How Do You View Your Partner? As a Person, or a Means

The following long and very thought-provoking excerpt is from David Schnarch’s incredible life-changing relationship book “Passionate Marriage.” And to me, the following excerpt is one of the most subtly profound and important passages in the entire book—if not in any book in recent memory. It takes Schnarch almost 250 pages of writing and detailing other more overtly dazzling and life-altering insights and ideas before he has laid down sufficient groundwork to be able to segue into the much subtler ideas and insights in the following passage.

The brackets in the following passage are mine. I have also changed a couple of words in the second paragraph in order to make his point more clear. I have also italicized a few words here and there, but most of the italics are his. My own comments also follow after the excerpt.

From “Passionate Marriage,” pp. 247-251.

“Partner Engagement”

There are different depths and ways of focusing on your partner. Each reflects how you relate in general. The tone of your [interactions] may vary from event to event, but the overall character [of your interactions] tends to be stable; it is determined [much] more by your level of personal development than by how you feel about your partner at any given moment, [because you feel about your partner will in large part be determined by your level of personal development.]

Let’s consider six different levels of partner engagement reflecting different levels of differentiation. Let me warn you that the initial example may seem somewhat extreme, distasteful, or hard to identify with. It is an example of primitive sexual partner engagement and reflects the unfortunate realities of contemporary society. By understanding the many faces of partner engagement we can more fully comprehend human sexuality and develop more respect for when it is beautiful and uplifting.

1. Sexual predators. Sexual predators focus somewhat on their “partner’s” reactions but purely for sadistic reasons. These are the most poorly differentiated people—their “partners” are mere puppets who must give the desired response. For example, I once treated a man who was a sexual sadist. his children “took turns” going with him to their vacation home, where he tied them spread-legged to a chair. He would draw a pen knife lightly around their genitals as ritualistic “punishment” for some concocted misdeed. He described his own behavior as “monstrous.” He was driven by his overriding hostility and desire to revenge past events in his own life. he was redressing in fantasy—and replicating in reality—his experiences with his own mother. He enjoyed seeing pain and terror in his children’s eyes. It enhanced his pathetic sense of power. His “sexual partners” were like props—his wife was no more of a real person to him than he was to her. In his fantasies, he presided over an underground citadel of faceless slaves who followed his every whim. This man’s profound lack of differentiation surfaced in his indifference to his children’s pain and his reflected sense of “power.”

2. Opportunistic encounters. The next step in development is a style of partner engagement that involves opportunistic encounters between consenting adults between consenting adults. I don’t necessarily mean “one-night stands” where people “fall in love” for the night. One woman I treated was more a scavenger than a predator. She had sex with people she had no shred of interest in—or they for her. For her the connection was purely one of shared sensory experience, using her partner’s genitals for stimulation because she didn’t like to masturbate. In her best relationships, the bond was a shared craving for contact-comfort with another human being. This was as much emotional connection and investment in another human being as her differentiation allowed. Although you might imagine people like her are single, I’ve worked with many who are married (and having affairs).

I am not saying opportunistic sexual encounters always involve this degree of exploitation. Casual sex, at a conference or on a college campus for example, can based on shared pleasure or companionship. It can involve even more partner engagement, such as friendship between “fuck buddies.” Sometimes fondness for a familiar sex partner is all that connects spouses—whether married or divorced. These varying degrees of selectivity, intimacy, and caring reflect a bit higher differentiation than the woman I just described in the preceding paragraph. (Just realize that exploitative sexual relationships can masquerade as a casual friendship—whether between college students, work colleagues, or spouses.)

3. Narcissistic self-reflection. For some people, sex partners provide narcissistic self-reflection—ego strokes, a body on which to demonstrate sexual prowess and attractiveness [the psychiatrist Rollo May also spoke about just this as well]. At this level of differentiation people have some emotional investment in their relationship—although it’s primarily to get a reflected sense of self. Their sexual fantasies are like private pornography. often involving unflattering power motifs with their partner. In worst case scenarios, partners are “playthings” and “boy toys,” to use modern parlance; this partner engagement involves borrowed functioning in which the “plaything” provides an emotional transfusion of pseudo-self—until he or she feels drained and develops low sexual desire (see Chapter 5). (Opportunistic sex—for example, between friends and former lovers—sometimes reflects a slightly higher level of differentiation.) This kind of partner engagement often underlies short-lived “movie star” marriages, but some are fairly long-term when the “drainage” isn’t so high. These frequently (but not always) involve “trophy wives” and “May-December” marriages between rich older men and financially dependent younger women.

