helps couples negotiate the other potential shoals of marriage --money issues, childrearing questions, career decisions--because differentiation is not confined to sex. In every trouble spot, each partner has the same four options: dominate, submit, withdraw or differentiate. Differentiation does not guarantee that spouses can always have things their own individual way and an unfailingly harmonious marriage besides. Marriage is full of hard, unpleasant choices, including the choice between safety, security and sexual boredom, on the one hand, and challenge, anxiety and sexual passion, on the other.

But spouses who have learned to stand on their own two feet within marriage are not as likely to force their own choices on the other or give in or give up entirely just to keep their anxiety in check and shore up their own frail sense of self. Learning to soothe ourselves in the middle of a fight with a spouse over, say, the choice of schools for our child or a decision to move, not only helps keep the discussion more rational, but makes us more capable of mutuality, of hearing our partner, of putting his or her agenda on a par with our own. The fight stops being, for example, a struggle between your personal needs and your spouse's personal needs, often regarded by each as my "good idea" and her/his "selfishness," but which is really often my fragile undeveloped self versus his/her equally fragile, undeveloped self. Instead, we can begin to see that the struggle is inside each of us individually, between wanting what we want for ourselves personally, and wanting for our beloved partner what he or she wants for himself or herself. Becoming more differentiated is possibly the most loving thing you can do in your lifetime--for those you love as well as yourself. Someone once said that if you're going to "give yourself" to your partner like a bouquet of flowers, you should at least first arrange the gift!

There is no way this process can be foreshortened into a technical quick-fix, no matter how infatuated our culture is with speed, efficiency and cost containment. Courage, commitment, a willingness to forgo obvious "solutions," tolerating the anxiety of living without a clear, prewritten script, as well as the patience to take the time to grow up are all necessary conditions, not only for a good marriage, but for a good life. At the same time, reducing all marital problems to the fallout from our miserable childhoods or to gender differences not only badly underestimates our own ability to develop far beyond the limitations of our circumstances, but misjudges the inherent power of emotionally committed relationships to bring us (drag us, actually, often kicking and screaming) more deeply and fully into our own being. Marriage is a magnificent system, no only for humanizing us, maturing us and teaching us how to love, but also perhaps for bringing us closer to what is divine in our natures.

David Schnarch, Ph.D., is the founder of the Sexual Crucible® Approach and director of the Marriage and Family Health Center in Evergreen, Colorado. His books include Passionate Marriage: Sex, Love, and Intimacy in Emotionally Committed Relationship and Constructing the Sexual Crucible: An Integration of Sexual and Marital Therapy. Address: 2922 Evergreen Parkway, Suite 310, Evergreen, CO 80439. Website:

This article was published in the September/October 1997 NETWORKER

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