Big Think Interview With David Schnarch
David Schnarch, Ph.D. is co-director of the Marriage & Family Health Center. He is a licensed clinical psychologist, world-renown sex and marital therapist, and international best-selling author. He is a Certified Sex Therapist (Diplomat status) by American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). He chaired the Professional Education Committee and served on the Board of Directors for eight years, and received the first AASECT "Professional Standard of Excellence" Award. Dr. David is also a Clinical Member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), serves on the editorial board of AAMFT Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy. For seventeen years he was an Associate Professor in the Depts. of Psychiatry and Urology at Louisiana State University Medical School.
Question: What is love?
David Schnarch: Love is probably one of the most complex emotions human beings have. It means lots of different things to different people. It means lots of different things to different people and for a whole lot of people it’s simply a feeling that they have. What they’re used to thinking about is romantic love where you can’t think straight, you are completely preoccupied with this other person and unfortunately a lot of people are expecting that is what is going to happen once they get married and marriage requires an entirely different kind of experience. So perhaps the people who are dating this Valentine’s Day they have one view of it, but loving somebody is a very active process. Love is not just a feeling you have. It’s supposed to recruit to the benefit of the loved one, so you have to be strong enough to love and we’ve done a lot of research on our website and it turns that there are a whole lot of people that find it pretty hard to keep love going alive in an ongoing relationship.
Question: What are the various stages of love?
David Schnarch: I think what the difference is, is the very beginning of love, so that romantic infatuation is what a lot of people think of as love. That’s what they’re trying to rekindle, but that’s done by the most primitive part of your brain. It’s actually done by the reptilian brain and it is definitely time limited. Mother Nature has this worked out that you couldn’t possibly stay in that state because you can’t sleep, you can’t eat and nobody has time to take out the garbage, so there is a different kind of romantic love. It’s the kind that we actually help couples get, which is a much more personal love. When people first get together, that’s basically love between strangers, you not only don’t know this other person, you hardly know yourself, but when people are together for years, marriage teaches you more about yourself than you usually wanted to know and in the process you also get to know your partner very often better than they want to be known. That’s when real mature love comes into play, so it’s quite different being in an emotionally committed relationship. A lot of people think that marriage or an ongoing relationship kills the very thing that they got married for, which is love, companionship and sex and so what we help people do is really rekindle love through the process of marriage itself. Marriage is a lot tougher than people anticipate. Marriage is a people growing machine and so if you go through that process what we find is couples often have difficulty with sex and intimacy in the process of getting a relationship going and unfortunately a whole lot of people bail out, but we encourage people to have a very different view of what relationships are and if you go through gridlock and the difficulties that couples have the process itself often makes you mature enough to have the best sex of your life, particularly as you get older. That’s when people really learn about love.
Question: What is “differentiation” and how does it help partners grow closer?
David Schnarch: Up to now the guidelines for marriage or keeping a relationship going is communicate, communicate, communicate and we end up telling people you can’t stop communicating. It took the human race over a million years to learn to communicate and it’s not going to stop because you and your partner aren’t getting along, but differentiation is really simply saying that the processes of growth, what makes human beings grow up and truly become adult are built into emotionally committed relationships. That’s what differentiation is. Differentiation is the process of becoming a whole human being where you can stand on your own two feet even when you’re with your partner and standing on your own two feet even when you’re horizontal, meaning you can hold onto yourself. Most people don’t really understand that marriages are people growing machines. Mother nature has this worked out pretty good over the last million years and all you have to do is fall in love and become a couple and that will teach you the process of learning to hold onto yourself and validate yourself, learn to regulate your own anxiety, not getting overreactive and tolerating pain for growth. So we have broken this very complex scientific process called differentiation down to these four basic points and these are absolutely necessary if you’re going to keep love alive, if you’re going to keep sex interesting and if you’re going to have children.
Question: Is sex the tell-all barometer for a good relationship?
