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Intimacy and the Magic of Differences

An Interview with Jim Sniechowski and Judith Sherven

© 1998 by Bert H. Hoff

This article appears in Vol. 1 #2 (Spring 1998) of Men's Voices journal.
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Jim Sniechowski and Judith Sherven are the authors of The New Intimacy: Discovering the Magic at the Heart of Our Differences. Jim has long been active in "Men's Work." He co-founded the Men's Health Network. While they were in Seattle promoting their book, Men's Voices editor Bert Hoff and Scott Abraham, editor of the former M.E.N. Magazine, took the opportunity to talk to them about their work.


Judith and Jim
Judith and Jim

Book cover
The New Intimacy
by Judith Sherven
James Sniechowski
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Review of The New Intimacy

Their latest book:
Be Loved for WHo You Are book cover
Be Loved for Who You Really Are:
How the Differences Between Men and Women Can Be Turned into the Source of the Very Best Romance You'll Ever Know

by Judith Sherven, Ph.D. and James Sniechowski, Ph.D.
Information about the book
Order on-line

Bert: How did you start doing this relationship work, and how did you discover this magic of differences and start telling people about it?

Judith: We come to our marriage from two very different backgrounds. I didn't get married until I was 44, so I spent, I calculate, 30 years dating. [chuckling] I was very frustrated. In my 20s, I thought it was all men's fault. I was very angry at men. But it got very clear to me as I started to do my own work, on me, that in my own way I had attitudes toward men, toward romance, toward marriage, toward intimacy, that were incorrect. When I changed those, I became available for the relationship that I have with Jim, and I knew I had something to teach, that was valuable to a lot of people.

Jim: On the other hand, this is my third marriage. I was what was called a "serial monogamist." I was never unfaithful to any woman I was with, but I was with a lot of women. It seemed like an act of God, that just as I was tiring with one woman, another woman would show up. So I never "dated." From about age 20, I was never without the woman. The problem, though, is that the relationships would start with such promise, then right before my eyes (and there was nothing I could do about it) they would dissolve. No matter what I attempted to keep them together, to sustain them, I couldn't. Judith said before we were married, "I know I could do well in a marriage if only I could get into one." My response was that getting into one was a piece of cake. But how do you make these damn things last?

That's what brings me here. To be perfectly honest, Bert, if someone said to me at 15 or 20, or maybe even 30, that I would be having this conversation on this topic, from this point of view, I would have said that's absurd. But I can go back to when I was 14 years old, and the girls that I was flirting with at the beginning, and I began to see at that age that there was something wrong with what I was doing. What it came down to was projection of fantasy and making them into me, but I never would have known it at that time. So even back when I was 14, the idea of differences was in its embryonic stages.

Judith: We're both very strong characters, and very different from each other in many, many ways. So when we first came together. It became clear to us very quickly that if the love we were feeling for each other were to grow, we were going to have to learn how to really value each other's ways. Otherwise, we'd be creating World War IV in a power struggle. We didn't want to do that. We considered our relationship really precious. We saw that the work for us was around respecting and valuing each other's ways, still respecting that we were still going to have fights, and learning how to resolve these fights in very creative and productive ways.

Bert: So you were already working on your relationship, then began to move into working on relationships. Jim, you had a prior involvement in the "men's movement." Judith, you had a prior therapy practice. How did living these lives the convert into "the magic of differences" and writing a book?

Jim: Actually, we met on March 7, 1987, and I think our first relationships workshop was in August. We went out for a weekend, sometime in May or June, and took a tape recorder along with us, to jot down ideas about what we might like to say about relationships. We had it transcribed. Recently we found it. It was this book, in its seed form.

So the truth of it is that by the time we came together, we had never articulated it but we had each in our own way discovered the themes in the book.

Also, a bit about my involvement with the "men's movement." I dearly, dearly love men. I'm adamant about protecting them, particularly in these days. I wanted to do something about relationships that would honor men, not protecting them when they didn't deserve it, but not bashing them out of hand. Men want relationships as well. That was demonstrated by the fact that only one of people who bought the book this afternoon was a woman. So the "men's movement" brought me into this from the perspective that I wanted to make sure that this book was not only male-friendly, but male-affirming.

