Intimacy in Marriage and Relationships as a Developmental Task

A comparison of David Schnarch and Harville Hendrix

Elaine Cook

November 5, 2001

One of my major interests in counseling lies in the area of relationships, and in particular, in working with people in polyamorous relationships. I have observed that working out polyamorous relationships can be a tremendous source of growth and development. Many of the same issues have to be faced in committed relationships whether or not they are monogamous. However, there is much more literature available on (monogamous) marriage than on alternative forms of relationships. This semester I have chosen to explore two approaches to marriage and relationship counseling, both of which emphasize marriage as a developmental task. David Schnarch proposes the Sexual Crucible model of marriage, and Harville Hendrix created the Imago Relationship Therapy approach.

I'll start by giving a very brief summary of each approach, then list their similarities followed by their differences. I'll discuss my own reactions to each approach, and my sense of their effectiveness. I'll then describe another approach to communication and intimacy, followed by some comments on monogamy and polyamory.

David Schnarch and the Sexual Crucible Approach

David Schnarch believes that integrity and differentiation are the keys to an exciting and passionate relationship. Marriage is a crucible in which we need to learn to stand up for our own needs and also deal with our partner's needs. We have to face the fear that going for what we want will terminate the marriage. We have to face difficult choices when our needs conflict with our partner's needs. He believes that by facing these conflicts honestly, through self-validating, self-soothing, and self-confrontation, we increase our differentiation. By dealing with the anxiety of the two-choice dilemma and the anxiety inherent in trying new behaviors, we create a passionate marriage. Marriage is a people-growing machine. We grow by handling the problems that come up in marriage. (Schnarch, 1998)

Differentiation is an essential concept in the Sexual Crucible approach. One aspect of differentiation is the ability to maintain a clear sense of self while you are in close proximity to a partner. The higher the level of differentiation, the closer you can get to another person, because you're not afraid of losing yourself. (Bader, 1995)

Harville Hendrix and Imago Relationship Therapy

Harville Hendrix believes that we fall in love with someone who has both the positive and negative traits of our primary caretakers, but especially the worst traits. Falling in love is the romantic phase of the relationship, where nature blinds us to the problems that we will have, for the purpose of matching us with someone with whom we can heal the wounds from our childhood and continue our arrested development. We then move into a power struggle. The way out of the power struggle is to recognize our partner as a wounded person, to become conscious of the specific nature of our own wounds and our partner's wounds, and to help each other heal those wounds. This is the conscious marriage. We can re-vision our marriage, creating safety and passion and the relationship of our dreams. He claims that exactly following the exercises he has created will lead us to that goal. Conflict in marriage is natural, it is supposed to happen. The grounds for marriage is really incompatibility, because marriage is the arena in which we both heal our complementary wounds. (Hendrix, 1993A)

He has created a process called the couples dialogue to help couples listen to each other and feel heard.


Schnarch and Hendrix have a number of apparent similarities, and some therapists have suggested that they have different approaches towards the same goal. However, Schnarch is adamant that this is not true. He insists that while they are saying similar things, what they are doing and what they are accomplishing is very different (Bader, 1995). Let's look at the apparent similarities.

  • Emotional symbiosis or fusion is the underlying problem that challenges a couple. Overcoming this is the major developmental task of marriage. (Bailey, 1996)
  • Our partner is the right person with whom to work this out. Schnarch says, "Part of marriage's elegance is that spouses always make ideal sparring partners." (Schnarch, 1998, p. 68) Hendrix says that you choose the ideal partner to help you heal your childhood wounds. (Hendrix, 1993A)
  • Schnarch says that "Nobody's ready for marriage - marriage makes you ready for marriage." (Schnarch, 1998, p. 25) Hendrix says "Incompatibility is the grounds for marriage, not divorce." (Hendrix, 1993A) The idea behind both is that marriage provides the container and motivation for growth.
  • Intimacy (Schnarch) or conscious marriage (Hendrix) is not for the faint-hearted.
  • Marriage is growth path. It is not meant to be easy. Conflict is natural, and part of the purpose of marriage.
  • One goal of their treatment is aliveness and passion in the marriage.
  • The undifferentiated person is looking for an unsymmetrical relationship. Hendrix expresses this as someone asking his/her partner, "Fuse with me, but don't ask me to fuse with you." (Bailey, 1996) Schnarch expresses it as, "I want you to want me, but I don't want to want you." (Schnarch, 1993C)
  • Good sex (or passion) comes from intimacy.
  • Both emphasize the importance of monogamy, though Schnarch says that it needs to be a commitment to oneself, rather than to one's partner.
  • Ultimately, your partner's needs are as important as your own.
  • Growth in marriage is a part of a spiritual process.


