50 Questions to Answer Before Opening a Relationship

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Recommendations: 

  • Get grounded before going through the questions and pause if anyone gets dysregulated. 

  • Practice nonviolent communication (share: observations + feelings + needs + requests).

  • Go through the questions together in order. 

  • Star the questions where you get stuck, then take that to a counselor. 


50 Questions to Answer Before Opening a Relationship

1. What kind of helping professional would we like to see to guide us through these discussions? If we can’t afford a therapist currently, what books or resources could be used as a guide? Is there a community we could join online or in person? Can we select some resources to read together and discuss? 

2. What lead up to us considering opening our relationship? Are we on the same page about where we are? How would we each describe our relationship currently? 

3. What does “open relationship” mean to each of us? What does it NOT mean? 

4. What are our beliefs about open/poly/nonmonog relationships? What are our beliefs about monogamy? How did we come to hold these beliefs? 

5. Do we know anyone in open/poly/nonmonog relationships who we could talk to about what it was like opening up? Were we inspired by seeing another open relationship? 

6. What does integrity mean to us in the context of relationships? What does commitment mean to us? What does loyalty mean to us? What are our relational values as a partnership? 

7. How solid is our relationship currently? Are we emotionally attuning and feeling connected? Or are we growing distant and losing passion? 

8. How deeply do we trust each other? Are there any times in the past when we felt alone and/or like our partner might not be there for us when we needed them? Have we made repairs around those past experiences to the best of our ability? 

9. How do we feel about our sex and intimacy? Would we possibly be opening up to try to meet a sexual need that feels unmet/lacking in our relationship? What else have we already tried to meet that unmet need/s? What would be a way/s to meet the need before/while opening up?

10. Why might we open our relationship? What are we longing to experience?

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11. Are we wanting to open up to engage in sexual experiences with others and/or do we think we are/might be polyamorous? Are we hoping to find romantic love with other people? What kinds of connection and experiences are we seeking?

12. If anyone identifies as bisexual, queer, fluid, etc., does the ‘gender’ of an outside partner impact the kind of connection/energy felt/desired? (e.g., “I only fall in love with women but I like to hook up with men,” or “I only sub for men, but I like to top women.”)

13. Do both of us want to open up? Is one person wanting it more than the other? How would we make sure that this is a mutual decision? What are our boundaries—what are each of our core needs, and what are we willing to flex on? 

14. If one person decides they really don’t want to open up after all, how will we proceed? If only one of us wants to date other people, are we okay with that as a relationship structure? What would we do if we started out with just one of us dating other people, but then the other decided they would also like to date someone else? 

15. Is opening up a big enough deal for one of us that if only one of us wanted to do it, we’d need to start talking about a possible breakup/divorce? Is it a dealbreaker? 

16. What would be some potential benefits of opening up our relationship? 

17. What would be some potential risks of opening up our relationship?

18. Do we sense that the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks? Are there ways that any of the risks can be reduced/minimized? 

19. What would our ideal/dream scenario look like? What are each of our dreams here?

20. How would our family and community feel knowing we opened our relationship? Would we let them know or would we keep it private? How do each of our cultural backgrounds impact this experience and decision?

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21. If someone who didn’t know we had an open relationship randomly happened to see one or both of us out in public with other partners, how would we like to proceed? If we are out with a shared partner and are asked about our relationship status, what would our responses be? 

22. If we have kids, would we need to tell them about us, if anything? Are they at an age where they’ll notice and ask questions? What questions might they ask and how would we answer them?

23. What concerns and fears do we have? If anyone has a catastrophic fear, what is it? What do we need to sense/feel when the fears get stirred up? How can we reassure each other? (e.g., hug, hold hands, hear specific words like, “I’m here, I’m not going anywhere,” or simply “I love you”—be specific about what’s needed/wanted)

24. How will we know that we’re ready to open up?

25. What will be our process for creating co-agreements and defining expectations?

26. How will we compromise if we get stuck or gridlocked on a disagreement when we are trying to create our co-agreements? How does power show up in our relationship? 

27. What is our repair process? How do we reconnect after conflict? How will we let each other know when a repair is needed?

28. What soothes and reassures each of us when we are feeling our enduring vulnerabilities stirred up? (e.g., feeling “I’m not good enough,” “They’re going to leave me,” “I’m not getting it right.”) What are our main enduring vulnerabilities? What will we kind of always feel sensitive about? 

29. What relational structure would be ideal for us? Are we swingers? Do we want to be in a triad or a quad? Are we looking for a leather family? How many partners would we ideally like to see? How would that structure look? Is there a limit on how many partners each of us should relate with?

30. Who is okay as a potential new partner? Who would be out of the question? (e.g., people you meet online, co-workers, friends, friends of friends, people you meet in bars)

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31. If we created a social/dating profile, how would we describe ourselves and who/what we’re seeking? How would we describe what we’re into? 

32. How would we meet potential new partners? How would we let each other know when we think we’ve connected with or encountered a potential new partner? What qualities are we looking for in potential new partners?

33. How will each of us initiate communication with potential new partners? Will both of us be reading/engaging in pre-meetup conversations? If we aren’t both seeing digital/text communication between one partner and potential new partners, how would we like to be updated about progress/status? Would we want to hear about partner’s dates afterward? 

34. Will we have veto power over each other’s outside relationships? What do we do if we aren’t fond of a partner’s partner?

35. What are acceptable activities with non-primary partners? Dating? Sex? What kinds of sex acts? Romantic love feelings? Kink play? Saying “I love you”?

36. If sex with other partners is on the table, how will we practice safer sex? What do we know about consent and safer sex? What is our process for asking about potential partners’ sexual health status? If one of our partners also hooks up with other people, how will we trust that we stay safe? How can we reduce risk for harm?

37. What boundaries are important for us to have (individually and for the relationship)? What would feel out of line for one of us to do? “I would be devastated if _____ happened.” 

