Sunday, June 10, 2012

Authenticity and Growing Up

David Schnarch, we learn in Psychology Today (June, 2012), is a psychologist who has spent decades going against the grain, debunking even Masters and Johnson. Debunking M & J, he is up against much of what is considered to be mainstream sex therapy.

Less interested in the mechanics of sex and communicating what we like, Schnarch is more interested in passion, passion between spouses, something he believes is only possible when we own our differences, maintain our individuality, and don’t fret every moment about what the other thinks.*

Sexy means different, separate. Opposites attract.

For what it’s worth, I can’t understand how this is a new concept.

Margaret Mahler (1897-1985), in the 1950’s, discussed separation and individuation, a variation of attachment/detachment (John Bowlby) as the psychological developmental process of human infancy. Mahler said that as newborns we start out symbiotic, with a sense of oneness, total attachment to our primary care-giver, usually Mother. As we gradually become aware that we are not the same person, that Mother has a life of her own, that we are really not one person, we begin the process of detaching from her psychologically, which will continue with others throughout our lives. But detachment in infancy is the beginning of the process of individuation, becoming an individual. By the age of two we're saying No! With attitude.

This process of developmental growth, becoming a being unto ourselves, different, unique from any other, varies for each of us. But we all go through it. Surely some of us start out and end up more dependent than others, and a more dependent, less secure partner might merge in many ways, seek to share values and characteristics of a more dominant partner, just as we do with friends in adolescence. Couples therapists see this as typical of one type of dysfunctional relationship (see the third below), and we see it often in the early stages of connecting, when, it is true, both partners may not be terribly grown up, especially if they partner young.

Some of us like to think we're never completely grown up, that we'll need to work on that until we die.

To Dr. Schnarch, the less grown up, less authentic, more dependent, gooey relationship is not sexy. It might be cute in the beginning, but it gets old. And none of us would disagree.

But really, doctor. Are they all like this, the marriages that need work? And those partners who are less mature, who are less well-individuated, should they just buck up? And if they can't or won't, then what?

If we were to quote Forest Gump on this one he might say, Sexy is as sexy does. And that would be your basic Master’s and Johnson/ standard sensate focus pleasure protocol. It is what any trained AASECT sex therapist (American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists) would recommend.

Schnarch wants us to grow up already, to be authentic, because this is sexy. We are more authentic when we hold our ground, when we don’t automatically move closer to the center, when we argue for what we believe in. It is independence that is erotic, not attachment, not if attachment implies that we must agree, lose ourselves in the process.

Certainly he's right, we could learn to do that, and therapy is a great place to start. Most relationship therapists have that part down, indeed, we spend much of that 45-minute hour encouraging authenticity. Honesty is sexy. It is the essence of intimacy.

Thankfully attachment theory, when it comes to infancy, is given a nod (he hasn't thrown the baby out with the bath water). Attachment is needed for healthy infant/childhood development. But for adults, attachment implies enmeshment, at least according to authenticity theory. Attachment, for Schnarch, when we're talking about adult to adult relationships, feels horrible, makes us feel guilty and stuck in our relationships because we feel we have to constantly tend to one another’s needs. Empathy, if I am reading him correctly, feeling another’s pain, actually messes us up.

Oy vey. Surely spoken by a male, one who relates to empathy intellectually.

Schnarch is opposed to marital attachment, or perhaps puts it second to authenticity (detachment) because it leaves no room for partners to speak their own mind, think their own thoughts, or attain their ambitions and dreams. (No room!?)
“We’ve eliminated from marriage those things that fuel our essential drives for autonomy and freedom.”
Whose marriage is he talking about? Every couple is so different! No two alike. And there are many different types of dysfunctional relationships, different types of marital pathology.

Consider four of them:

(1) conflictual marriages;
(2) relationships in which partners complain about missing intimacy,
(3) relationships characterized by one having to be sick in some way for the other to be well, and
(4) couples who pretend to agree, to be on the same page, who present to the world that nothing is wrong, when really, nothing is right.

There are unsatisfying, even pathological marriages, and we could say that a marriage that discourages independence would be one of them.

But there’s no question in my mind that Scharch is missing the central thesis to some off our therapies, one that this therapist has imparted to hundreds of couples over the years, driving them to more intimacy, more closeness, and yes, more attachment and surely, better sex. The mini psycho-educational lecture is addressed to those who complain about the second type of dysfunctional marriage above. But really everyone complains about intimacy in therapy. It is the nature of the beast, and it is rarely, too much intimacy.

A different psychoeducation:

One partner complains about not have enough time with the other. But the other partner thinks they already have enough, even too much time together. One feels suffocated (perhaps because the other isn't well-individuated, in the authenticity model). Another alone.

The novice therapist is able to accommodate, adjust that uncomfortable psychological space. Just grow up! Differentiate, add a new hobby, skill, book club to your life! Distance is good. Learn golf. The partner with the need for more intimacy is thought to be too dependent and is guided to fill in time with other things, develop more self. It feels like a win-win, at least to someone in the room.

But when it happens, in that growing up time, the golf instructor finds a passionate new student and attends to her intimacy needs. Do we not see this every day? She can certainly take this as flattery and rebuff him, run home to her partner exhilarated at the prospect. That’s sexy, for sure.

Is this what Schnarch really means? Possibly. Individuated, she has new ideas, new thoughts. She is more attractive. To everyone. Which is more attractive to him. (Switch genders if it makes you feel better.)

No, it doesn't have to go that way, the growth need not be co-opted by the golf instructor, and perhaps it usually does not.