I see their differences as follows:

  • The essence for Schnarch is differentiation, which means that first you have to be able to stand up for yourself. For Hendrix, first you try to understand your partner.
  • Schnarch increases the anxiety to cause growth, creating a pressure cooker. (Schnarch, 1993A) Hendrix reduces the anxiety to allow healing to take place.
  • Hendrix feels that safety creates the space for passion, so he tries to create safety and comfort. Schnarch insists that safety kills passion, and that excitement and challenge are desirable.
  • Schnarch works towards what he calls self-validated intimacy, instead of other-validated intimacy. Hendrix denies that one can validate oneself.
  • Dale Bailey suggests that their understanding of emotional symbiosis or fusion is different, and this causes them to take different interventions to reduce it. Hendrix' emphasis has been on the way partners project their reality on each other, which Bailey calls projective fusion, while Schnarch's emphasis is on the fear of experiencing or expressing any difference from one's partner. Bailey calls this introjective fusion. (Bailey, 1996)
  • The effect of the previous point is that Hendrix works towards helping people create safety for their partner and try to understand their partner, while Schnarch works on self-confrontation and creating one's own safety.
  • Hendrix says that intimacy comes from safety (Hendrix, 1993A) and Schnarch says it comes from self-validation. (Schnarch, 1992)
  • Another way of looking at this is that in Imago Therapy, it is the listener who changes to meet the needs of the speaker, while the Sexual Crucible approach is to get the speaker to take responsibility for him/herself, and tell his/her truth whether or not the listener is receptive to what is being said.
  • For Schnarch, differentiation is the key element. Once you are differentiated, then it's possible to have a relationship worth having. He thinks Murray Bowen would say that Imago Therapy yields pseudo-differentiation. (Bader, 1995) For Hendrix, the relationship is primary. He considers self-soothing to be emotional masturbation. (Bader, 1995)
  • Schnarch considers therapist differentiation to be critical to the effectiveness of the therapist. (Schnarch, 1993A) Hendrix says that it's the method that's important, and the method is effective even if the therapist isn't fully present. (Bader, 1995)
  • Hendrix strongly encourages couples to make a commitment to each other, and to close off their "exits." Schnarch considers this to be undifferentiated. Further, he believe that pressure on the couple to stay together increases the likelihood that they'll break up. (Schnarch, 1993A)
  • Schnarch is only concerned with working with the neocortex (our "new" brain), which is the part that thinks, makes decisions, understands, wants and chooses. It's neocortical desire that makes sex personal. It's the neocortex that determines with whom we have sex, how we do it, why we do it, and what it means to us. Differentiation is a neocortical function. (Schnarch, 1998, p. 135) Hendrix, on the other hand, includes exercises to help the old brain (he uses the term to refer to both the reptilian and mammalian brain) recognize your partner as a friend and a source of pleasure. He addresses both old and new brain issues. (Hendrix, 1990)
  • Schnarch often discusses something intangible which I would call "energy." This comes up as sexual vibes, or as "feeling" your partner, or "feeling" the client (in a nonphysical, nonsexual way). It involves tuning in, an awareness, a presence. He says any child can recognize it. Hendrix does not address this at all, and appears to make no distinction in feeling tone between someone who is reluctantly performing an exercise and someone who is enthusiastically doing it.
  • Schnarch delves into sexuality, and provides a model for being comfortable with the discussion of intimate sexual details. Hendrix uses the word "passion" many times on the videotape, but avoids almost any mention of sex.
  • Both talk about self-in-relation. But they are concerned about different things. In his chapter called "Developing a Self-in-Relation," Schnarch defines differentiation as "your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others - especially as they become increasingly important to you." (Schnarch, 1998, p. 56) He explains that differentiation is fundamentally relational, as opposed to individuation, which is based on separation and getting apart. Maintaining your sense of self is the key.
    For Hendrix, the self is created in relationship. In the dialogue process, there is no surrender of self, but rather the amplification of self in the experience of the delineation of the other (Bader, 1995) As I understand this, it means that I become more myself as I recognize the otherness of you, and withdraw my projections from you.
  • Schnarch is trying to get people to tell their partner what's important to them no matter what the response. Hendrix is trying to get them to say it at all, by having the partner create an environment where it will be safe to say it.