38. What happens if one of us falls in love with another partner? 

39. If one of us has an outside partner who practices parallel poly and we may never meet their nesting partner, how do we feel about that? Would we want to meet/engage with the primary partners of people we date/play with? 

40. How much time in a week is acceptable for each of us to spend with non-primary partners? If either of us feels like we’re not getting enough time or like we’re not our primary partner’s priority, what will we do?

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41. If we don’t have veto power, but we don’t like one of our partner’s partners or a conflict arises between us and our primary partner’s lover, what will we do? 

42. What do we know about ourselves and how we experience jealousy individually? What will we do if either of us feels jealousy? 

43. What do we know about ‘new relationship energy (NRE)?’ How would we soothe and reassure each other if NRE stirred up some feelings of jealousy or sadness/anger in a partner? 

44. How will we know if we need to go in to couples counseling for a check-in?

45. What if we try to open up and like it for a while but then one or both of us changes their mind? What would be our process for bringing something like that up? How would we ideally handle a situation like that? 

46. Are there things that feel really special with our primary partner that we’d request that our partner refrain from doing with other partners? (e.g., going to “our restaurant,” engaging in a particular role in sex play, using a special pet nickname) How would we repair if one or both of us ever got the sense that we weren’t as important to our partner as a non-primary partner? 

47. If we’re kinky, what feels acceptable and encouraged to do with other partners? If someone is usually submissive, how would we feel if they were dominant with another person? If someone is a top, how do we feel about another top topping their bottom? What are the limits?

48. What process will we have if one or both of us wishes to change an agreement that we have made? Will we do monthly or quarterly check-ins to make sure we’re still on the same page? 

49. What do we love and treasure about each other? What do we admire? What do we adore? What do we appreciate? What do we affirm about our relationship together? 

50. Do we believe opening up is the right choice for our relationship? 

xoxo,
MoJo

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10 Tips for Long Distance Relationships

Are you and your partner/s in a long distance relationship (LDR)? Do one or more of you tour/travel for work so that even though you’re not technically long distance, you have to be sometimes? Is your lover about to be deployed for service or go abroad for a project?

Living in the Music Capital puts me in touch with lots of people who tour professionally as a living, and I end up seeing tons of couples where one or more person spends significant time away for work. I also do couples intensives (2-4 days in a row with 4-6hrs. of counseling per day) with partners who are not living in the same city/country but want to meet in Austin to sort things through. I was even in a LDR myself back in the day! All that to say, I have a deep fondness for this work and find that relationships navigating long distance end up with incredible strengths!

While I was putting this together, I reached out to a few people I adore who also know a thing or two about this, so I’ll be sharing some of their insight as well!

So here are 10 of the top tips that are both friend- and client-approved:

1. Learn and share about attachment needs.

Do you know the main ways that you learned to cope in relationships and get your needs met when you were growing up in the world? The messages we get from early caregivers about emotional needs impact what psychologists call our attachment style. I prefer to ditch the word “style” because I believe it’s something definitely entrenched, but actually quite malleable. Think of it like the set of behaviors you do when in relationship with others: Do you like to talk things through or be alone to think before talking? If you’re upset do you want help from others with the feeling or not? What do you do if someone is coming on strong and has a lot of needs? What do you do if someone is aloof and leaves you hanging?

If you’d like to do a quick online quiz to learn more about your attachment wiring, I recommend the Compatibility Quiz from Attached, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. Their book is also a great resource if you haven’t had much exposure to Attachment Theory. I also recommend Stan Tatkin’s Wired for Love for a solid primer. You can also check out the “Videos” section under resources here to find more info on attachment. For the topic at hand, oversimplified: if you’re not at all distressed when your partner is away, you might have more of an avoidant attachment, and if you get really upset and dysregulated, you might have more of an anxious/preoccupied attachment. If you experienced developmental trauma growing up, this can also impact how our nervous systems cope with change.

Practically, what I would invite you to do is share one main thing: When you are in the midst of conflict or feeling far away from your partner, what do you need to sense/feel? Dr. Sue Johnson includes a whole set of conversation templates to help you address this in her book, Hold Me Tight. If you have different ways of coping with relationship distress, it’s important that you understand the emotional dance that can happen. Naming it out loud could sound something like: “The more you _____ (action/behavior), the more I feel _____ (feeling/emotion), which makes me _____ (action/behavior), which makes you feel _____ (feeling/emotion), until we’re stuck in our cycle which we’ll call _____ (silly name for cycle).”

Some common enduring emotional vulnerabilities include: feeling like you’re not enough, feeling like you’re too much, feeling like you’re bad/defective, feeling unworthy or worthless, feeling deprived/trapped, feeling controlled, etc. Do any of these ring true? If you’re feeling one of the above, what do you need to experience to get out of it? It might be something as simple as a hug or hand-hold, or you might need an apology and repair process. Get specific and let your partner/s know!

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2. Communicate to attune.

Attunement is what builds trust. It’s the act of emotionally tuning into ourselves and our partners. In all relationships we want to be aiming for this level of connection, but it’s especially important when we’re long distance. Especially at the start of a relationship, it can be significantly easier to attune when we’re in close proximity because our neurobiology can sync with greater ease.

The Gottman Institute created a handy acronym to remember the elements of attunement:

So, the more you focus on these 6 caring and empathic actions, the better things will feel in the bond. And the more you attune while you’re physically together in the same space, the more insulated your relationship will be from relationship-damaging conflict when you’re apart.

My friends, Olivia and Curtis Roush, had some lovely thoughts on communicating while one person is on tour because Curt plays in the band, The Bright Light Social Hour, so Olivia is typically in Austin working on grad school for social work while he’s out on the road. I want to make a point to say that everyone is different when it comes to frequency of communication when touring—for some people, they need every day multiple times per day, but others are good every few days with a morning/goodnight text thrown in there. Olivia shared:

“Sometimes it can be challenging to talk on the phone everyday when the guys are traveling, but we make sure to text each other good morning each day and check in throughout the day. We send each other photos of funny or interesting things we see during the day and try to FaceTime every couple of days. Although Curtis doesn't like all the driving he LOVES to play shows and it makes me really happy to see. For me, the time apart allows me to focus on school, catch up with old friends, and other things that I love.”

