On Valentine’s Eve, I want to share with you one of the most life- and relationship-changing books I’ve ever read: Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch.
David Schnarch is both a relationship and sex therapist, and I think it’s the combination of the two topics that makes this book so effective. Schnarch doesn’t look at emotional intimacy and sex separately – which I think is a mistake often made in our culture – but rather explores how the two interact.
The book starts with the assumption that, as adults, we need to recognize our own autonomy and take responsibility for validating ourselves. It sounds simple, but it’s pretty radical for a culture that is built for easy (albeit often shallow) validation from a lot of people, whether it’s a stranger reTweeting you or someone swiping right on your Tinder profile. Instead of constantly looking to our partners to make us feel good about ourselves, we need to develop the confidence to take care of our own self-esteem and not put that responsibility on our partners.
At first it seems counterintuitive that you would build emotional intimacy by developing your individual confidence, but it makes a lot of sense. When you’re not relying on your partner for constant validation, it takes a lot of pressure off of the relationship. Your partner can be honest and authentic with you and not have to worry that you’ll fall apart if the two of you disagree. And more importantly, if you don’t have a strong sense of self, it’s hard to open up to real emotional intimacy because it feels too easy to “lose” yourself in the relationship. For true vulnerability to take place, you need to be confident in your identity and values and trust yourself not to compromise on the positive things at the core of who you are. Schnarch calls this “differentiation.”
The tricky thing about emotional intimacy and sex is that for a lot of people, intimacy makes it more difficult to let their guard down during sex. For many, it’s easier to enjoy sex with a stranger than a spouse because you don’t care all that much about what a stranger thinks of you, whereas the opinion of your spouse could be earth shattering. It takes a lot of courage to make yourself vulnerable to that degree, and it explains why it’s so important that you know how to self-validate without relying entirely on your partner. There’s a reason they say that confidence is so sexy – it’s that truly confident people are in a position to fully engage with sex both physically and emotionally.
So in large part, the book focuses on this interplay of emotional intimacy and sex in long term relationships and how many couples need to build up their individual confidence to engage more openly with their partners. Schnarch shares a lot of anecdotes from couples he’s counseled, and some of the situations they overcome are intense. There is one particularly poignant scene in which a husband who’s been cheated on admits that he was letting his wife walk all over him and that it was unattractive that he wouldn’t stand up for himself. It was difficult to read, but inspiring to see how people grew and transformed.
Which leads into the second major theme of the book: Once you’re personally secure enough and you’re in a committed relationship, that relationship is going to force you to grow and change throughout your life. Scary shit, right?
In a long term relationship, you and your partner will reach points where you need to change something in order to be true and authentic to who you really are. This throws you into a growth cycle as a couple (read: seriously uncomfortable but profound transformation) in which you need to negotiate what is most important to you and figure out how you both get what you need.
While this last point is in many ways scary as hell, it’s also what makes the book most inspiring. The fact of the matter is that marriage has changed drastically in just a couple of generations. My expectations for marriage are totally different than my grandparents’ were. Our society now expects people to have sex before marriage, so people aren’t getting married to have sex. (On the contrary, our culture often treats marriage like the place that sex goes to die.) Women have careers and independence to an unprecedented degree, so they no longer need husbands for practical reasons, like financial support. And modern men shouldn’t need a woman to cook and clean for them.So what is the purpose of modern marriage? According to Schnarch, growth and transformation are the reasons for a modern committed relationship. When you care enough about another person to take on the work and vulnerability of conflict and compromise, you ultimately get to be a better version of yourself.
I hope that if you are – or would ever like to be – in a long term relationship, you check out this book. It instigated a complete paradigm shift for me, and it’s made all of my relationships, not just my marriage, healthier. Seriously. Even though this book is written with a heavy emphasis on sex therapy, the concept of differentiation transformed all of my relationships. When you start recognizing how often your conflicts are caused by relying on others to validate you, it allows you to step back and take things less personally. And when you take things less personally, you can love everyone – your husband, parents, friends – more fully and less judgmentally because their actions are not a reflection on you. It’s a scary leap, but it’s definitely worth taking.
Happy Valentine’s Eve!
Amazon has Passionate Marriage available in paperback or on Kindle. For those who prefer listening to reading, there is also an abridged version available on CD called Secrets of a Passionate Marriage.