Personal Reactions

I became aware of these two approaches to relationship counseling by recommendations from friends. I have chosen to examine them because I believe they both have something to offer. I've been struggling with determining what makes sense to me, and what I will want to incorporate into my practice as a therapist. I'd like to go on a journey of exploration here.

First, I'd like to examine my visceral reactions.

Hendrix is extremely directive. In the videotape (Hendrix, 1993A), he repeatedly emphasizes that if you follow his directions exactly, you'll be able to create safety and passion and the relationship of your dreams. Well, I don't do what I'm told very well, and I don't believe in telling others exactly what to do. It strikes me as disrespectful towards the client as an intelligent, thinking, capable person.

Given the way the exercises are laid out in precise detail, and the emphasis on the format of the couples dialogue, I shouldn't have been surprised when Hendrix said that the Imago Therapy method works even when the therapist is tired and wishes that the last client had already left. (Bader, 1995) My interest in counseling comes from the fascination I have when people are revealing themselves, from the passion I have for being with people in the moment of recognition, of change, of determination, of healing. I'm not interested, as my major focus, in a blind application of technique which could perhaps just as easily be facilitated by a robot, though I'm glad to include techniques that work as tools.

Hendrix explains that your partner embodies the negative traits of your caregivers that you need to heal from, and that's why you fell in love. But that doesn't work for me. If anything, I embody many negative traits from my mother, and have worked hard to let go of them. But this is not his model. Also, my ex-husband and current husband have very different personalities. I certainly didn't get the kind of healing that Hendrix talks about in my first marriage, yet I didn't choose someone with the same negative traits again. So this theory that is so important to his technique just doesn't make sense to me.

Passionate Marriage, on the other hand, was easy to get passionate about. Hendrix may talk about aliveness, but I feel it in Schnarch's book. One of the major aspects for me is that Schnarch recognizes what I call energy, even if he doesn't use that term. At last! I get very frustrated with theories which discount anything which isn't currently measurable, and claim something doesn't exist if it can't be measured. I have a personal experience which emphasizes this. When my ex-husband and I went to a therapist, she told us to express our problems by talking about specific actions. I understand that vague complaints are hard to resolve, but this took away my ability to express my sense that his attitude was a major part of the problem I was experiencing. This really showed up in an exercise we did where we were to take turns touching each other and giving feedback. What I wanted couldn't be expressed by directions such as "press a little harder." What I wanted was for him to want to please me. I think Schnarch would have understood.

Healing childhood wounds sounds remedial to me. Also, we can have wounds that need to be healed that come from adulthood rather than childhood. Is healing wounds all there is to life? I want to move forward, I want to reach for something. I feel the call to be all I can be, to be fully myself. Schnarch appeals to that part of me, to the explorer in me. He inspires me and fills me with enthusiasm. I appreciate his earthiness, the way he is so clearly sex positive. I rejoice when he asks whether the Virgin Mary enjoyed a good sex life with Joseph after Jesus was born, and points out that if you think that question is blasphemous, then you may have a hard time fully supporting a woman's sexuality. (Schnarch, 1994B) I think his positive attitude towards sex is really important.

Effectiveness of the approaches

Schnarch says that he is concerned with driving the field forward. We don't know as much as we think we know, and we have to examine theories and their applications and see what they are really doing. (Schnarch, 1993C) In some of his tapes he makes reasoned criticisms of other theories. For example, he says there is a difficulty with mutuality theory as presented by the Stone Center. It takes one kind of connection, mutuality, which is the highest form of selflessness that people are capable of, and says that that is true connection. Anything else is out of connection. However, we can't understand emotional fusion from that model, because within the model you can't see the connection between people who are fused. (Schnarch, 1994A) This type of critique is important. However, at times his comments degenerate to a low blow. For example, in a discussion of clinical integrity, he mentions Keeping the Love You Found and Getting the Love You Want (these are books by Harville Hendrix). Schnarch says these titles are seductive, but appeal to the lowest common denominator in our society. (Schnarch, 1993A) I don't see this as a constructive comment. There are also other places where he uses ridicule to disparage other approaches. He has a tendency to take a simplistic view of what another therapy is trying to do, such as Imago Therapy, and try to make it sound ridiculous. This detracts from a serious discussion of the differences.