We are the stewards of our lover’s’ hearts—the more accessible, responsive, and emotionally engaged we are, the more secure our bonds will be. Curt added that “thinking about snuggles” is what helps him when he’s away, which actually melted my little counselor heart. If a goal of emotionally attuning acts like a golden thread through conversations, you’ll have your best shot at weathering some of the difficulties of LDRs.

3. Find a couples counselor who does intensives.

Especially if you live in separate locations and/or would like to ultimately decide if you should move to the same place, I highly recommend finding a couples counselor who you can see periodically. As I mentioned, I offer a package for couples like this that allows us to assess the strengths and growth-edges of the relationship, make plans for how to care for everyone while distance is at play, and ultimately discern if/when/how to get everyone to the same place. If you’re looking for a professional like this in your city, you might have some luck looking for therapists trained in: Gottman Method, Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), or Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT).

If you live in the same location but one or more of you travels long distance frequently, I still recommend establishing a relationship with a couples counselor. If everything in the relationship is generally going smoothly and you just need some support figuring out how to manage the distance, an intensive might also be an ideal way to work! You can bop in for an assessment and some strategic, solution-focused work to help everyone have a better experience during separations.

While we’re here, if you’re a partner who ends up staying home while your lover travels, I can’t recommend enough that you find your own individual counselor and/or consider joining a support group, especially if there’s ever been a relational norm violation (e.g., “affair,” “infidelity”) and/or your attachment wiring looks more anxious/preoccupied. I’ve got lots of resources and blogs here if you’re looking for more information on how to heal trust.

4. Cozy up with the connection, disconnection, reconnection cycle.

I’d love to share a quote from my friend, Kallie Pitcock, who is a brilliant seminary student and seasoned military spouse. When I asked her what the secret sauce is for surviving deployments, she said:

“Before the separation we work to build memories and bonds (go on a trip, see a therapist together, make special date nights…). During the separation expect experiences of distance and gaps in communication… For the reunion often [there is] intense anticipation and desire for physical reconnection, quickly followed by distance and discomfort in daily routine. There is a long period of reintegration depending on the length of the separation. We lean back into planned memory making dates and permission to mess-up and step on toes. It is a roller coaster, an ebb and flow of connection and disconnection.”

When I think about this wise response, I can’t help but think of Dr. Jean Baker Miller’s definition of relationship: ongoing cycle of connection, disconnection, and reconnection. The partners I see doing LDRs or periods with long distance seem to flourish the most and avoid the most distress when they get comfortable with the idea that they are not always going to be in connection (or disconnection). You can try asking: How can we take care of ourselves and each other when we’re in disconnection? In reconnection? In connection?

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5. Remember: small things often.

I see a lot of couples struggle when they do communication exclusively in giant, marathon bursts like a snake eats, trying to tackle the task of connecting emotionally/sexually/spiritually, sorting out logistics, and also making repairs at the same time. Of course because of the nature of the beast and time constraints, there will be occasions when you need to do those marathon conversations—I just recommend trying not to bite of more than you can chew at once, especially while you’re apart.

My friend, Zac Catanzaro, who is a touring drummer in the band, Walker Lukens and The Side Arms, lent his two cents on this:

“As cliche as it sounds our secret sauce is good communication. Partners can feel left out when you’re traveling to a new city everyday, projecting nothing but fun and adventure on social media. We found that the key for us is oversharing. Everyone relates the important stuff but I’m more talking about the seemingly unimportant; the inside jokes, what you had for lunch, the annoying promoter from the night before, etc. The more details and communication shared throughout the day, the lower the chance anyone feels neglected or ignored, which tend to be the common emotions causing separation based fights. It took a couple tours early in our relationship to figure it out but I can’t remember the last time we fought while apart.”

Sure, it may seem small, but that text of the ridiculously yum sandwich you had is what we call in Gottman Method a “bid” for connection. Remember when there was “poke” on Facebook? I don’t have FB, so maybe it’s still there, but that’s basically what a bid is. Following in Gottman language, we can “turn” toward, away from, or against our partner’s’ bids for connection. Turning toward means engaging them and responding. Turning away is basically non-response or stonewalling—human nervous systems especially hate this and it goes back to infancy. And turning against is basically responding like an asshole; acknowledging the bid, but kind of shitting on it. Turning against would be like if your partner texted a pic of the delicious sandwich and you responded, “That’s the worst looking sandwich ever. Ew.”

6. Pick out some “together apart” activities.

This is especially helpful if you live in separate cities! I recommend picking activities that are easy to do while you’re FaceTiming or Skyping. Probably the most common one I hear is replicating “date night,” where you plan to cook the same meal in your separate locations, but livestream the process for each other, then eat “together” over the phone/computer. Phone sex, which looks more like video chat masturbation or sexting these days, is another great option! Obviously just be sure to safeguard your privacy.

I’ve even known a few couples who like to exercise together when they’re apart! Pop in some earbuds and go running “with” your lover, even though you’re running down different streets. This is also a great option if you live in the same place but one person tours! Having a bath is another experience that’s pretty easy to do together apart.

Just be sure to keep an open line of communication about how these types of activities make you feel—I know more than a few people who actually end up feeling worse if they're doing something they like to do with their lover but lover isn’t physically there. If that’s you, save those special things for when your together and try one of the other tips!

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7. Lean into support networks, family, and friends.

This one is so obvious, but I had to include it. My main recommendation is to identify the one person or handful of people you love and trust the most, and let them know that you may need to reach out to them for support. Try something like, “There’s probably going to be a time coming up when I’m just absolutely miserable and I probably won’t be super fun, but I’m really going to need you to just meet up with me and do something mindless. Can our code word for when I need you like that be _____?” It’s also helpful to ask a friend to join you for self-care; e.g., do a yoga class together, go for a walk, get some pampering. Having someone to help hold you accountable for taking care of yourself is priceless. Actually, you can hire a counselor, so it can be super affordable!