4. Real person. At the fourth level of partner engagement their is the beginning of recognizing the partner as a real person, not just walking talking genitals. In contrast to the prior category (some investment in the relationship), the greater differentiation involved here surfaces in investment in the other person. However, there’s not enough differentiation for the partner to be fully recognized as a separate individual. This is the partner engagement of dependency on other-validated intimacy. There’s awareness that the other has feelings and needs of his/her own. Satisfying some of them and not inflicting pain (beyond normal marital sadism) becomes important, in part, because it contributes to one’s reflected sense of self. The sex partner is one’s mirror—making sexual trance attractive as time-out from monitoring one’s reflection (meaning sex with eyes closed).

-> The preceding four examples describe emotionally fused forms of partner engagement. The other person is a non-person—an extension of one’s own needs. Moving from the first to the fourth level, people demonstrate greater differentiation, culminating in the partner emerging as a real person—although not a truly separate one. Psychologically, at the fourth level there is finally the beginnings of two people—and more accurately, one and a half. There is still the tendency for partners to function like emotional Siamese twins. Until the partner is more than just an extension of one’s self, there isn’t a genuine basis for caring about him or her. [Which means there isn’t a basis for actually loving the other person.]

Notice that it’s taken four of the six steps to reach this degree of personal evolution, which reflects how little caring goes on even in partner engagement. The remaining two levels are ones we’d like to believe apply to us (and most people). They’re what we optimistically expect and demand from modern marriage. More realistically, these forms of sexual relatedness increasingly occur as we live longer and require more personal growth. Turning these potentialities into realities is both the result of—and the reason to pursue—your own differentiation.

5. Unique connection. The level of partner engagement we now address probably came to mind when I first mentioned partner engagement. It involves unique connection. At this level of differentiation, the partner stops being one’s mirror, a reflection on oneself, or an extension of oneself. He or she emerges as a bona fide separate person, and occupies an unrivaled place in one’s life. His/her happiness becomes as important as one’s own. Compassion, consideration, mutuality, and integrity steer the interactions, made possible by one’s ability to calm one’s anxiety and self-soothe one’s conflicts and hurts. Partners realize that and appreciate each other’s deepest core personality and potentials—pushing themselves to disclose their most private and personal truths. It isn’t easy or comfortable, yet nothing is deliberately held back. Looking into each other during sex is commonplace. Acceptance is based on true knowledge of each other—it’s not a mutual validation pact predicated on fantasies and projections. Partners share a profound and irreplaceable love.

6. Oneness with each other and humanity. The ultimate stage of partner engagement reflects a level of differentiation few people reach. Here partners come to grips with barriers of existential separateness and experience oneness with each other and humanity [Fromm speaks similarly of this in “The Art of Loving,” and describes it as the highest form of love, describing it as “fusion with integrity”]. Their sexual encounters heighten self-awareness and interconnection. Normal boundaries between self and other dissolve. Partners see themselves in each other (and vice versa) during eyes-open sex, but this doesn’t stem from emotional fusion or reflected sense of self. It comes from appreciating the essence in each of us that connects all of us (and encourages social and environmental consciousness).  Sex becomes a form of spiritual communion celebrating the mysteries of life.


These six categories of partner engagement illustrate once again how differentiation facilitates the highest forms of emotional union. But the last two uplifting forms are hard to achieve , periodic at best, and their absence can be painful. The more primitive and exploitative forms of emotional fusion are commonplace in daily life.

Differentiation determines the availability of the following ingredients that comprise partner engagement:

  • the strength and meaningfulness of your bond [the lower your level of differentiation, the less meaningful your bond, and the less essential and more expendable your partner is. Because the lower your level of differentiation, the less core self you have and the more pseudo-self you have, and the more you identity/sense of self is makeshift and adaptable/changeable and even chameleon-like, and thus the more potential partners you can adapt yourself to.]
  • how much “self” either of you has to invest (to what degree you are self-validating),
  • the degree to which either of you [has a true or core self and] is willing to invest your “true self,”
  • and the degree of profound meaning in a particular sexual encounter.

Differentiation plays another role in partner engagement: as you strive for deeper partner engagement, the range of potential partners narrows. If all you want is minimal engagement, almost any partner will do. Casual engagement—recreational sex—simply requires an available, socially appropriate partner. But from this point on, increased engagement narrows your field of choices. Personal characteristics of the partner and the nature of the relationship become important. Fewer people meet your selection criteria. If you want profound partner engagement—particularly with any regularity—it usually involves a single partner with a unique status in your life. It also involves a partner who can engage you on that level.

My saying that deeper levels of partner engagement demand restrictive selectivity might sound like a condemnation of casual sex, especially to those who argue that that casual sex can be just as rewarding as monogamy—or more so. I have no argument with people’s personal experience, but let’s be honest: you can’t deeply know the fullest potentials of large numbers of sex partners. Knowing one all-important person probably involves not tasting lots of others.