David Schnarch: I think it would be easy to say that sex is a good barometer because for most people when you’re battling out the wars of personal development, the wars of do I belong to you or do I belong to me sex usually suffers, but there are people for whom they can be battling things out and sex doesn’t deteriorate one iota, but that is not really something good. These are two people who are very often so out of contact with each other and also sex isn’t connected to anything personal that they can be in the middle of World War III and when it’s time to take off their clothes they can just go ahead. I won’t say that they have a good time, but they can certainly go through the act. There are a lot of us when we’re battling out the wars of self development, sex suffers and it should. If you’re going to have sex be personal. If you’re going to have sex be related to how you feel about yourself and how you feel about each other then when you hit the wars of independence, which are built into emotionally committed relationships, yes, sex usually does suffer, but a lot of people think that that means that marriage kills sex. I think it’s just a period that people go through that nobody anticipates and you go through that. You come out the other side. You usually are a more solid, whole person who is more capable of loving on life’s terms and we often find that sex goes onto be the best of people’s lives.
Question: What are some ways to spice up a comfortable relationship?
David Schnarch: You have to learn to hold onto yourself if you want the opportunity to hold onto your partner. That’s what nobody expects. Everybody expects their partner to prop themselves up and what a lot of people don’t realize is as human beings we don’t like having sex. We constantly have to prop up. We like a partner who can stand on their own two feet as long as we can tell them when it’s time to do that, so I think one of the primary tips to give people is to help them get a much more realistic view of the pattern of marriage and that gives you hope when you’re having a difficult time. We did some very interesting research now. We’ve had over 14,000 people take a survey that we’ve been doing and it turns out that about 85% of people say that either their sex is dead, comatose and in danger of dying or at the very least needing a wakeup call. Just knowing that that’s what normal sex looks like, that there is not something wrong with you and that it’s not a biological drive or you’re going to have desire if you’re in love. That’s one thing that is real important that helps people, but then we’ve also developed different activities that people can do that also tend to rekindle passion. One of them is what we call "heads on pillows" where both partners lie on their side. You can have your clothes on or off. Each person puts their head on the pillow and you both get your heads far enough apart that your partner doesn’t look like a Cyclops and you just gaze and there is a whole lot of people that they have the feeling of "I know why you’d want to have sex with me, but after all these years why would you want to look at me, why do you still love me?" And I think that’s one of the great mysteries of love that most of us find that we don’t believe that we would be truly loved if we were truly known and that’s one of the miracles of love, to be able to lie in bed looking at each other, being in each other’s arms and to stop all the rubbing and all of the different things that people do and just take the time to be together. For a whole lot of people that’s enough to bring tears to their eyes when they realize that this is really, really personal.
Question: Do you think that Valentine’s Day has a negative psychological effect on couples?
David Schnarch: Well I think the lingerie manufacturers and the candy producers, they love the idea of Valentine’s Day and I think probably we could all use a little wakeup call one in awhile not to take our partner for granted, but for a whole lot of couples it really focuses their attention on what they don’t have. They know that they can buy all the candy. They can buy Frederick’s of Hollywood and it doesn’t instill passion. In some ways it instills anger. For a lot of people you give them a negligee and the reaction is why, you don’t like my body or you think I’m going to do something I wouldn’t do because you bought me a box of candy and there is tremendous pressure: that’s supposed to be the night everybody is supposed to have sex and some people have sex. I think a lot of people have big fights because it basically makes people realize what they don’t have, not that it has to be that way. A lot of people have the feeling of once desire or passion or love dies its dead. You can’t rekindle that and that’s the exact opposite of what we’ve found. All around the world we found that people are really hungry for something that can make sex personal, that can make love not go back to the beginning of the relationship, but to have love and passion on an entirely new basis, on the basis of you know each other and you’ve gone through difficult times. You’ve had children, which is hard or you’ve had deaths in the family or now people in economic recession. These are really tough times and this either blows people apart or it brings them together. Going through those kinds of experiences I think make people strong enough to love on life’s terms and that’s tough.
Question: Are aphrodisiacs like chocolate and oysters a myth?