One slippery area in this domain is that partners can sometimes end up talking with friends or family about their relationship issues in too much depth. Of course it’s fine to reach out for some comfort and support. It’s another thing to create a dynamic where you go and complain to someone outside of your relationship about all of the issues within it—in counseling we call that a “triangle;” you’re in a relationship with one person, but you triangle in a third person to unload stress onto. “Hey, I’m having a hard time. I really miss my partner and they have been unavailable for the last few days,” is an example of a healthy name-it-to-tame-it when you’re talking with friends. If it feels like your partner is persistently not responding, accessible, or emotionally engaged, talk to your partner about it because they’re the one who can actually help.

One other slippery spot that military spouse, Kallie, brought up is related to taking care of personal needs with friends. She said, “The entirety of this roller-coaster has been stabilized by friendships, community, and faith. While these other friendships and relationships are intimate emotionally for us they are not physically.” I think it’s a great idea to have a conversation with your partner/s and just ask, “What is intimacy?” Because that line can get crossed really easily if we don’t co-create shared understandings. If you’re in an open relationship, just make sure that you’re staying on top of communication so that if you’re usually with another partner while primary partner is away that things stay nice and balanced.

8. Check expectations for reunions.

Queue Radiohead: “Baby’s got The Bends, oh no.” For some people, it takes a hot minute to transition from being separated to reconnecting. If you’re a highly sensitive person, just expect things to take a little bit longer when you’re reuniting. But movies certainly don’t do us any favors in terms of curating a set of romantic expectations when it comes to reunions—blissful makeouts and sex, running into the arms of our lover and being picked up and twirled around—you name it! In my experience, most partners than not need a few hours or days to sort of adjust to the new emotional altitude.

The trickiest situation is if one partner needs some time to reconnect and the other does not. This can definitely stir up conflict and leave someone feeling unwanted. I recommend talking about the reunion before it happens and discussing rituals that you can do to make things feel easier. If one person needs more space to get back to feeling connected, make sure that whoever doesn’t need/want space is pouring in self-care.

While we’re already talking about checking expectations, that’s just broadly a solid recommendation, especially if the style of long distance is more in the vein of touring where there’s a high degree of chaos and change. I really see LDRs as a vehicle for the evolution of relationships and everyone in them—if it’s tough for you to manage, I invite you to ask yourself, “What is being called to evolve within me?” When I was talking to my buddy, Jack O’Brien, who is also a touring musician with The Bright Light Social Hour, he shared a refreshingly vulnerable perspective:

“When our days are a cycle of traveling, performing, being anxious about performing, blowing off steam after performing and recovering—all with zero privacy—communicating with your partner back home can be seriously daunting. Making the effort to call, text, or sext at least once a day really helps us stay connected and keeps my spirit from leaving orbit. I also try to meditate daily to focus on gratitude for my partner.”

I think it’s just worth mentioning that grace is a gift we can all give in all directions when we’re navigating LDRs or times of separation—whoever is out on the road can empathize with what it’s like being home and experiencing FOMO, and whoever is home can empathize with the whirlwind nightmare that can be touring. Let’s just acknowledge that maintaining a relationship long distance is more effort and work, and give each other extra appreciation for not only being in a love relationship—which is arguably the greatest challenge of a lifetime along with being in a parent-child relationship—but doing it with all kinds of silly constraints!

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9. Make sure you know your partner’s’ primary love language.

This is such an old school model, but if you haven’t taken the Love Languages Quiz, I recommend stopping what you’re doing and checking it out. I see a lot of partners working their asses off to show love, but the effort gets wasted or only partly absorbed by their lover because it’s not in their love language. We all have a primary one: quality time, words of affirmation, gift giving, acts of service, or physical touch. But sometimes the way we show love and the way we feel loved looks different! In distressed relationships, it’s super common that everyone has mostly/only been trying to show love the way they feel love.

It’s super easy to take the results and integrate them into the relationship when you’re apart! If, for instance, your partner’s love language is acts of service or gifts, you can send a letter or care package or have their favorite meal delivered to them. Words of affirmation are especially easy to rock long distance! If your partner loves quality time, FaceTime is your best friend.

The tricky one for long distance is obviously physical touch. With tech advancing so rapidly, there are actually a number of items that can help you bridge that gap! Here’s a list of some of the best sex toys for LDRS in 2019. “Pair” is an app that lets you “kiss” your partner by pressing your thumbs on the screen; you can feel a little vibration so it’s pretty cute. There are actually a ton of apps that are being designed with LDRs in mind because so many people are meeting online these days that it’s more likely you meet someone not in your city. Here’s an article with some cool ideas to try!

10. Practice emotional bank accounting when you’re together and apart.

Imagine a bank account in the heart of your relationship. Every positive, loving, affirming, appreciative thing you do is a deposit to that account. Every negative, critical thing is a withdrawal. This is yet another concept from The Gottman Institute. The Gottman’s found that during conflict, the ratio of (+) : (-) in these terms needs to be 5:1 to keep the relationship feeling good. If you work on keeping things in the black, it actually cushions and insulates the relationship for times of stress and conflict.

What I find is that the partners who capitalize on their time when they’re together—get back in the routine of date nights, do work in therapy together, find a balance with intimacy that’s mutually-satisfying—tend to do better not only in normal day-to-day conflict, but during the ups and downs of long distance.

Take care of each other!

Love,
MJ

Should I Stay or Should I Go? 10 Tips for Relational Discernment

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In couples counseling, discernment is used to describe work centered around determining if partners want to stay in a relationship or breakup. It can also refer to a specific protocol for discernment work created by Bill Doherty “designed for mixed agenda couples where one is leaning out of the marriage and the other wants to save it.”

