Written by Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC
Reflections on “Intimacy & Desire”, a book by Dr. David Schnarch.
People are almost always the ones to blame for the problems in their relationship. It’s not a mysterious, prudish fairy who waved a wand over your sex life and ruined it, and it’s not some supernatural effect of time that forces you apart. It’s almost always a combination of things you and your partner have and have not done. Frequently the culprit is a pet concept of psychologist and sex therapist Dr. David Schnarch known as “emotional fusion.” Emotional fusion is when couples depend on each other for validation, self-esteem, and other qualities that more developed people generate on their own. An example may be a partner who often criticizes the other in an attempt to demonstrate their own superiority. Another may be a spouse who relies on their partner to praise even the most minor of accomplishments in order to prop up their self-worth. These partners may not seem to like each other very much, but they are dependent on one another emotionally.
Schnarch advises couples to deal with emotional fusion and other relationship problems by developing what he’s termed the “Four Points of Balance.” These are four hallmarks of people who have the emotional tools to constructively handle problems in their lives and relationships.
What are the Four Points of Balance? (240)
1. Solid Flexible Self. (Opposite: “Instead you need your partner to be continually wrong and perpetually asking for forgiveness.”)
This point is about knowing who you are. It means being able to stand your ground, while also accepting that you may not always be in the right. As the point says, you must be both “solid” and “flexible.” This means you must have integrity. It brings to mind the argument that begins at the end of Romans 5 and continue into Romans 6 about whether people should sin liberally because where sin abounds grace abounds more. Paul’s answer, obviously, was no. To exploit God’s forgiveness in order to get away with sin shows a lack of integrity. And that’s what this point is about, doing right because it’s right.
A lot of times that is harder than it sounds, which is why Christians depend on the Holy Spirit to help them overcome their weaknesses. It’s a joint effort, we must work to develop our personal integrity, but we must also recognize we are incapable of righteous behavior without God. “As for me, you uphold me in my integrity, and you set me in your presence forever,” (Psalm 41:12 NASB)
The problem with emotionally fused couples is they depend on their partner’s behavior to validate how they see themselves. They need a relationship to feel “realized.” These are the kind of people who cannot be single. They’re completely out to sea when they’re on their own. As Schnarch points out, there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel wanted. However, there is no partner in the world who can desire this type of person enough. Their behavior in a relationship is characterized by insecurity and neediness and discussions about safety and vulnerability. (crucible4points.com) (240-246) This is why people need to build their identity on Christ. The Lord does not waver or change, and his being provides an infinite resource with which to fill that infinitely deep hole humans strive to fill with relationships. “…how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge —that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3: 18-19 NIV)
Example: Frank seems to be getting a lot more out of marriage counseling than his wife Cara. She seems unwilling to relinquish negative cycles of behavior that characterize their relationship. Frank, on the other hand, has thrown himself into identifying how he negatively contributes to the relationship and trying to change. He understands now that his tendency to compare Cara to other women he’s been with is actually the worst way he could possibly go about asking her to do nice things he likes or try to cut down on things that bug him. He doesn’t want to be the kind of husband who hurts his wife, and rather than taking the attitude that “she’s too difficult to get along with” or “she drives me to do this,” he takes responsibility for his actions and makes an effort to correct them. Rather than allowing the relationship to control him, Frank is beginning to control himself. He is well on his way to establishing a solid, flexible self. (246)
2. Quiet Mind & Calm Heart. (Opposite: “You never get over your ‘emotional wounds.’”)
People who haven’t developed this point of balance allow their feelings to run their life. (253) They internalize wounds inflicted by others and think about them over and over again as a means of maintaining emotional frenzy. This is a way of maintaining their spouse’s status as the villain and theirs as the victim. However, it makes it impossible for them to forgive their partner’s transgressions and stimulate growth in the relationship. If they keep opening old wounds, they can’t heal.
