Helping Couples Decode the Language of Their Sexuality
by David Schnarch
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."
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 want 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 /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."
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."
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 particular-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."
Betty said she used to enjoy sex until she became overinvolved 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.
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 tip. 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.
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.
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 while 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.
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 overdependency.
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.
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 concentrate on body parts.
But the experience was also exhilarating. As Donald and Betty progressed from shy, little, peekaboo 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.
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."
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.
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, not 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.