David Schnarch and “Passionate Marriage”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been researching (heavily and obsessively, I confess) the concept of intimate relationships, specifically marriage and it’s variants. This week I’ve been reading “Passionate Marriage” by Dr. David Schnarch at a devouring and voracious rate. Schnarch is “a licensed clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist” (from the back cover). The book is, well, excellent; I’m enjoying every chapter. In fact, it’s even altered my view on the concept of monogamous marriage…for the better. Could marriage between two adults actually look like this? According to the book, it seems possible. Addressing the concepts of self-differentiation and the solid-self, enmeshment and emotional fusion, other-validation v. self-validation, intimacy and desire during sex (to name a few), the book offers a reconstructed idea of what a “good” marriage looks like, an idea I had not previously known was possible let alone actually existed. I recommend reading it (even tough I’m only 2/3 the way through), but not at work…he’s a sex therapist, and the case studies in the book will…ummm…make you wish you weren’t at work 😉

Here’s an excerpt from chapter 9 “Mental Dimensions of Sexual Experience” (bold is me):

We insist on being our spouse’s one and only–even in fantasy. On the surface it may seem like we’re following the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,’ but underneath it’s our narcissism demanding, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods! Worship only me!’ … We don’t want our partner fantasizing about anyone else! It’s not easy to accept, even if we do it, too. Realizing they’re doing it during sex with us adds insult to emotional injury.

Research indicates that, of all sexual fantasies, thinking of someone other than your partner is the most common. These are called ‘partner replacement’ fantasies. When confronted about their fantasies about other partners, many people assume it’s better to deny everything and be glad it’s hard to prove they are lying. They think partner replacement fantasies belong to the category of ‘the few things not said each day that improve a marriage.’

Wanting to be our partner’s ‘one and only’ in fantasy is not just an extension of the principle of monogamy. It has to do with being dependent on our partner’s validation. Our mate’s sexual fantasies play havoc with our reflected sense of self. Validation from our partner evaporates while he or she fantasizes about someone else. We can tell ourselves we don’t have to take it personally. But if we’ve spent our lives pursuing validation from others, we don’t really have much choice but to take it personally when we are not the focus of our partner’s fantasies.

What I’m describing isn’t a problem if you handle it properly. Granted, ti doesn’t feel good at first. But it’s part of marriage’s people-growing machine. You can persist in hating the fact that your spouse’s fantasies don’t always include you, or you can develop a more stable sense of yourself.

For several chapters we’ve look at what happens to marriages dominated by other-validated intimacy. To review the general characteristics of partners in these marriages: (a) they have difficulty introducing novelty into their sexual relationship, (b) they experience anxiety and resist change when their partner does something new, and (c) they have difficulty with maintaining a clear sense of self when out of synch with their partner. More important to our current discussion, they are likely to tune out their partner during sex and focus on body sensations to reach orgasm. Over time, they are more likely to experience sexual boredom and resort to partner replacement fantasies for sexual variety.

Here’s the paradox: the very thing that makes poorly differentiated people go crazy over their partner’s sexual fantasies predisposes them to do the same thing themselves! People wounded by the discovery that they are not their partner’s ‘one and only’ are likely to be fantasizing about someone else. Being dependent on validation from others, they have to lie about it even while they are complaining about their partner. And in the midst of all this, they want their partner to validate them and make them feel secure. Like the exercise wheel inside a squirrel cage, this process drives marriage’s people-growing machinery.

If this pattern rings true for you so far, consider the impact during sex: desire to fuse with your partner actually increases the likelihood of experiencing less intimacy during sex. Your heads are inevitably in different places. you can  feel your partner tune you out even if you’re ‘in synch’ enough to grind.

I’m not saying that there is anything ‘wrong’ with mind-wandering and partner replacement fantasies during sex. I’m putting them in context so you can use them productively. Mind-wandering during sex is probably inevitable–but you can reduce it significantly and increase the intimacy and potency of your sex. The benefit can generalize to the rest of your life, because it involves increasing your level of differentiation.

Humans will always fantasize; that’s not necessarily a problem. The difficulty is that the way we fantasize (and hide it) interferes with intimacy and wall-socket sex. Like hugging, kissing, desire, and monogamy, fantasies operate differently depending on your level of differentiation.

While predominately about sex, the concepts discussed above apply to a number of other aspects that often plague monogamous marriage. And, good Lord, let us hear lest we cease to sense the something-fierce need to overhaul and reconfigure monogamous marriage.

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