One of the areas where Schnarch repeatedly attacks Imago Therapy and other empathy based therapies has to do with safety and sex. He claims that good sex is not about safety. The best sex often involves a high degree of anxiety, ambiguity, and not knowing what's going to happen next. (Bader, 1995) I think he's attacking a straw man here. Of course we don't try new things unless we're willing to master our anxiety. Likewise, however, the first time we try a new sexual activity is often not the best, because we have to be concerned about logistics, and we're facing the possibility that it will be a complete flop. In my experience, it's easier to try something new if we have created the safety together of deciding that everything will be fine whether or not the experiment is something we wish to repeat, as opposed to facing a more raw type of anxiety that Schnarch's self-validation approach seems to advocate. Further, if the first time worked well enough that we care to try again, subsequent experiences are often even more delightful, since we can relax and enjoy them more. At some times Schnarch seems to recognize this, but that does not stop him from putting down on the idea that safety can help create passion.

Differentiation is a major area of contention. Dale Bailey's description of their different understandings of emotional fusion (see above) provides a helpful starting point. Unfortunately, as Bailey points out, Schnarch seems to have a "superficial and distorted understanding of Imago Therapy." (Bailey, 1997) Schnarch is focussed solely on the ability to stand up for yourself, the willingness to reveal yourself even if your partner does not react well. The emphasis in Imago Therapy, on the other hand, is to teach people to listen well to their partner. Because Schnarch is focussed on the person who is talking, he sees borrowed functioning in this interaction. The person talking is doing so only because of the safety created by the partner. However, as I see it, the listener is performing an act of differentiation by holding on to him/herself and not responding to the speaker. The listener has to calm him/herself, and pay attention to what the speaker is saying rather than to his/her own internal reactions to what is being said. This is particularly true in the container exercise, which is designed to allow someone to express very strong emotions such as rage. In this exercise, Hendrix suggests that the listener calm himself, and imagine a plexiglass divider separating him from his wife. It is only when the listener has put on his psychic armor that the exercise proceeds. (Hendrix, 1993A) This certainly seems to me to encourage differentiation on the part of the listener, rather than the fusion that Schnarch sees.

Imago Therapy doesn't focus on differentiation in the same way that the Crucible approach does. However, it does encourage people to tell their partner everything that's important to them, and in that way develops intimacy. In the process of creating the safety that Schnarch derides, the partners become stronger. Schnarch seems to think the process of disclosure and empathy by appointment is one of capitulation. He thinks that saying "What you say makes sense" (which is mandated as part of the couples dialogue) takes away from the person who says it, if it doesn't make sense to him/her. I initially reacted to that instruction badly as well, when I heard about it before watching the videotapes. However, I now see it in the context of understanding the other person from his/her perspective. You don't diminish yourself in any way or invalidate your own beliefs by recognizing that other people have a basis for their beliefs, and by trying to understand where they are coming from, even if you vigorously disagree with them.

A key question may be whether Imago Therapy leads to people who are better able to speak their mind with anyone, or who are dependent on hearing the right response. I certainly don't have the experience to answer that question. However, my guess is that many people who have worked with Imago Therapy techniques have differentiated enough in the process to be able to be more fully themselves, even in situations where they can't count on a "safe" response.

Schnarch thinks that Imago Therapy makes you dependent on the other person. If that person doesn't follow the process, then what can you do? Certainly I've seen people who are working with a particular technique who get caught in it. I've heard people say, "Your statement is illegal," or "You're not doing it right." Clearly these are not the statements of highly differentiated people. However, I think that the listening techniques Hendrix teaches are helpful even if the other person is not following the form. Conversely, there are situations where I don't see how to use the Crucible approach. For example, if your partner refuses to express his/her feelings. Clearly you can express your desire for communication, or decide that you don't want to remain with your partner, but I don't see any way in the Crucible approach that would make it easier for your partner to open up, without a therapist to provide some brilliant insight.