Scott: How did you manage to make this book male-friendly, when in fact the vast majority of books that I've ever had the misfortune of reading [group chuckles] basically blames men for the failure of relationships, and places the onus of change and the responsibility for the success of a relationship on whether the man is able to keep the woman happy?

Judith: I think what we have to look at is that those books are framed in an old paradigm. The old paradigm is a "right-wrong," "good-bad," "either-or" way of looking at difficulties. The New Intimacy holds that the truth is never found just in one version of reality; that two people are always co-creating the relationship. They are always teaching each other how they expect to be treated, right from the first moment that they meet. So it cannot be possible for the blame to rest in only one gender's lap, or one person's lap, in a relationship.

Jim: I'd like to say very directly that this book is male-friendly because Judith is very male-identified and very supportive of men. I'm also very supportive of women. So one of the things we have in our work is there is no "conflict of interest." I take out after the men sometimes, and Judith takes out after the women. So I'm not taking out after women and becoming a female-basher.

To answer your question, it was a conscious commitment out of what I saw happening with men; not so much the pain that men were in, but the bullshit that men don't care about feelings. Men don't care about feeling. Men don't care about relationships. Men don't care bout commitment or connection. It's all simply crap.

So part of what I did for men was to insist that that be infused into this book without turning it into diatribe in defense of men. No, no, no, no, no. But we also bring to the game our own stuff that undermines relationships. Neither side of this game is off the hook.

Judith: I just want to add that it does not serve women to feel like victims or to position themselves as victims with respect to men. That undermines anything that the women's movement has accomplished for women's power.

I think that men are being coerced into particular behaviors, to protect themselves in the workplace and the universities. But I don' think men are being taught to respect differences between men and women, because it's not being presented in a way that really speaks to men's hearts. It's presented that you men are the problem, Men can stop making complements in the workplace, they can stop asking colleagues out, but it's not going to change men's hearts. Our book presents the message of respecting the differences between men and women in a way that says that both men and women are responsible and that both men and women have to change. Hopefully, when people read this book it will touch their hearts, their souls, and open them to the beauty that is possible when both genders respect each other.

Jim: One point I would like to make, that is not in the book, is that one of the things we're the proudest of. When we do our work, our seminars, our workshops, our book-signings, we are averaging 50% men in attendance. In the kind of work we're engaged in, it's usually 80-90% women. I feel in a sense blessed by whatever force exists, that's supporting our planet and this experience of ours, that we have said something, we've done something, we've organized it in such a way that men are finding it attractive, either consciously or unconsciously. I love that, because men are just as interested in relationship as any women. I'd also like to say that women have no more of a corner on the market on relationship than men do. There's a cliché that women are the ones who know about intimacy and romantic relationships and men don't. There's a simple, obvious question to be put here. If the women do and the men don't, with whom have the women been intimate? So we are grateful to, for lack of a better phrase, the "higher power," that we are attracting men.

Bert: I chuckled when I read in your book that we are not alien beings from another planet, we live here on earth. [group chuckles] I can't help but think of John Gray's book Women Are From Venus, Men Are From Mars.

Judith: How did you guess? [laughing]

Jim: The fundamental difference is first of all in the title. It's a commercially successful title. But it implies an inherent alienation between the genders. If you read the book carefully, what he says is that the male does X, and the female does Y. The intimacy that is suggested in his book is created out of a fundamental approach of coping, toleration and management of people. When he goes here to do this and she goes there to do that, she may not be disturbed by what he's doing, but she's not any closer to him than she was. She won't get any closer to him, because Gray suggests that she go in another direction.

Scott: So it's relationship maintenance, not relationship expansion.

Jim: Exactly! What we talk about is that when there are differences, and the two people engage each other in those differences, I get to understand her, first and foremost, as she describes herself to me. Secondly, by finding in myself the value in what she's doing, I get to understand her better. If I can understand the value in what she's doing, and she can understand the value in what I'm doing, when I move toward her position at in any given moment, it's not because I'm coerced, not because I'm managing, but because I have found value, and I've become larger than I was before knowing her.

Bert: I'd like to expand on that a bit. You say that this book is not about managing or coping. What is it about, instead?