The goal here is to avoid allowing your thoughts and emotions to control you. Schnarch said the task is to be aware of your body’s physical reactions to your thoughts and emotions and learn how to calm yourself when you realize you’re in a tailspin. (crucible4points.com)
A lot of conflicts in relationships could be avoided if partners realized they are letting their emotions run away with them and, instead of becoming overwhelmed, took a moment to step back and cool down.
One way to “bring it back” is to stop for a quiet moment of prayer. John Wesley’s mother Susanna, would sit down in the kitchen and draw up her apron over her head when she wanted a moment alone with the Lord. It was a rule in the house that her children were not to disturb her for these few minutes. Pray that God will give you the strength to rein in your emotions and overcome old wounds. Pray that he will give you the ability to forgive those who have hurt you. As the following excerpt from Psalm 27 reminds us, God is the creator of perfect peace and offers it to those who seek it.
“When besieged, I’m calm as a baby. When all hell breaks loose, I’m collected and cool. I’m asking God for one thing, only one thing: To live with him in his house my whole life long. I’ll contemplate his beauty; I’ll study at his feet. That’s the only quiet, secure place in a noisy world; the perfect getaway, far from the buzz of traffic,” (Psalm 27:3-5 The Message)
Example: This isn’t an example of this point acted out in a relationship, but the same principle applies. Let’s say this young guy (20s) Jake is driving a couple hours back to college. The weather is overcast and rainy, so he puts on this super great, but also super sad, alt-country album. Jake is one of those people who has always been single. He enjoys life, but sometimes he gets lonely. When he follows that bummer album with another equally great, but also bummer album, all those “alone forever” feelings start rising to the surface, feeding on these songs about heartbreak and loneliness and Friday nights drinking by yourself. About two-thirds of the way through the second album, Jake is feeling pretty sorry for himself. But then he realizes, “Wait, wait, wait. I did all these feelings to myself. I’m just wallowing in this bummer fest making it worse.” So he puts on some Hot Water Music and most of the feelings disappear.
Now, do not take this as a dismissal of legitimate mental health issues such as depression– however, people have a tendency to revel in unpleasant emotions until they create this avalanche of dejection and self-pity that’s difficult to pull out of. Schnarch’s “quiet mind and calm heart” is about being aware of when your feelings and thoughts are getting ahead of you and regaining control.
3. Grounded Responding. (Opposite: “You’re at your partner’s throat when he points out your transgressions.”)
Point three builds out of point two. It is only by remaining calm you can reasonably and objectively respond to an emotionally charged partner or situation. Like point two, this point is all about learning to manage your emotions so they don’t manage you. However, whereas point two is more about not hurting yourself, point three is geared more toward keeping you from hurting others.
Schnarch uses a terrific quote while explaining this principle, “Marriage is improved by the two or three things not said each day.” Avoiding personal attacks or becoming angry increases the possibility of scaling back the argument and actually communicating in a meaningful way with your partner.
Schnarch has a helpful chart on his website (crucible4points.com) that says those who have trouble with grounded responding are often people:
• “with explosive tempers with ‘short fuses’”
• “who say cutting things in difficult conversations”
• “who break collaborative alliances whenever they get hurt”
• “who are always yelling at their kids”
• “who go to pieces over little things”
There are so many verses in scripture characterizing prudent people as being those who don’t say everything that pops into their noggins and foolish people as those who do. We see this in Psalm 15 when David ponders what kind of person the Lord allows into his “holy hill.” “He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart. He does not slander with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend,” (Psalm 15:2-3 NASB) We see an admonition on the same principle several psalms later, “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit,” (Psalm 34:13 NSAB) These principles about watching what you say wouldn’t be brought up so frequently if God hadn’t thought it important to warn people against the dangers of running off at the mouth.
However, just as detonating your biggest emotional weapon isn’t helpful, neither is withdrawing into yourself and avoiding a discussion. While this behavior may be more socially acceptable because it’s less explosive, it’s not any closer to grounded responding. Schnarch also has a chart of what this looks like:
• “When your kids need discipline and you’re just not feeling like doing it.”