There's a fine line that I'm not always able to distinguish between manipulation and simply standing up for what you want. The difference, per the Crucible approach, seems to me to be that in one case you may threaten your partner, and in the other case you recognize the conflicting desires, and you do a lot of internal work to help you find a way to hold both (or all) of them until a resolution comes forward. The resolution may be to leave your partner, but you haven't been threatening to leave in order to persuade your partner to give in to you.

Schnarch maintains that no amount of other-validation leads to self-validation. (Schnarch, 1993B) Standing up for yourself is not the result of other people giving you empathy and support. While I agree that other people can't give someone a backbone, I think that it's a lot harder to stand up for yourself when you've been beaten down, or when everyone else disapproves of what you're doing. I think that sometimes when we feel the support of others, or at least of one other, it's easier to take a difficult stand. That's a step towards greater differentiation and self-validation. Also, sometimes when we've been fully heard, we get insights that we didn't get alone, and that can lead us to taking the kind of positions that increase differentiation. So I disagree with Schnarch about the incompatibility of self-validation and other-validation.

Hendrix clearly recognizes the importance of having someone listen to you. He talks about going through the dialogue process with his son, who felt deserted when his parents divorced when he was 5. At the end of a year, his son no longer felt abandoned. He had simply needed to feel fully heard. (Bader, 1995) I am surprised that Schnarch does not recognize the importance of this. There is a feeling quality to "being listened to" that I would expect Schnarch to recognize if he weren't blinded by the implications he draws from the theory of differentiation. Perhaps he does recognize it - I certainly see it as an essential element of intimacy - but he doesn't seem to do anything to facilitate it. There seems to me to be something magical (i.e., unexplained, swept under the rug) in the transition between two people who are willing to say "This is who I am" and a couple who experiences intimacy together. This leads me to wonder what is being glossed over in this transition. What are the dynamics of that process?

Another Approach: Nonviolent Communication (aka NVC)

As part of trying to see what to integrate into my own way of working with people, I'd like to compare the Imago and Crucible approaches with another I am familiar with and find very promising: Nonviolent Communication (or NVC) (Rosenberg, 2000) This approach is based largely on communication and empathy. Unlike Hendrix and Schnarch who each emphasize one side of communication, Marshall Rosenberg teaches people both how to listen and how to express themselves. He says the NVC goal is to get everyone's needs met. (Rosenberg, 2001) There are 4 components to NVC:

  1. Observing actions that are affecting our well being.
  2. How we are feeling in relation to what we are observing.
  3. The needs that are being met or not being met and are creating our feelings.
  4. The concrete actions we request to enhance our lives.

Using NVC means expressing all 4 components honestly, and receiving them empathically. (Rosenberg, 2000) What it has in common with Imago Therapy is that you learn to listen well to the other person, and create the conditions that will help that person express his/her feelings. However, its intention is to help meet the underlying needs rather than to heal old wounds. I think that one purpose in both of these is the same, and that is to see the other person as someone separate from yourself, with his/her own reasons for how s/he acts. In both cases, you learn not to take the other person's reactions personally because you see the underlying need (NVC) or childhood wounds (Imago). Like Hendrix, Rosenberg understands that people need to be heard. Once you have been heard, your attitude is likely to soften considerably, and you will be more available to listen to someone else.

At the same time, in NVC you learn to express yourself honestly. You are not dependent on the other person responding in the "appropriate" way. However, you do learn to express yourself in a way that is more easily heard by other people. And you also learn to give yourself empathy when you need it. In Schnarch's terms, you learn to self-sooth. Rosenberg doesn't talk about levels of differentiation (that would be a judgement, and he avoids judgements), but I think his approach promotes it, since it encourages self-responsibility and honest communication of what's alive in you.

NVC emphasizes the distinction between needs (or goals) and the strategy for meeting the needs. Needs do not need to be met by any particular person (including ourselves). Once we've identified the underlying needs, we can find multiple ways to meet them.