Judith: At the heart of the book, it's about the fact that the differences between two people, if properly understood as being rich treasures for each other, then when there is conflict, when there is difficulty, when there is challenge, both people can understand this is a time of opportunity, to present themselves even more fully into the relation and express even more fully who they are, so the partner can understand them more intimately. Then the tension in the relation function like the sand in the oyster, that helps create the pearl.

Without the difficulties, the people never learn. They never grow. They never expand the relationship. It stays static and boring. People say, "Is this all there is?"

Jim: Judith uses the word "difficulties." Certainly there are difficulties. But differences in the relationship, even when they create tensions, don't necessarily make difficulties, in the sense of conflict or irritation.. I just might not understand her. That, in and of itself, can be a joyous engagement in the differences. The differences that tear people apart, of course, are those in which the difficulty is produced. I want to add the caveat that difficulties are only a part of this. The differences are a wonder, and a pathway toward treasure. Because ultimately the people get to be understood, recognized and appreciated for who they really are.

Bert: Marion Woodman talks about holding the tension of the opposites, and being in that tension space, so that a third alternative can emerge. You seem to be saying a similar thing. I would use the term "the dance of creative engagement."

Judith: That's very nice. One of the chapters in the book, "Conscious Creativity," teaches people in a nine-step process how to live in that tension and engage in a creative process, so the resolution of those issues bring them into a larger space together, so both people are honored and both people are satisfied.

Jim: But there's a key difference here. Marion Woodman uses the term "tension of the opposites." For me, the term "opposites" can be a huge trap. We are different. We are very different from each other, but we are hardly opposite. I am not "opposed" to her in any way. I am other than her, that's true. I stand different from her, that's true. But she isn't the "opposite" sex from us, she is the "other" sex from us. The term "opposite" has such connotation of leading to difficulty, conflict and combat, that I don't like the term "holding the tension of the opposites." "Holding the tension of the differences" creates the same result, yet it's more inclusive and it's more friendly.

Bert: You are very particular in your book about using the term "real life love" ...

Jim: Yes!...

Bert: And there's no hyphen. I'd like to take that in two parts, first to explain that, and second to throw out another idea, based on Sam Keen, The Passionate Life, Stages of Loving. Loving life. Loving the universe. Einstein's ultimate question for us is, "is the universe a friendly place?" Keen asks, "is the universe a loving place?" So when I hear "real life love" I also hear "loving in real life."

Judith: We specifically wanted the hyphen left out between "real" and "life" because that then puts the emphasis on love. So many people are caught up in romantic fantasies about love, and do not have their focus on real life and real love. They have their focus on being redeemed by some ideal of perfect love. We want to help people to get back onto the ground, with each other. The humanity of one another.

Jim: I come from a Catholic background. The stewardess on the plane reminded us of the joke, "I'm a Catholic, which means I haven't been in church fur 15 or 20 years." What happens, I think, not only in Catholicism but with humanity in general is that we are such vulnerable creatures and life is such a difficult ordeal for so many people, that we've established in the Western tradition, "Heaven." The Eastern tradition speaks of "Nirvana." These are different concepts for the idea of release from earth, release from the pain of life. We use "real life love" because I dearly love being right here on earth, and it took me a lot of money and therapy to get here. But I'm finally here. In terms of what Sam Keen is talking about, "real life love" is about loving in real life, but also about loving real life. To tie that in, if love does not happen on this earth, in the real lives we are in, then we create some type of a facade we live in, and lift off the ground. We live in illusion. That illusion, although pretty for a while, will always bring you down into despair, bitterness, resentment and the phrase, "is that all there is?" Well, there's a helluva lot that people miss, because they're not here, on the ground.

Bert: It's funny you should mention Catholicism, because Matthew Fox used to be a Catholic, and he talks about "co-creative spirituality." We and God are in the process of co-creating the universe around us. That seems so similar to what you talk about, when you talk of co-creative relationships. I'm hearing a spiritual dimension of active participation.

