Passionate Marriage - a book review

After a few years of marriage, sex becomes routine, right? Most of us resignedly trade the passion of courtship for the predictable humdrum of parenthood, work, and weekends spent trying to catch up on sleep and housework. Proposed solutions to this problem abound. Talk show experts suggest a week at an island resort, or a skimpy outfit from Victoria's Secret, while therapists prescribe sensate focus and communication exercises. But those efforts only have a temporary effect, says psychologist and sex therapist David Schnarch, author of Passionate Marriage: Sex, Love, and Intimacy in Emotionally Committed Relationships. If you really want to put passion back in your marriage, Schnarch recommends something altogether different: differentiation.

Schnarch's approach to sex therapy departs from the norm, both in its focus on differentiation and its often challenging tone. When Bill, for example, confessed that he felt he was disappointing his wife, Joan, when he consistently lost his erection during intercourse, Schnarch told him, "I didn't know you could let someone down with your penis. I've never seen a hard-on strong enough to support someone. If you want to make love, why not do it with the parts capable of loving your brain and your heart and let the rest of your anatomy follow? When you lose your erection, do you ever find your tongue or fingers go limp, too?"

Intimacy and authentic sex, Schnarch says, begin not with communication but with self-confrontation, which requires the courage to look deeply into ourselves and take responsibility for what we find there. For Bill, this meant facing his sexual selfishness. "Why do you stop pleasing Joan when you lose your hard-on if you're worried about disappointing her?" Schnarch wanted to know. Bill didn't have an immediate answer. But as he and Joan struggled with the question over the next few weeks, sex, which had been their battleground, became the place where they put their marriage back together. Bill began to enjoy pleasing Joan, in bed and out, while Joan began to own her personal and sexual power. Most important, they ended up respecting themselves for having the courage to break their sexual gridlock.

How could working on a sexual problem lead to empowerment and increased self-respect? Schnarch contends that sex is a mirror in which the key issue of differentiation the tension between separateness and togetherness is played out and where the balance can be changed. Many partners, for example, drift off into their own inner worlds during sex, darkening the room and closing their eyes to concentrate on their own feelings and sensations while separating themselves from their partners. And who can blame them? Too much closeness can be scary. But without connection, sex becomes mechanized. Schnarch coaches couples to make love with the lights on and their eyes open, experiencing their connection to each other and their separate erotic worlds simultaneously. While uncomfortable at first, this exercise takes many couples to new heights of sexual pleasure, what Schnarch calls "wall-socket sex" because the experience is absolutely electric. Whoever guessed that differentiation could be sexy?

Passionate Marriage is a virtuoso performance. Schnarch brings truly erotic energy and "juice" to sex therapy one chapter is entitled "Fucking, Doing, and Being done: It Isn't What You Do, It's the Way You Do It" and avoids the "tab A in slot B" mechanical notions of treatment that have dominated the field until now. Schnarch's excitement about people and their relationships, sexual and otherwise, pervades the book. He sees marriage as a courageous adventure that can both scare the wits out of us and push us to grow in ways we would never have imagined. His excitement is infectious. And that's one infection we shouldn't be afraid to catch. 

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