My suspicion is that if partners start out with individual therapists and just stick to that, they’re more likely to separate than if they work with a couples counselor. My favorite way to navigate this territory is to begin couples counseling, then add in individual therapists once we’ve identified each person’s enduring emotional vulnerabilities and/or unresolved trauma/s, and ensure that the couples counselor and individual therapist collaborate.

Whatever the case may be, discernment work is emotional heavy lifting—it’s difficult terrain. Certainly not for the faint of heart, whether you’re in the relationship, or the helping professional working with it.

Discernment is not a sustainable place to hangout for the longterm, but I observe that a lot of people enter that mode way before they verbally indicate to their partner/s that they’ve gotten there.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t take time to think deeply about it before letting your partner know what’s on your mind. We just want to be highly intentional and thoughtful if we’re going to go there. As renowned relationship therapist and researcher, Stan Tatkin, shares in his 10 Commandments for healthy relationships, “Thou shalt not threaten the existence of the relationship.” Bringing up an idea like “maybe we shouldn’t be together,” will introduce an element of insecurity to any bond—be sure you’re sure if you’re going to is all I’m saying.

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Here are 10 tips if you’ve been navigating this terrain and are hoping for some new ways of thinking about everything:

1) “Have we turned over every stone? Are we satisfied we didn’t just ‘give up?’”

Many couples want to give a whack at counseling “just to make sure we can say we tried everything,” and then they actually heal the wounds in the relationship, and end up better than ever. So if partners are of the turn-every-stone variety, I’m always willing to do some heavy lifting and turn a relationship around. Sometimes, we do turn all the stones and we realize that a relationship wasn’t quite compatible from the get-go, and that’s okay too. 

Parents have reported that they like knowing that when their kids are grown, if they ever ask about the relationship, parents can honestly say they tried and it just didn’t work out.

Forgive me if this sounds a bit like Pascalian Wagering, but regardless of whether or not the relationship is going to stay in existence, I often think it’s better to act like there’s a chance and see. A lot of times we may have been working hard but not smart to feel more connected. 

I want to note that if there is emotional/physical danger, if someone can’t stop perpetrating violence—they don’t get to turn over all the stones with you. There’s hope and there’s help. National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233. If a violent partner does get the support they need to manage their aggression and cease being violent and demonstrates that over time, a case could be made for regrouping and taking a look at the relationship as long as violence/coercion stays gone. 

2) Practice grounded decision-making. 

Refuse to make life-changing decisions from a place of fear or imbalance. This means mindfulness-based practices are your friend because tolerating not-knowing is kind of the name of the game if you’re going to commit to avoiding impulsive choices. If there has been a breach of trust, reestablish a solid footing before trying to make big decisions. I’ve seen a number of divorce-remarry shuffles because partners made decisions in the wake of a relational norm violation (e.g., ‘affair,’ ‘infidelity’), but hearts softened over time. 

If you’re a hurt partner, I recommend getting into a counselor as soon as possible and maybe even adding in am emotional support group if it feels appropriate. As long as you are safe from harm, I recommend avoiding quick, impulsive decisions about the fate of your relationship.

Commit to stabilizing and gaining emotional balance *before* making any lasting decisions that impact everyone. Even if there hasn’t been a relational norm violation, rule out other suspects like major mental health issues (e.g., major depression, unprocessed Trauma) that could be playing more of a role than you realize in how you’re perceiving your partner/s and the relationship.

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3) Co-agree on the status of your relationship out loud. 

Are you going to keep things as they are, breakup, or commit to ~6 months of couples counseling and see if there’s improvement? If you try to have conversations to make decisions about this but keep getting stuck, I recommend finding a solid couples counselor. For this area, someone trained to take a more active, solution-focused role can be ideal—try therapists trained in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, or PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy). You can learn some practical strategies to make attuning with each other easier.

I add this to the list of tips because I’ve worked with so many people who were thinking about wanting to change the status of the relationship waaay before they mentioned anything to their partner. The longer things fester, the harder we have to work to get things back to feeling close and secure. Sometimes just finding an individual therapist and having the space to feel free to consider your options about a relationship—even hypothetically—can provide relief.

This is a place where you definitely want to be on the same page with each other, even if it’s a sad page to read.

4) “Should we try a trial separation?” 

A friend of mine’s therapist said this best recently : separating means that “you miss the bad stuff, but you also miss the good stuff.” I only know a few couples who have tried separating and actually stayed together happily. This is not to say that you shouldn’t take time away from each other! Taking a long weekend to yourself is a healthy thing to do. I hear people say all the time, “I want to see if we miss each other,” when talking about separation—a long weekend can do it! 

You just have to be honest with yourself about the risk for damage to the relationship being HIGH when you venture into trial separation territory. It seems to create cracks that stick around and crop up during times of stress, even if the couple gets back together.

There are times when it’s necessary to separate for a period of time, which I also just want to name. Sometimes if you’re trying to get sober, physically getting to another place might be necessary. So don’t walk away from this thinking there are no good reasons! I mostly mean to say, if you want to give a whack at preserving a relationship—try other things first and use separation as a last resort. 

5) Stop looking outside of you for answers. 

You have the answer. It’s already inside you. You probably already know it and don’t realize. Or you do realize but you aren’t ready to fully admit it yet. That’s all human and perfectly okay.

Sure, a counselor might be able to think up some helpful questions to guide you, and friends can provide moral support. But so often when people are trying to make decisions about their relationship, they ask everyone but their own guts and heart.

Imagine that no one else would be impacted in any negative way by the decision you’re going to make—what does your intuition tell you is for you? 

6) “Am I trying to meet too many of my needs with my relationship?”

Sometimes we’re just expecting too much from a relationship. Especially in the context of modern monogamy, where partners are expected to fulfill the roles of lover, intellectual match, parenting partner, leisure time buddy, caretaker, confidant, and more.

