A conversation with the marital therapist and author of Passionate Marriage and Intimacy and Desire.
Topic: Sex and marriage
David Schnarch: The way that the human race has evolved, it is virtually guaranteed that sex is going to die in emotionally committed relationships, and you can either bail out or tell yourself you picked the wrong person, and if you just found the right person they'd love all your flaws, and no matter what you did they'd just think that you're the bee's knees. And that's the picture most of us have -- we're supposed to have -- in childhood. But that's not marriage. Marriage -- people get fed up with you leaving your socks on the floor and having all your little habits. And they get tired of telling you that you're wonderful and propping you up, and they want you to stand on your own two feet and be a whole man or be a whole woman. And we usually get angry about that kind of stuff. It doesn't fit our picture, you know. We sort of have the picture of while we're single I have to take care of myself; once I get married you have to take me any old way I am. That's known as loving me. And one of the things sex and marriage and intimacy will teach you is, love is not accepting you any old way you are.
When people get married, you get married for better and worse, in sickness and in health, but that's not an excuse to screw off, get sloppy, get fat and not take care of yourself and not be an interesting person. So sex invariably dies. And we move on to your next question. That's really the answer to why sex dies. All around the world, where rape is not allowed, and women are allowed control of their own body, all around the world from time immemorial it is the low-desire partner that always controls sex. Now, you might think God's passive aggressive, or Mother Nature has a sense of humor. Maybe what she should have done is made the person who wants sex the most the person in charge, and the high-desire partner says, let's have sex, and the low-desire partner says, aye-aye, sir -- just -- whatever you say, that's what goes. And it doesn't work that way.
So what happens is, most of us are going through the struggle of "I want to be with you, but don't tell me what to do." And because the low-desire partner controls sex, when the high-desire partner says, let's have sex, and the low-desire partner says, well, I'm not so sure, and the high-desire partner says, well, then you don't love me enough, that's the end of sex. When it gets to be proved that you love me, do it my way. And the high-desire partner says, well, why do we always have to do it your way? And the low-desire partner says, well, why do we always have to do it your way? You are now in the middle of what happens to all of us, that none of us ever anticipate. You are in the middle of the wars of self-development, and that's what marriage is about.
Marriage is about growing up and getting to the point where you can love somebody on life's terms. And in the middle of that, sex dies. And couples go through, very often, months or years of not having sex, which nobody who is 18 years old ever believes. You get married because you can have sex all the time; you're even living with them; they're very convenient. And that's not the way that it works. So what we're really describing is what made the human brain evolve, where the low-desire partner controls sex, the high-desire partner doesn't like that, and the high-desire partner has to learn to control themselves because when the high-desire partner says, "You know what? You're just as controlling as your mother," that basically does not usually inspire high-desire or lubrication in your partner. So you have to learn to control yourself. This also teaches you to be considerate of your partner and not act like they belonged to you. And getting over the idea that your partner doesn't belong to you is a tough one. It sounds great when you first get married: we belong to each other. But that's as good as long as you're cutting the cake. Two years in, when your partner acts like your genitalia belongs to them, believe me, it does not inspire passion.
And when you go through the way that marriage really works, which beats out of you the idea that your partner either belongs to you or is always supposed to put your needs first, then you become a solid enough person, you earn your own self-respect, you earn each other's self-respect. That's what ignites passion. Self-respect is one of the best aphrodisiacs there is, but that's not what you get when you're first in the mad, passionately-in-love-with-each-other stage.
Question: Are women always the low-desire partner?
David Schnarch: No, that's the stereotype. The stereotype is always the guy can't get enough, and the woman wants to know why he wants it all the time. And that's the stereotype, but in half the couples that we see the man is the low-desire partner. And if you think it's tough being part of the stereotype, where you're the put-upon woman or you are the sex-starved man, you ought to see what happens to couples where it's the woman who can't get enough and it's the guy that feels like he's being chased around, being pushed for sex, where both the man and the woman think it's the guy that's supposed to be making all the approaches. And so you're not only having sex; you're also going against conventional stereotypes. And that happens to about half the couples. In half the couples it's the woman that really wants more sex than the guy does. You just never hear about them because they're both so embarrassed about the roles that they're in.
But also what's problematic about this picture about men and women falling into these typical roles, it doesn't deal with the same-sex couples. And it turns out you can take two women and put them together, or two guys and put them together, and in two years they look straight in the sense of they're not having sex either. So even when you take two women and put them together, you would think, well, they wouldn’t have that problem, right? They have the same temperament and they have the same biology, and the answer is wrong. You take same-sex couples, you put them together; even if they started out at the same level of arousal and desire, two years in, one of them is the high-desire partner, one of them is the low-desire partner.
And you realize what we're talking about transcends sexual orientation. It transcends culture, religion and even time and place in history, because if you look at the earliest recorded history, people were bitching about the high desire/low desire problem even then. It's what's made people go out and look for aphrodisiacs. That's the attempt to overpower the system, and you won't make it. There's no aphrodisiac that will make your partner have sex with you when they don't like you.
Lots of couples start out at the same level, but within two years it gets polarized. And I'm picking two years; for some couples it is six months. For some couples it's as soon as they move in together. And yes, on most issues in a marriage there's always a low-desire partner and a high-desire partner. So for instance, you could be the low-desire partner to have sex and the high-desire partner to have a baby.
And also it's not uncommon for people to switch roles. So for instance, I mentioned that in about half the couples the woman is the high-desire partner. I've seen a number of couples where they start out -- the woman is the high-desire partner; she's been a good girl; she figured, you know, I'll wait until I get into this committed relationship, and then I'll let it all hang out. And she's ready to go. And lo and behold, she turns out to be partnered with a guy that doesn't want it as long or as frequently as she does, and she becomes the low-desire partner with a vengeance. So people very often switch roles. So the person who starts out to be the high-desire partner may end up being the low-desire partner at a later point in the relationship.
And what it points out is, we're not talking about childhood or personality. So for instance, let's say you like to have sex three times a week, and in your first relationship you're partnered with someone who wants sex five times a week. Well, you want it three times a week, and you're the low-desire partner. You get divorced, you partner up with somebody who wants it once a week. You still only want it three times a week; that hasn't changed, but now you're the high-desire partner. So high-desire partner and low-desire partner, we're not talking about absolute frequency; it's positions in a relationship. And there is a high-desire partner and a low-desire partner on virtually every issue, whether it's having sex, or having sex with your eyes opened or closed, or having a baby, or having your spouse's mother-in-law move in with you, or switching careers, or making more money -- there is usually a high-desire partner and a low-desire partner. And on many, many issues in marriage, in what you're interested is collaboration, the low-desire partner runs the show.
Recorded on October 29, 2009