Judith: Absolutely. You're quire right. We talk about practical spirituality in the book, Simply put, the spiritual dimension in relationship occurs when I get outside my self-centered reality and I include Jim's reality as being just as valuable as mine. Now I enter the world in a way that allows me to value more and more of what's here, that's beyond me. Then I can expand my appreciation beyond Jim, to include all of you and more and more elements of the world, and I live more in the spirit of being here, rather than just in my own small self.

Jim: I would like to comment as well, Bert. Intimacy is a very profound term. I wish I had a simple description of it for you. I'll give you a metaphor, an example. When a sculptor decides to sculpt something and chooses a medium, let's say, for the moment, granite, the granite and the sculptor enter into a profound intimacy because the granite defines the sculptor and the sculptor defines the granite. There is a connection that evolves in the process, until the object he or she is sculpting becomes reality, is actualized. The sculptor is not imposing on the granite, and the granite is not imposing on the sculptor, but they co-create each other, because if the granite moves this way, the sculptor moves that way. If the granite moves that way, the sculptor moves this way. The dance between the two is so intimate that finally the ultimate product is so infused with the being of the sculptor, and the sculptor with the being of the product, that it is almost a oneness.

Scott: That particular metaphor brings up a reference and a synergy with older relationship models, in which women looked at men as "projects" to be designed. Essentially, granite, unfeeling, manipulable, and something that would be sculpted into the ideal male, How does the book help people avoid such relationships?

Jim: I appreciate that, and I'm glad you said that, because you're right. That does go in a direction I wouldn't want to go in. We don't have a lot of "thumbnail rules" in our book. But we have metaphors and suggestions. Here's one of them: when you love, you are changed. When you are loved, you are changed. Meaning, when you enter into a relationship, you will definitely be someone other than you were, as the relationship progresses. I need Judith. I need her in ways that I don't even know how to articulate. There is some deep aspect of me that is in need of this woman, and vice-versa. ... [voice: to create ourselves]. To create ourselves is a good way to put it. We are in a process of creation. We quote a woman in our book, who says, "Whenever I feel bad, I turn him into a project." What the book shows, in a variety of ways, is that if, in fact, she takes him on as a project. we are no longer in a relationship. That's the I-It, not the I-Thou. As long as I can keep in mind that a relationship is dynamic, reciprocal co-creation, then neither one of us is the project but we are both the project, almost being projected by the relationship itself.

Bert: What that ties back to is a theme that Judith brought up earlier. It's the view of "co-creative spirituality" that we work in co-creative synergy to create the world. The marriage is a crucible. It's how we work in relationship teaches us how we can relate to the world.

Judith: And to take that even further, the only building blocks of society are men and women. How men and women treat each other, so goes the world. So we are talking about profound possibility for societal change when men and women really can treat each other with this kind of transformative value for one another's differences.

Bert: In your book you talk about "positive trust" and "negative trust," and then you talk about "sacred trust." One of the things that struck me about "positive trust" is that this involves a willingness to be accountable for your dark side.

Jim: First of all, trust is trust. Negative trust, for example, occurs in a domestic violence relationship. They can count on the fact that they are going to do each other damage. That is as trustworthy a relationship as any other kind of relationship, but because it's a relationship that leads to violence we call it "negative trust." It's also diminishment. Both people become diminished inside negative trust, because the relationship gets smaller, and they become smaller and smaller. Positive trust opens out into the world. The basis of positive trust is that those people can grow and enlarge. Sacred trust becomes a reality. When I can trust her positively, I also know where her knives are, I know where her dark side is. I don't think positive trust is possible unless I do know where her knives are, and we all bring them into the game. Then it becomes sacred, because we can use all of who we are, to create the dance that we create. The sacredness is two-fold. First, I go beyond who I know myself to be. Anytime we do this we move into the unknown, and if we do this open-heartedly, that becomes sacred. Secondly, it's sacred because every day becomes a reality of sacredness as we live our lives.

Bert: You also talk about the "masks" that we wear. That reminded me of James Hillman. In The Soul's Code he talks about authenticity and character, living authentically, and being authentic to who we are. Does that relate to what you're talking about?