NVC is not specific to marital therapy, but I think it would work very well for treating couples. It promotes the development of people through the ability to communicate in a meaningful way.


I am particularly interested in working with people who are not monogamous. So what am I to make of the emphasis of both Hendrix and Schnarch on monogamy? While researching for this project, I tried to keep an open mind and be open to being persuaded that monogamy is truly better.

On the surface, it's easy to dismiss Hendrix' attachment to monogamy. If I were willing to follow society's dictates, I wouldn't be interested in polyamory, so I can easily ignore his directives. On a deeper level, for Hendrix monogamy is part of closing a couple's exits, which are the ways that they avoid closeness and intimacy with each other. He talks about 3 terminal exits: divorce, suicide and murder, and 3 catastrophic exits: affairs, addictions and insanity. Catastrophic exits greatly damage your relationship. He says there are also intentional exits and functional exits. Intentional exits are behaviors which are engaged in with the intention of avoiding your partner. Functional exits are behaviors which you enjoy, but which take time and energy away from the relationship. The effect, even if not the motivation, is decreased involvement and intimacy with your partner (Hendrix, 1993B, p. 82-3)

I don't agree that other relationships are greatly damaging to a primary relationship when they are openly discussed and accepted by all parties. I think it's more important to examine them as possible intentional and functional exits. Certainly they may take time away from your spouse. If that is the intention, and it's a way of avoiding your primary partner, then your relationship is in trouble. If the intention is not to avoid your partner, then what seems important to me is to keep the relationships in balance. If you do not have enough time for your primary partner, then clearly that relationship will suffer. But this is also true if you work excessive hours or spend all your free time with friends without your partner, or spend too much time on an activity such as hiking or golf or political organizing which your partner is not involved in.

While I agree that it's important to examine our activities to see the ways in which we are avoiding intimacy with our partners, I believe I would differ with Hendrix about the amount of time it's healthy to spend apart from each other even in a monogamous marriage. I think that often other activities and friends can increase your involvement with the world, and give you more to share with your partner.

While Hendrix has a conventional assumption that monogamy is always better, Schnarch has a different approach. Marriage as a commitment to one's partner can be an agreement of mutual deprivation. At low levels of differentiation, it can lead to resentment. It's your fault I feel deprived, and you ought to have sex with me when I want it (the idea of communal genitals). (Schnarch, 1994A) At higher levels of differentiation, monogamy is a commitment to oneself. As I understand him, you enter into this commitment voluntarily, so that you can take part in the elegant sexual crucible process, which forces you to differentiate. When you face the sexual boredom that comes from avoiding whatever either of you considers to be perverted or disgusting, you recognize you have to do something if you don't want to live the rest of your life with boring sex. To change, you either have to get out of the relationship, or decide you won't accept the status quo, and you're ready to fight. But this fight is with yourself, to hold on to yourself and insist on what you want even when your partner, the most important person in your life, is resisting change. He says, "What we've just described is how the natural systemic processes of marriage kill sex so that the lousy sex drives people forward to finish their development so that they're capable of having the sex they were pissed off not having to begin with, and to become capable of loving on life's own terms. Because the same strength it takes to look your partner right in the eye and not only have sex with them eyes open but fuck them in the clean sense of the word, that sort of no holds barred eroticism... and quiet yourself at the same time, is the same ability you're going to need to bury your partner. And if you're not ready to bury them, it's not safe to love them with all your heart." (Schnarch, 1994A)

The essence of this is that you choose to limit your options so that you'll be forced to hold on to yourself and stand up for yourself and your needs even when your partner disapproves. It forces you to validate yourself rather than relying on your partner's validation. Relying on other-validation leads to self-presentation rather than self-disclosure.

Schnarch's model of how the sexual crucible works is certainly consistent with his views on monogamy. However, I'm puzzled at the element of choice vs. the natural processes of marriage that he talks about. If I'm capable of committing to monogamy for my own sake, in order to face the dilemma of discrepancy in sexual desire with my partner, it seems to me that I'm equally capable of committing to face the issues of polyamory with my partner. These are not the same issues, but I think they can equally lead to differentiation and the ability to tolerate and desire high levels of intimacy with my partner(s). In other words, I think Schnarch has confused one strategy for increasing intimacy and differentiation with the only strategy for doing so. (My thanks to our local NVC practice group for helping me to recognize the difference between a need or goal, and strategies for meeting that need; and the fact that once you separate the two, you are not tied to a single strategy). Polyamory can be part of another strategy for reaching the same goal that Schnarch has in mind. Intimate and sexual experiences with other people can help you open up more deeply, give you more insight, help you to see possibilities that you didn't previously see.