If you’re unsure about your relationship, ask yourself what in life you feel really sure about. If the answer is, “nothing,” maybe don’t ditch the relationship yet. When we feel existential dread or anticipation about change or aging, it’s normal to look to relationships as suspects—it’s just not, you know, so great for the health of the relationship.

If you honestly can’t say that you have activities that give you pleasure and connections with friends that bring joyfulness to your heart, I recommend starting there and seeing if adding meaning and fulfillment outside of your primary relationship doesn’t change the way you feel with partner/s.

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7) “The grass is greener where you water it.” 

We have to be very careful not to get tricked by our brains in this area. We have this nifty little brain part called the amygdala, and it’s wonderful because it’s always looking out for new things, sparkly things, and danger. What we have to remember is that 1) new relationship energy is like being on drugs—it’s a hormone cocktail that prevents us from thinking completely clearly, and 2) novelty jazzes out amygdala and we can enjoy things purely because they are new to us on a visceral level.

“The grass is greener where you water it” is attributed to Neil Barringham, by the way. Only I’m pretty sure Shirley Glass is who put the words on my radar. If you’re thinking of starting a secret relationship to meet needs you feel aren’t being met in your primary relationship, or you’re considering leaving your partner for an affair partner, I highly recommend reading the research Shirley Glass shares in Not Just Friends.

As Stan Tatkin says, lust is at a distance, love is up close. Love isn’t something that just happens to you—that’s lust; love is an action verb. Be honest with yourself about how much work your putting into cultivating an attuned relationship—can you bring a fuller, more engaged self in some areas?

8) Ask yourself, “What am I bringing to the relationship? What do I give?”

If you notice that you’ve been referencing some checklist hoping that your partner ticks off all the boxes—scratch that approach. I hear a lot of individuals wondering, “Will my partner meet all of my needs?” Also probably not the way to go about forging a healthy bond.

How do you show up to the relationship? Are you depleted and low-resourced, or have you done your self-care and showing up engaged and responsive?

I’d invite you to experiment with a few weeks of just bringing your relationship A Game—really pump some positivity in and don’t expect anything in return. See what happens!

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9) Are we staying together “for the kids?” 

I get it—so well intentioned and loving. But no. Research shows that kids don’t want you to do that. What kids need is to see healthy relationships modeled—if that’s you together, or you with other people, it doesn’t matter as much as consistently showing children what love that goes both ways looks like.

Mel Schwartz: “Divorce isn’t failure, living in unhappiness is failure.”

10) Am I trying to solve an unsolvable problem?

Take an honest look at the issues in the relationship that you chronically feel are a problem, or could become one. The Gottman Institute found that almost 2/3 of the problems in relationships are “perpetual,” more or less there to stay. That’s right problem-solvers, make sure to exhale—you can’t fix everything in a relationship.

This means that our focus should always be on making consistent, effective repairs when we inevitably misstep. We need to ask our partners what helps soothe and reassure them when we hit one of those sticky trouble spots. 

If you take a look at the set of issues that just comes with the territory of your relationship and after an honest audit you aren’t sure that it’s tolerable, I recommend checking in with a couples counselor! You want to make sure that your relationship isn’t in Negative Sentiment Override before making any big decisions because it will bias how you’re experiencing your partner.

Take care of each other!

Love,
MJ

5 Ways to Reframe Jealousy

First, Jealousy vs. Envy:

As long as humans have been in relationships, so have envy and jealousy. And you know what? It’s not just humans—monkeys even understand fairness and demonstrate envy. Does anyone reading live with more than one dog or cat? What happens if you are petting one but not the other?

Let’s clarify what we mean when we’re talking about the dreaded ‘green-eyed monster’ in romantic relationships.

Specifically, let’s distinguish jealousy from envy. Envy is seeing or sensing that someone has something that you don’t that you would like to have. “Wow, he has a great body with abs, I wish I had abs.” Jealousy takes it one step further—when we feel jealous, we see or sense that someone has something we don’t, and because of that, we fear that we’ll lose connection with our primary person. “Wow, he has such a great body—she’s never going to want to stay with me if she sees his abs that I’ll never have.”

Envy involves just two: the envier and the envied. Jealousy is more than two: the envier, the envied, and the person in relationship with them; it’s at least a triangle. When relationship systems have more than two people in them, it obviously gets complex quickly.

Jealousy is all about feeling left out—without the sense that you have control or power to influence the people who matter to you; it’s fear of being replaced. If envy is about wanting what someone else has, jealousy is about worrying someone will take what you have.

I find that clinically and personally, we tend to be most jealous of people who have traits that are similar to some of our own most prized traits, and could even rival in comparison. For example, if your family and friends love your sense of humor and how witty you are, the sense of threat and urgency lacing jealousy will feel more poignant if your partner seems to be attracted to a comic or someone known for their humor.

Jealousy can show up in all kinds of flavors and looks different depending on how many people are in a relationship, as well as the style (e.g., open, poly, monogamish) of the relationship and identities and cultures of the partners.

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Ways to Reframe Jealousy

I want to share a few different ways of thinking about jealousy so that if it’s something you’re working to find more balance around, you might find a new approach that could help!

If this sounds like you, I’d also love to invite you to muster as much tenderness and self-compassion as you can when wading into the business of exploring and leading the jealous parts of our selves to stay in balance. We don’t want to get rid of our jealous parts—they can be a brilliant, intuitive radar when they are in balance and feeling safe—we just want to make sure they don’t start being backseat drivers. Jealousy can be a real asshole backseat driver.

If you have a jealous part that was born after an event in a relationship, but you never really identified as being all that jealous before the relational norm violation/s, please know that your truster isn’t busted forever—you don’t just turn into a ‘jealous person’ and stay that way. You have to work to heal and find your balance again, but you can walk through the world again without jealousy taking up the good mental real estate.

Lots of clients express, more or less, that they would like for me to be able to surgically remove the jealous parts of them. But jealousy is like any other physical pain trying to convey a crucial message—if you have a toothache and we just numb it out, that thing might very well rot out of your head.