Judith: Absolutely. And unfortunately most of us have been taught, either through our family of origin, or in our schools, or in so many other ways, to not present ourselves with the truth of what we're feeling, the truth of what we believe, for fear that we will be found unacceptable by someone else. We've learned to hide those precious, unique ways that we're different, special, and present some marshmallow, ambiguous reality that we hope everybody will like. Then we live in fear that if you really got to know me, you'd reject me, you'd leave me, you'd laugh at me. We're never safe in our relationships. We can never relax. And we also can never believe that we're really lovable when we're hiding behind masks. So in the book we encourage and teach people that the only way to be loved for who they really are is to present themselves as they are, and find out who actually likes them, loves them.

Jim: There's also a deep trap in wearing a mask. A mask is usually a product of feeling that when I present myself I find that what I present is unacceptable, so I create a guise in order to create acceptability. That's what we mean in simple terms by a mask. As long as I keep my mask on, I have to perpetuate my belief in my unacceptability, and I have to find a structure that supports the pretense that I'm creating. So I perpetuate my ongoing unacceptability and I perpetuate the sense of wrongness that I am. The mask covers the wrongness. If the mask is not there, presumably the wrongness will go away. So as long as the mask is there, I am wrong, and that feeds on itself in a way that's like a cancer.

Bert: You also talk about games that we're taught, and that seems to fit right in here. What are the games that we're taught, and how do they get in our way?

Judith: Without fail, when we ask women at seminars, were they taught before they started dating to play hard to get? Were they taught not to reveal too much because men like a mystery? That they should play "hard to get?" That they shouldn't be too opinionated? That they should never beat a man at sports and cards? And, especially, that it's just as easy to love a rich man as a poor man? Invariably, 90% of the women say yes, that's the relationship training they received. So the message has been taught, unconsciously, that you're not valuable to a man for who you really are. You have to trap a man by doing these manipulations, by enticing a man with these gymnastics. You need one of these men, and these men are such fools, they'll fall for it. Notice the message we've all gotten about how to make a marriage. It's destined to fail.

Jim: And just one last point, if the men are fools for falling for it, why would a woman want one of these fools? It just gets more and more cancerous.

Scott: What are the games that men are taught?

Jim: Basically, don't ever show her your feelings or you'll be eaten alive. Wear the pants in the family. Somebody's got to make a decision. Give her what she wants, and you'll get what you want. And also, the fundamental one that men report is to never show her your vulnerability. She'll use it against you.

So we go out to do that, with one set of games on one side, and another set of games on the other side, and then we're told to go out and make your lives happily ever after. And when you fail, you should get a divorce. You're the one who made the mistake, not us. Not the world, not society, but you. The instruction is a template for disaster.

Judith: One of our positions, and one of our hopes, is that relationship training begin when kids are young enough, before kids actually start dating, hopefully in junior high. We'd like to see this as a requirement in the schools. They should learn to respect differences, to accept authentic behavior in terms of communication and conflict resolution. That's one of the hopes about this book, that we have the power to change people's minds about what they need to know.

Scott: There are those that would argue that males are being taught that kind of diversity, that kind of tolerance, but that there is not a reciprocal understanding of the male nature. It's not very "politically correct," but your book skirts the grounds of "political correctness" by suggesting that there are inbred, unchangeable gender differences.

Bert: So if we've engaged in this conscious co-creativity, we've engaged in this dance of creative engagement, we've found a way to remove the masks, we've found a way to stop playing the games, what's the pay-off? What's in it, for us and for society?

Judith: The pay-off for a couple is that they can then count on a relationship in which they can present themselves as they are. They can relax. They can learn from one another's differences. They can trust that when their old baggage comes to the surface it's just grist for the mill. It's just part of helping the relationship get richer, of developing the intimacy deeply between the people by learning more about their past and more about their woundedness and letting it get healed. By having it be loved. And, ultimately they can live in serial monogamy with the same person, in which the relationship continually changes, continually grows, and the relationship gets deeper, and deeper, and deeper. You are loved for who you are. That's all we really want.

Jim: The relationship doesn't become a goal to be achieved. Marriage isn't something you work for and then you stop. Long-term relationship is a voyage of discovery and an exciting way of being alive. As opposed to a process that one just settles into, accommodates, and ultimately is consumed by. It really becomes an adventure in life, an adventure in what we call "practical spirituality" and a meditation on daily loving. That's part of the pay-off.

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