Schnarch seems almost obsessed with the idea of loving on life's own terms, i.e. that you have to be prepared for your partner to die before you do. Is this mostly a reaction to the safety that Hendrix and others try to create? He certainly emphasizes that there is no external safety, that you have to create your own safety by being able to deal with whatever happens. However, I think this trivializes what Hendrix is trying to accomplish. I also think that a loving community can be helpful if one does lose one's partner.

With polyamory, the first thing that has to be faced is jealousy, which Schnarch considers a form of emotional fusion (Schnarch, 1998, p. 64) Therefore dealing with jealousy increases differentiation. The process of deciding to be polyamorous and how you want polyamory to work in your relationship is often precisely what Schnarch describes as the process of standing up for what you want sexually in spite of your partner's lack of validation. The point is that when you are dealing with open and honest polyamorous relationships, as opposed to secretive affairs, you have to face your partners' reactions. Considerable growth and differentiation can result from this process. At a recent retreat I was privileged to see the tremendous growth that one couple was experiencing through facing this issue. The husband had been pushing for polyamory for more than a year, and they had reached some uneasy agreements. In the meantime, he had encouraged his wife to take workshops and go to events that might help her be more open to the concept. At the retreat, he volunteered to terminate sexual contact with another woman he was very close to, because he could see how much pain it was causing his wife, and he didn't want to do that to her. In talking with his lover, he took complete responsibility for the decision, even though the decision was painful for him, clearly an act of integrity. In the meantime, his wife was becoming more open and present, a change noticed by others at the retreat. This couple is involved in growth that is as powerful as the voluntary choice of monogamy advocated by Schnarch. The process they went through in facing polyamory, and the wife's willingness to try new experiences, such as sensual touching with other couples, increased her husband's interest in her and commitment to her.

Schnarch states, "you can't deeply know the fullest potential of a large number of sex partners. Knowing one all-important person probably involves not tasting lots of others." (Schnarch, 1998, p. 251) Sure, that's true. But it's not the same as not tasting any others, or even deeply knowing a few others. It seems to me that Schnarch is making some assumptions that have not been well examined.

Schnarch appeals to the passion and creativity and desire for intimacy within me, to the part that wants a deeper connection with people, that wants a community in the sense of people who can connect deeply, share deeply, tell their truth to each other. Sometimes friends and other lovers can recognize our dynamics better than we can, and we can listen to them better than to our primary partner. A therapist like Schnarch can perform that function, but a loving, intimate community may be able to do this together, for each other, rather than having to rely on a therapist. Schnarch as therapist helps the couple look at the unthinkable. (Schnarch, 1993A) In polyamory, and in a sacred erotic community, other people can do that as well.

My experience in sacred erotic community comes from attending 3 retreats with a private group in California called Sacred Connections. Within the retreats, there are activities which help people be open with each other, to find whatever healing we need, to share our deep fears and traumas as well as our joys. We look for the god and goddess in every other person. We laugh, cry, snuggle, dance and play with each other. And, if we wish, make love. People go through transformations, with the help of loving friends to hold them and work with them.

In order to function in this type of community, you have to have good boundaries. You have to have reached a level of differentiation where you can take responsibility for your own decisions. The interaction in community helps you go deeper and differentiate more. I imagine that Schnarch would have no trouble feeling the difference between this type of community and a meat market bar. In fact, the people who just want to get laid tend to weed themselves out of the group at their day long events - they don't have the patience for the type of connection and intimacy the community is building (per conversation with Liza Gabriel).