We want to be able to tolerate the feeling long enough to inquire why it’s hanging out, and what we might need. Because of the sociocultural history (including religious implications) packed into our understanding of jealousy, many of us inherit a reflexive emotion-dismissing tendency when it comes to feeling envious and jealous. It’s not a desirable emotional experience, and further, we can even be deemed petty or weak—sinful even—by others for feeling jealous.

But stuffing or pretending to ignore jealousy will set you up for failure fast. It will always find a way to rear its little green head. In fact, the more you stuff, the more likely it will explode without your conscious control.

As with any other social emotion or emotion proper, in the long run it’s healthier to just make room for them so they can pass on through. If you’re trying to ignore or stuff jealousy inside of you, well—do that until you can’t. Or until you’re so passive-aggressive that your partner/s can’t take it.

So, I’d like to share some additional ways of reframing jealousy that can help you stay curious and tolerate the feeling better so that you can get more useful information from it:

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1) Jealousy as Angry Admiration

If you’re feeling jealous, you can reframe the experience by challenging yourself to ask what you maybe admire about the person triggering the jealous feelings. Sometimes, we’re actually just pissed that someone has a cool trait that’s similar to one of ours, especially if we feel it makes us unique—we’re afraid someone might outshine us and we’ll be left all alone. Or someone has mastered something we’re still working on. If you can slow yourself down and be honest with yourself about the root cause of the jealous feelings, it’s usually about not someone awful and despicable, but admirable and often similar to yourself.

This can be especially hard to do if the jealousy has come about in the wake of a relational norm violation (e.g., affair, infidelity, betrayal). In fact, if you just learned that you were ‘cheated on,’ this would not be the first thought experiment I would recommend—let yourself stabilize and regain your footing before trying to see what you love about the affair partner/s. If this sounds like you and you still want to find a way to begin addressing jealousy, check out Nancy Friday’s book, Jealousy.

Sometimes when we’re jealous, what we’re admiring in someone is a perceived deficit in ourselves that we estimate impacts our relationship. “Look how easy going they are—why do I have to be so uptight?” This can be especially infuriating, but useful information nonetheless. Often, the healthiest thing to do is to treat the Comparison Trap like an emotional conflict cycle with yourself: name the dance, see it, call it out, and stop it—notice when you’re comparing yourself to others in an unhelpful way that’s taking up mental real estate, then name-it-to-tame-it or redirect yourself.

When there’s jealousy—like when there’s anger—it’s helpful to trust that there’s some more vulnerable emotion hanging out just beneath it; fear, loneliness, longing—you name it. See if you can sit with your jealousy; slow things down, then notice if there’s something softer there. Social emotions like jealousy are linked with belonging—fear of being alone, isolated, disconnected, and the like is often lurking under jealousy.

Sharing fears is one way of making it easier to talk about jealousy. It can be tempting to root ourselves in anger when expressing ourselves re: jealousy; challenge yourself to stay vulnerable in it.

Also, never forget that idealization often comes along with admiration. It always helps to remember that whoever we may be feeling jealous of—they’re also a flawed, imperfect human. Ask yourself if you’re mostly encountering them in their element or seeing the highlight reel they present on socials. A little realism goes a long way in this territory.

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2) Jealousy as a Barometer for Unmet Needs

Jealousy can be a great indicator that there are some unmet needs that need looking after—usually, by you and your partner/s. If jealousy gets stirred up when you hear, say, that your partner has been regularly spending time after work providing emotional comfort for an attractive colleague who is going through a divorce, check in with yourself and maybe ask for a relationship check-in; there may just be a need for some emotional closeness and extra TLC.

Now, if your intuition tells you that the emotional support being provided in the example above is disproportionate to the emotional experience, check in with your partner. Emotional affairs in the workplace are increasingly common, so if your gut sends up a flare, listen.

Another common place that I see jealousy spike up is when a partner verbally comments on the attractiveness of others (even if it’s just celebrities) but withholds such comments about their lover. Instead of telling your partner to stop acting jealous, notice/ask what they’re longing for beneath the jealousy and see what you can do to help! Sometimes it’s as simple as sharing more compliments.

Give a whack at nonviolent communication when talking about unmet needs! You just share your observations, feelings, needs, then requests. For instance, “When I hear you commenting on how sexy that guy on TV is, I feel a little insecure and maybe like you don’t still find me sexy like when we first met. I think that’s because I’m just needing to hear from you how you feel about me a little more often. Would you be willing to try to verbalize a few more compliments throughout the week?”

While we’re here, envy can also be a barometer for unmet needs, just more of the individual/self-love flavor. If you feel envious of someone’s career or travel, for instance, ask yourself if you have any longings or wishes inside of you that you haven’t honored. Have you always wanted to go on a trip to another country solo? Do you want to prove something to yourself by getting fit and running in a marathon? Tune into envy to illuminate your longings, then do something about them!

3) Jealousy as a Trail Marker for Enduring Emotional Vulnerabilities

Joseph Addison: “Jealousy is a pain which a man feels from the apprehension that he is not equally beloved by the person whom he entirely loves.”

If jealousy is showing up, we can also see it as a trailhead for an enduring emotional vulnerability, or as we say in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, an emotional “raw spot.” Imagine it sort of like having a big bruise—people can casually bump into it, but it is so deep it’s still really sensitive.

There are a number of childhood and early life experiences that can impact how jealousy shows up and hangs out in our bodies; being abandoned or neglected by a primary caregiver, having younger siblings/sibling with chronic illness or being treated differently than siblings/family members, parents dating/remarrying, to name a few. Looking at it this way, when we feel jealous, we can slow down and take some time to check in and see if the feeling traces back to an earlier time in our life, igniting an old fear or pain point.

