For decades, faithful readers of Ladies' Home Journal have turned to "Can This Marriage Be Saved?," a monthly column billed as "the most popular, most enduring women's magazine feature in the world," in which troubled spouses tell all, then are counseled by a wise, real-life therapist.
In the November issue, Evergreen psychologist David Schnarch gets his turn, snatching a couple married twenty years from the jaws of sexual boredom in a special "Can Our Sex Life Be Saved?"
"I don't do the ten-ways-to-improve-your-marriage thing," Schnarch cautions. "It doesn't work. If it did, you wouldn't have to read it every month. They print it because nobody wants to deal with the complexity of a real relationship, and what editor wants to print ten-years-to-a-better-marriage, which is far closer to the truth?"
Although Schnarch's work with "Susan" and "Rob" didn't take quite that long, it was no quick fix, either. In six months of therapy, the couple were able to resolve most of their sexual difficulties, but other issues still required work. As Schnarch notes in the magazine, "A couple's sex life is a mirror for what's happening in the rest of their marriage."
The article hardly represents Schnarch's maiden voyage into the limelight. Scarcely a newsstand is unencumbered by at least a quote from him. USA Today ran his suggestions for how to achieve "an erotic wallow based on what is between your ears, not the amount of cellulite you have." Schnarch has written for such publications as Playboy and Psychology Today, and he looks forward to an upcoming special on his work in New Woman magazine. Videos are available upon request. The man is not shy about publicity.
Since he moved his life and practice from New Orleans to Colorado seven months ago, however, Schnarch has been too busy to chat. But now the dust has settled, the boxes are unpacked, and he is ready to talk about sex.
Schnarch has been watching us have sex for several decades and has just about seen it all. So far, he's not impressed. Among his observations:
--"Most people think foreplay is the period in which partners help each other to get aroused. Heterosexual foreplay often seems to be the process of getting the woman lubed, like detailing a car. You just get into every nook and cranny."
--"The number of people who can orgasm with their eyes open is extremely low."
--"People are constantly driving relationships by childhood wounds, which is too bad, because wounded children have stinking sex."
Does any of this strike a chord? Want to come in and mull it over with the good doctor in a comforting, loving atmosphere? Forget it.
"Our office is not a safe place, and neither is life," Schnarch states flatly. "Unconditional love? It's bullshit. The whole concept of your partner `being there' for you is nonsense. Marriage is not about inner children or toxic parents; it is just there, and everyone has to go through it."
But do sex therapists usually tell you that? "No," Schnarch says. "Marital therapy is designed to get people to the point where they stop complaining. We're good at helping people have mediocre relationships."
And in a world sick of being advised to rekindle marriages with trips to Victoria's Secret, people are willing to listen. At a recent training directed at U.S. Army ministers, Schnarch discussed "the integration of spirituality, sex and a hardball approach to marital discord." At a gathering of archdiocese officials from across the country, he explained his opposition to the just-say-no approach to teen sex: "Because once you say yes, it leaves you out in the cold."
"I have even done a Sunday morning sermon," he says, with a touch of pride. "And standing up there and saying the words `penis' and `vagina,' I fully expected a lightning bolt to come down and strike me dead. And it didn't."
Why? Because Schnarch believes his message--that long-term, committed, monogamous marriage was designed, possibly from on high, to "grow people up"--is something people want to hear on Sunday morning.
It wasn't until Schnarch was a graduate student in psychology that he found his calling. "The people I saw teaching did not have shirts open to the navel and a gold pickle hanging around their neck," he recalls. "They were really decent people--the kind of people who, if they wanted to go to bed with you, watch out. And if they didn't, there was no way you would ever, ever get to first base. And this was the Sixties, when everyone was already sitting on first base. These were people I wanted to be like."
Some of the theories they espoused, however, left him less than enthused. Masters and Johnson had developed a model of human sexual response that "helped people to function like mammals, not like humans," Schnarch says. "And one of the most widely used procedures--still used, in fact--was called `bypassing.' Basically, you're supposed to close your eyes and use the partner as a fleshy dildo.
"What if someone were to use your body that way--would it make you want to give them the best bang of their life?"
And here we come (as it were) to the crux of the Schnarch approach. These are the theories expounded in Schnarch's 1991 Constructing the Sexual Crucible, which he continues to teach at couples retreats and therapist-training seminars with his wife of nine years, clinical psychologist Ruth Morehouse. What others regard as problems Schnarch simply considers the human condition--which is elegantly played out in the superhuman, heatproof container most of us call marriage. He prefers to think of it as a crucible.
"Besides," he adds, "when I say `marriage,' I'm not referring to the legal institution. I mean an emotionally committed relationship. I would never advocate a system that discriminated against gays and lesbians."
And how, exactly, does this crucible work? "What it takes to improve sex is the very process that makes us grow up enough to love on life's own terms," Schnarch attempts. "It's the function of marriage to find any part of you that's not fully grown and pop it to the surface." And then there is his oft-repeated tenet--that couples ruin perfectly good marriages by depending on each other for every possible need. "You must learn to stand on your own two feet, even when horizontal," he says to anyone who has been in the same room with him longer than five minutes.
Cynthia McReynolds, a clinical psychologist from Palo Alto, began training with Schnarch three years ago. Since then, she has lost patience with her self-esteem-building California cohorts, even those who claim success in the area of dysfunctional sex. "People are always asking sex therapists to help them have an orgasm, or to have intercourse, and to somehow have the mechanics work right," she says. "We can do that, but it's not what they really want. What they really want is the feeling, the sense of `I-thou,' the passion and intimacy."
With Schnarch's help--and a few decades of hard labor--they can have it, McReynolds believes. "He's about to set the world of sex therapy on its head," she says. "Personally, I can't wait."
And in the meantime, Schnarch continues to perfect his crucible theory. In short, he says, whatever big issues are troubling a couple will drive their sex life into the ground as well. What makes things interesting is that sex is the one area that couples may not be willing to let become hopelessly average. If they find the energy to work on sex, the rest of their marriage may profit as well.
"You just can't agree to disagree about sex," he says. "If you come home and tell your wife, `I've decided I never want to have sex with you again,' most partners are not going to say, `Oh. Thank you for sharing.'
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.