Our discussion of sexual styles brings us back to the question from Chapter 5: who really wants to want? The fact that profound sexual partner engagement narrows your selection highlights the vulnerability of establishing a profound bond. It isn’t just that your partner is irreplaceable: there aren’t many potential suitable candidates even when you have numerous volunteers. (We’ll talk more of this in Chapter 14.)


End of excerpt.


My thoughts:


First off, as a background note, it seems to me that there is much in the preceding that owes itself to both the work of writer / theologian Martin Buber (“I-Thou”) as well as to the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (6 levels of moral reasoning).

Buber, much like the philosopher Immanuel Kant, simplified our basic orientation towards others to being one of two possibilities—either an it (the other person isn’t actually a real person, but is a prop or a means or an instrument); or a Thou (the other person is an actual real person, an end in him- or herself, and we recognize this and treat the person accordingly). Kant, a century and a half before, wrote what is known as the “second formulation” of the “categorical imperative”: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

And the six stages of partner engagement that Schnarch identifies mirror fairly well the six different levels of moral reasoning that Kohlberg delineated (


Now for me, the biggest thing to take away from the above excerpt of Schnarch is that all of this isn’t just about sex and that sort of partner engagement: rather, this is about our basic level of orientation towards our partner, how we orient ourselves towards him or her, how we fundamentally view him or her.

Do we see our partner as someone real, as a real person—and thus have access to the higher echelons of human experience and human possibilities that can take place between two people and that do not require the assistance or borrowed functioning of designer drugs?

Or is our level of differentiation not sufficient enough to see our partner as more than a means, an instrument, a prop, something to be used, worked, manipulated, et cetera? (Or is their level of differentiation not sufficient to support more than this? Did our partner have access to enough pseudo-self and life experience so that he or she was able to appear much more differentiated and deep and principled in courting than they ever actually intended to be down the road? In other words, did their representative really do a great job conning us?)

If we haven’t grown out of our original narcissism and what’s in it for me and denial of death orientation that we have as children and adolescents (in other words if we’re still basically emotional teenagers in adult bodies), then we won’t be able to see our partner as a real person but only as a means, in instrument, a prop, something to be used, and we won’t really be invested in the other person or our relationship because our relationship will be about other-validation, romance, an ego trip, an accouterment to our narcissistic self-aggrandizement, and or our own gratification (the quality of what were getting instead of what we’re getting as well as the quality of what we’re giving), instead of about truth, love, growth, and investing ourselves in another human being and our relationship.

To see our partner as a real human being requires consciousness—meaning self-awareness, and more specifically, self-awareness that is intensely honest—and a well-developed conscience.

If our conscience is not sufficiently developed—which in this society is a very common malaise because most people have underdeveloped consciences—and if we are not self-aware and self-aware in a honest manner—also something that does not happen often and is not widely encouraged in this society (and something itself that requires a well-developed conscience)—then how can we expect to see our partner as more than an object, a prop, something to be used and manipulated, in other words, not just an object, but an object of convenience? And thus when the going gets tough in the relationship, how can we not see our partner as someone who is disposable, expendable, interchangeable.*  Where is the love in that?

But that is just what people are typically doing when they divorce or have an affair—showing their low level of differentiation, showing that the other person is not a real person, showing their own narcissism, showing that they do not know what love is—they may say they do, they may say “I love you,” they may say the words, but they don’t actually mean them because they don’t actually know what they mean, because at the most basic level “I love you” means “You are unique to me, you are not expendable and interchangeable, and you are not a means or a prop to me, but a real person; I see the you of you, I see who you are in your core, and I appreciate and relish that.”

On the other hand, when a narcissist / poorly differentiated person says “I love you,” what they are saying is “I like what you do for me, it makes me feel warm, glowing, giddy, alive. You agree with me, you support me, you validate me, you give me what I want.” Et cetera.


* “If we examine our life, our relationship with another, we shall see that it is a process of isolation. We are really not concerned with another; though we talk a great deal about it, actually we are not concerned. We are related to someone only so long as that relationship gratifies us, so long as it gives us a refuge, so long as it satisfies us. But the moment there is a disturbance in the relationship which produces discomfort in ourselves, we discard that relationship. In other words, there is relationship only so long as we are gratified. This may sound harsh, but if you really examine your life very closely you will see it is a fact; and to avoid a fact is to live in ignorance, which can never produce right relationship.” – Krishnamurti

About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
This entry was posted in Buber, David Schnarch, Kohlberg, Krishnamurti, Passionate Marriage, Schnarch and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How Do You View Your Partner? As a Person, or a Means

  1. Jorge Kapa says:

    How accurate was K’s description on how we perceive relationship.. too bad that now, 30 years after his death, people don’t seem to understand what he said.. they just want to turn him to another messiah :/

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