Helpful Insights for Polyamory

Schnarch places a great deal of emphasis on integrity, and on the importance of people making their own decisions. A well differentiated person may not make the "right" decision, or the "best" decision, but it will be the decision which reflects that person. Therefore it is possible to choose not to be monogamous, and still to find a great deal of value in Passionate Marriage. Someone who is involved in polyamory definitely needs to learn to hold onto him/herself, and to self-sooth. Learning good boundaries is very important. This includes taking responsibility for yourself, not taking your partners' reactions personally, and being willing to confront yourself and your projections, all things that Schnarch talks about (Schnarch, 1998)

At the same time, learning some techniques from Hendrix can be very useful. Mirroring, validation and empathy can be very helpful while you are talking with your partner about what does and doesn't work for each of you.


Hendrix has some good techniques that I may wish to adapt for my own use. However, his approach doesn't really make sense to me, and has no juice for me.

Schnarch, on the other hand, does appeal to me. I think that he's limited by conventional assumptions about monogamy, his attachment to his theory that monogamy is an elegant process that naturally drives people towards differentiation, and his superficial criticisms of other approaches. However, his willingness to talk about energy, and to get specific about sexuality in the context of real intimacy is very attractive to me. I also relate very well to his combination of sexuality and spirituality. He appears to have an ability to identify what is happening between a couple, and point it out in a way that moves them forward, that gets them unstuck. They may not always enjoy the process, but they learn and grow and become more capable of a truly intimate relationship (even if they eventually choose to separate).

I appreciate Schnarch's goal of helping people be more intimate and explore their erotic potential, even if the strategy I choose for myself, and which I want to support in others, is not one that Schnarch recognizes. Schnarch is playing in a field I'm very interested in: eroticism, sexual desire, the meaning of sex, desire out of fullness rather than emptiness, energy, and sexual vibes. I want to learn all that I can from him, both for myself and for use in my clinical practice.

© 2001 by Elaine Cook



Bader, E., Schnarch, D., and Hendrix, H. (1995) The Role of Empathy and Differentiation in Couples Therapy. (Cassette Recording CC95-TP13a and b) Milton Erickson Foundation. Panel discussion at the 1995 Integrating Sex and Intimacy Conference of the Milton Erickson Foundation.

Bailey, D. (1996) Bader, Schnarch and Hendrix. Journal of Imago Relationship Therapy, Vol. 1 No. 2. Retrieved 9/26/2001 from

Bailey, D. (1997) Bader, Schnarch, and Hendrix - The Authors Respond. Journal of Imago Relationship Therapy, Vol. 2, No. 1. Retrieved 9/26/2001 from

Hendrix, H. (1990) Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. New York: Harper Collins.

Hendrix, H. (1993A) Getting the Love You Want: A Video Workshop for Couples. Winter Park, FL: Imago Productions.

Hendrix, H. (1993B) Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples - Home Video Workshop. Winter Park, FL: Institute for Image Relationship Therapy (book that accompanies the video).

Rosenberg, M. B. (2000) Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion. Encitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.

Rosenberg, M. B. (Speaker) (2001) Nonviolent Communication workshop in Albuquerque, NM, March 2001.

Schnarch, D. (Speaker) (1992) Constructing the Sexual Crucible: Paradigm-Shift in Sexual & Marital Therapy. [Audiotape] Evergreen, CO: Marriage and Family Health Center.

Schnarch, D. (Speaker) (1993A) Clinical Realities: The Therapist's Crucible. [Audiotape] Evergreen, CO: Marriage & Family Health Center. Recorded at Menninger Foundation 1998 Patient-Therapist Relationship Conference.

Schnarch, D. (Speaker) (1993B) Maybe it's Love... But is it Therapy? [Audiotape] Evergreen, CO: Marriage & Family Health Center. Recorded at Menninger Foundation 1993 Patient-Therapist Relationship Conference.

Schnarch, D. (Speaker) (1993C) Problems of Sexual Desires: Who Really Wants to Want? [Audiotape] Evergreen, CO: Marriage and Family Health Center.

Schnarch, D. (Speaker) (1994A) Integrating Marital and Sex Therapy. Evergreen, CO: Marriage & Family Health Center. [Audiotape] Recorded at Menninger Foundation's 1994 Sexuality Conference.

Schnarch, D. (Speaker) (1994B) Integrating Sexuality and Spirituality. [Audiotape] Evergreen, CO: Marriage & Family Health Center. Recorded at the 1994 British Columbia AIDS Conference.

Schnarch, D. (1998) Passionate Marriage. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

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