David Schnarch: If you take a look at the earliest cuneiform tablets you will find that people were looking for aphrodisiacs way back when. Nobody has really found one. All the drug companies now want to be the first and they’re using the miracle of modern science to try to come up with something. I think if you like chocolate and you eat chocolate you’re probably going to be happier when you’re having sex, but no, there is no way to overpower the human brain and that is why people have been looking for aphrodisiacs. For thousands of years people have been looking to beat the system somehow. In the new book that we published, "Intimacy and Desire," the whole first part of the book is about a fact that it’s stunning because it’s true all around the world and nobody pays attention to it and that’s the idea that the low desire partner always controls sex, not because they’re mean, not because they’re withholding. It’s simply after awhile the high desire partner makes all the initiations, low desire partner decides which one they’ll accept and that gives the low desire partner de facto control of sex and that’s why people want aphrodisiacs. They want to beat the system. They want to find a way to make that low desire want sex when they really don’t, so instead of an aphrodisiac being nice to your partner works a lot better okay and that is tough in marriage and dealing with things like the low desire partner always controls sex and in half the couples we see it’s the man. So the stereotype of "it’s the woman who is going to be the low desire partner and the man is going to be the high desire partner," that’s simply not the case. This is not gender specific, but couples where the man is the low desire partner that’s tough for the man and the woman because it goes against gender roles, but the whole idea of just it pays to be nice to your partner, then you don’t have to buy them candy. You are the sweet in their life. You can’t just do that for Valentine’s Day or for any of the holidays or simply for their birthday. Traveling doesn’t help. A lot of people think if we go on vacation that is going to do it and the pressure is enormous when people go on vacation to have sex, so my suggestion to your colleague who was interested in aphrodisiacs: you’re playing with a system a lot bigger than you that’s been refined over countless hundreds of thousands if not millions of couples and so it’s worked out that you have to learn to be able to stand on your own two feet. You have to not take what your partner is always doing personally. You have to not over react and you have to go through tough times and those are the kinds of things that really instill long term passion.
Question: What advice do you give clients who enter into relationships with partners with differing political views?
David Schnarch: I’m laughing because you’re mentioning political views as sort of being the deal breaker. Almost all couples polarize. Now you can polarize over politics, but you can also polarize over things that you can’t agree to disagree. The lovely thing about our country is you can agree to disagree, so one person can be Republican and one person can be Democrat, but they each have a choice of what they’re going to do. There are so many things in marriage that are forced choice and you can’t agree to disagree, which is the common suggestion that people should agree to disagree. You can’t agree to disagree about whether you’re going to have sex tonight. You can’t agree to disagree about whether you’re going to have a baby. You can’t agree to disagree about whether you’re going to save and spend the same dollar. So politics we haven’t found to be the real deal breaker because everybody can sort of do what they want and it’s different strokes for different folks, but marriage isn’t about opinions. Marriage is about making decisions. It’s not just about feelings. When we’re just dealing with feelings everybody is entitled to their choice, but we call these two choice dilemmas. There are many, many things in marriage as I said you cannot agree to disagree and so this is how marriage is really one of the great lesson teachers because you either try to overpower your partner or you try to steal their choice or you learn to control yourself and it teaches you that if you want sex and love to stay alive you have to make room for somebody else in your marriage. A lot of us wish that we were married to somebody who was more like us, except that most of us would not want to be married to ourselves, so that’s the two choice dilemma. If you have somebody who is just like you, you usually have a boring marriage and if you have somebody who is different than you, as most of us are, then you have to put up with a lot of strain and stress to turn what looks like a deficit into a real asset and diversity is one of the things that really keeps love and sex and intimacy alive. So you have to be careful what you ask for when you’re walking away from an argument and you’re thinking to yourself, "why couldn’t this person be more like me?" We usually pick partners that are different from ourselves because we want someone who is going to counterbalance us. One of the great rules of marriage though is people get divorced for the same reason they got married, so this trait that you loved about your partner when you first got together that’s the one that drives you crazy five years in.
Recorded on January 29, 2010
A conversation with the director of the Marriage and Family Health Center and the author of "Intimacy and Desire."
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