• “You’re concerned your child is showing signs of learning disabilities but you don’t seek help.”
• “You know your partner’s having an affair, but you say nothing because you don’t want to upset the status quo.”
Example: Kyle loves his wife Erin. But, for some reason, whenever they fight, he finds himself ending it by saying the most hurtful thing that comes to his mind. For instance, last Tuesday when they got into an argument about him helping with the kids after school more after a period of escalation he shouted, “You’re always nagging me! No wonder your first husband left you.” The funny thing is, after he cools down, Kyle feels eaten up by guilt over what he said. This is what grounded responding prevents– ugly, unproductive screaming matches where everyone gets hurt.
This would have gone much better had Kyle kept his cool and tried to see things from Erin’s point of view, rather than becoming defensive and using a bazooka to end a water pistol fight.
4. Meaningful Endurance. (“You hold grudges and see your partner as the enemy.”)
Growing into this point means becoming comfortable with the idea that you may need to change and it may not be easy. Anything worth having takes hard work. This is what Schnarch is talking about when he says “tolerating discomfort for growth.” (crucible4points.com) It’s about developing mental toughness. You learn to push through periods of difficulty, monotony, and frustration to achieve something better than what you have now.
“Meaningful Endurance is not blind perseverance, stubbornness, or refusal to face facts. It is not stupid pain-for-no-purpose. It is not simply high pain tolerance, or accepting a lousy relationship. Meaningful Endurance is about tolerating pain for growth. If there’s no growth, it’s not meaningful.” (crucible4points.com)
Schnarch describes different areas that require this:
• “Sticking with things so you can accomplish your goals”
• “Making yourself do what needs to be done, even when you don’t want to do it”
• “Absorbing hardship and disappointment, bouncing back after defeat”
• “Withstanding stress”
Schnarch talks a lot about getting mileage out of your pain. Anything that lands you in marriage counseling or Googling “save your marriage” is painful. You’re obviously in a situation you don’t want to be. Schnarch’s goal is to help couples take that painful situation and learn from it. Leaving an unhappy marriage the way it is and trying to make it better are both painful courses of action. However, one eventually leads to a better situation. That’s what he’s talking about– it’s going to hurt either way, so you might as well make the pain pay.
Hebrews 12 is all about this. One of the subheads in the ESV Bible is “do not grow weary,” and begins a passage urging believers to remember the struggles Christ endured as they approach hardships in their Walk. It discusses difficulties that come as a result of the Lord chastening his children in order to guide them toward more edifying behavior. Sending them pain that they might grow.
“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:7-11 ESV)
Example: Meagan hates feelings conversation and talking about relationships and commitment. It’s not that she’s not committed to her boyfriend of several years, it’s just that she struggles to admit she may be dependent on others. That she is not a self-sufficient island. Nevertheless, as painful as these conversations are for her, they’re necessary for the relationship to grow. So when it comes time for she and her boyfriend to discuss whether they’re going to move together somewhere after graduation, she asks her boyfriend to sit down and talk with her, and she faces the wall during the conversation. It’s easier for her to make herself vulnerable if she can sort of distance herself from the awkwardness of having to have this kind of “feelings and dependency” conversation.
Help with integrity
Most of us have a pretty good idea what our weaknesses are. However, sometimes we can be blind to certain behaviors that hurt others. If you’re interested in purposing personal growth and seeing how you can better approach Schnarch’s Four Points of Balance, it may be helpful to talk to a professional Christian counselor. A Christian therapist can help you talk through your struggles and get a better handle on how to deal with them. If you’re worried about how you or your partner’s behavior is damaging your relationship, now is a great time to consult a professional Christian marriage counselor. They can help you find the tools to fix your relationship and learn how to communicate better.
Images cc: freedigitalphotos.com -“Man And Woman Holding Hands” by tungphoto
“Couple In Bed, Men Sleeping And Woman Lying Disappointed” by photostock
“Groom And Bride Watching To Above And Acting Glad To See Somethi” by khunaspix