A seasoned therapist, in any case, does not to go the distancing is sexy path, does not suggest golf right away. Surely golf is good, hobbies are great, individuation is for all ages, not only for infants. But the seasoned therapist tells both partners that intimacy is much harder than distance. Anyone can accomplish distance. It is staying close, being together that is hard.

Ask any retired couple. Accommodating to finally being together after years of individuating can feel like horribly suffocating, drives people who managed well throughout their marriages to therapy.

I agree with Dr. Schnarch, of course, that we have to be ourselves, and only ourselves in marriage (unless fantasy works, and guess what, it does), and that loving one another is easier when we are just that, crazy unique, original creatures that we were made to be. If owning who we are is growing up, then he is right on. But again, no chidish (Yiddish for something new, rhymes with hid-dish).

And to say that empathy is passe, over-rated, misses the point. Caring about the other’s feelings has to be a primary objective in an intimate partnership, should take precedence over golf, even politics, even if it doesn’t feel all that sexy in the moment. Empathy is tuning in to the other's mood, joining, attaching, and it doesn’t feel good is the truth, because our moods aren't always pleasant so no, it isn’t sexy. We don’t like to feel one another’s pain. Far better, really to be on the green, or at work, to avoid the other’s negativity until that other gets over it. Far better.

Not really. Not really far better, not at all.


*A good sex therapy program, by the way, is never all about the mechanics, always beam the flashlight on emotional marital dysfunction, especially anger. We could say that Schnarch's emphasis on authenticity is really a variation of that.


Critically Observant Jew said...

Please change the background from red to something more readable - red background is hard on the eyes.

therapydoc said...


lynette said...

I can see where this type of "maintaining the mystery of the independent individual" would maybe keep sexual interest alive -- maybe -- and a sense of romance.

But how do you possibly get then to the level of intimacy that allows the partners to just be themselves in a vulnerable, genuine, love-me-and-my-faults kind of way?

Frankly the type of relationship he describes sounds exhausting to maintain -- like always having to have one's make-up on.

There must be some balance of maintaining the individual and creating the shared intimate life that works. Is not a marriage an ongoing decision to commit to the marriage, year in and year out? I would think it would be impossible to share a home and a family and children, and keep up the level of "individuation" that he describes.

I do know at least one married couple who have children, but who have separate apartments (he has an autoimmune disease and finds a need for privacy and retreat when ill). For them it works -- they are a block away in NYC. But their marriage is no happier than any other.

Just a thought or many....

Critically Observant Jew said...

way better

therapydoc said...

See, and I thought authentic means no make-up IS sexy. Dr. Schnarch has a good point to make here, that we're best when we're not working overtime to please. My issue is that so many don't work at all, or don't know how to please, and there are so many reasons for that that his fix is too simple. But surely it's the ticket for some couples. Just not all.

For example, some want less authentic, more make-up, and that could be very sexy for both of them. Or at least one of them. Which could be delightful once in awhile.

lynette said...

I am not quite sure you got my whole point (or points), TD. Reminding your partner of what makes you exciting is great, in any relationship, no question. And I am definitely not advocating for losing oneself in order to please the other. But yes, sometimes wearing no make-up and letting the other one really in is the most loving thing one can do. And for me, I can only hope that the partner I pick finds that sexy.

In my opinion, once you have let someone into the delivery room with you to give birth to a child, once they have seen your shirt soaked with breast milk and you can't stop crying, you have a boatload of work to do to ever be seen as sexy again. Or maybe that is just the guy I was married to.

therapydoc said...

Okay. Lots to say here. I'll try to blog on it. Can I quote you?

lynette said...

Absolutely! I will be so interested to hear what you have to say!

Justice said...

I'm not sure what specific writing of Schnarch's you refer to throughout your post (I don't see a reference or link) but I have a few general thoughts based on my understanding of his work and on the topic...

Schnarch goes to lengths to distinguish between detachment and differentiation (even offering a diagram in Passionate Marriage). The conflating of these terms throughout the post makes it difficult for me to understand your true objections.

Re: "Empathy, if I am reading him correctly, feeling another’s pain, actually messes us up."

My understanding (and experience) is that mistaking someone else's pain for our own is what messes us up. How we manage our own system - how we respond when we (inevitably) feel another's pain is the issue... the growth opportunity.

Re: "A seasoned therapist, in any case, does not to go the distancing is sexy path..." Again, distancing is entirely your word, your interpretation right? I've never heard Schnarch advocate distancing.

Re: "Just grow up! Differentiate, add a new hobby, skill, book club to your life! Distance is good. Learn golf. The partner with the need for more intimacy is thought to be too dependent and is guided to fill in time with other things, develop more self. It feels like a win-win, at least to someone in the room."

To my ears this, and much of the post, is a poor interpretation (misunderstanding? mockery?) of Schnarch's message. In my reading Schnarch does not label his clients as "too" anything. In fact, in his case studies he routinely validates the current experience of his clients as making perfect sense.

I do agree with you that Schnarch's model (like all models) is unlikely to be a good fit at all times, but I see it resting on a higher developmental rung, not a lower.


Mike said...

Sorry to be late to this party. I have just found your blog and am working my way backwards through it. I've read Scharch's "Passionate Marriage", and having liked it, I did a few days workshop with him, to get a feel for the person. My general comments would be the same as Justice's above. I am sure it would be true of Schnarch that there are some couples he'd be better with than others. He's not unempathic.

therapydoc said...

Thanks Mike! I appreciate the feedback so much.