We may have also experienced relational norm violations in past/present relationships as adults, and these can also create lasting vulnerabilities. If you’ve been ‘cheated on’ in the past, for instance, it can be helpful to remember to recognize that jealousy can actually be trying to help protect you from getting hurt again—it’s trying to tell you, “There are some similar factors here as there where during the dangerous time when we got hurt. We never want to be hurt again like that! Stay on alert!”

It can be helpful to build relationships with the different parts of you involved in jealousy so that you can learn how to soothe and lead your own frightened or dysregulated parts. Remember—100% of you is never jealous. There are parts of you that are. There’s maybe a super analytical part, a suspicious part, and a part that remembers the grief of being ‘cheated on’ that get together and queue jealousy. Maybe analytical part needs to be reminded of its own logical fallacies and probable miscalculations. Suspicious part might need to be reassured that you’ve done counseling and learned how to look for more empathic people to relate with now.

It may sound hippie dippie, but I promise the neurobiology will catch up—if you take those parts under your wing and speak to them, they’ll listen and calm. “I’ve got us” is an example of a great, reassuring message you can share inside with jealous, unsure parts of yourself. “We’re safe” is another. Imagine language to soothe a scared little kid—any of that will work! “I’m going to take good care of us. You’re not alone. Everything is going to be okay. I’m right here.”

Right after an ‘affair’ has been revealed, your radar can actually go into hyperdrive for a while. From my clinical experience it’s normal if jealousy ramps up intensely for up to 6-8 months or so after the reveal, but it tends to taper off once the relationship has stabilized and started to attune again. It can be tempting to be sassy with jealous parts, but I really want to invite you to extend them love and compassion. Jealous parts are distressed and just trying to take care of you—be the most patient with the parts of yourself the cause you the most angst, suspicion included.

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4) Jealousy as Primal Panic

When jealousy isn’t that present in our lives, it’s often when we feel like our partner really hears us, values us, and will be influenced by us and what matters most to us. Primal panic is when our most primitive attachment wiring screams out, YOU MIGHT LOSE YOUR SAFE HAVEN! YOU MIGHT LOSE YOUR PRIMARY PARTNER! It’s when our attachment wiring tells us to seek proximity to the person/people we’re bonded with because DANGER! DANGER! YOU COULD END UP ALONE!

If you’ve ever experienced jealousy in a relationship, you might have noticed that it’s a little hard to keep your cool about it. Especially if you have that anxious/preoccupied way of coping in attachment relationships. Our most ancient wiring knows that alone = danger. So the feelings you’re feeling aren’t because you’re overreacting or petty or weak—they helped your ancestors stay in close, sustaining relationships; they helped our predecessors survive.

I see this kind of primal panic activated frequently in poly/open relationships where there aren’t clear, shared relational norms and expectations or ways of consistently maintaining and renegotiating shared understandings and agreements. In relationships of all sorts, we tend to feel unsafe and out of control when we sense/feel that our partners will or cannot be 1) accessible, 2) responsive, and 3) emotionally engaged. These are three qualities we see in relationships with secure, healthy bonds (Dr. Sue Johnson, Emotionally Focused Therapy).

While we’re here, Franklin Veaux has some wise words on jealousy: “The way to keep from feeling threatened or jealous is to figure out what lies at the root of the jealousy and then deal with that, not by creating relationship structures that are intended to make the jealousy go away. Jealousy is rooted in other emotions, such as insecurity or fear of loss.”

Ask your partners what you do that makes them feel reassured and soothed when they feel unsettled. Make sure that they also know what you need in the same boat! It’s okay if you aren’t sure what you need to feel reassured; agree to keep on the lookout and let your partner/s know when they do something that feels good and helpful. It’s normal for folks whose families tended to dismiss emotions or who pretended everything was fine when it wasn’t to not really know what they need because it was never provided. If you feel hopeless about getting your needs met or unsure if it’s possible—that’s also normal. I’d invite you to just stay open and curious. You might be surprised.

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5) Jealousy as an Intuitive Warning Sign

Last but not least, I want to mention that sometimes jealousy is actually your intuition tuning into a boundary violation that’s being kept from you. I hear about an especially healthy kind of jealousy popping up when there have already been secret boundary violations or someone has come close. Especially if someone is explaining things away with phrases like “just friends,” or seems to be gaslighting you, trust your intuition.

“5 signs your partner’s friendship is not an innocent friendship” from Kyle Benson for The Gottman Institute:

  1. “Has the friendship been hidden?

  2. Are your questions about the friendship responded with ‘don’t worry’ or discouragement?

  3. Have you asked it to end, only to have your partner tell you no?

  4. Have your boundaries been disrespected?

  5. Is the friend the subject of fantasies or comments during troubled times in the relationship?”

Our motor neuron circuitry, “mirror neurons,” allow us to feel what other people are describing/feeling/thinking, so if a partner is trying to keep a secret like an ‘infidelity,’ chances are everyone in the relationship can feel it, even if they aren’t 100% sure what it is. I can't tell you how many clients and friends report some version of, “I just knew,” when asked why they finally confronted a partner suspected of being involved in a secret relationship.

All that to say: trust your guts. Again, if you’re still freshly in the wake of an affair reveal or you haven’t done your individual counseling work to heal early life wounds, your guts may overreact for a little while, but your intuitive power will be restored as your balance and wellness is.

I hear a lot of women, in particular, trying to compartmentalize and avoid feelings of jealousy because “it’s not a good look,” or it’s “unattractive,” but if you ignore an emotional experience like this, you could be missing out on crucial data about important people and relationships.

How can you tell when your jealousy isn’t just a message to tune into, but something more problematic? April Eldemire, LMFT for The Gottman Institute (2018) categorizes the following as unhealthy jealous behaviors:

  • “Checking your spouse’s phone or email without permission

  • Insulting your spouse

  • Assuming that your spouse is not attracted to you

  • Grilling your spouse on their whereabouts throughout the day

  • Accusing your spouse of lying without evidence”

Jealousy can also provide useful information about the trust system in a relationship if we’re patient with it and keep an open line of communication about our wants and needs in terms of boundaries. If something has happened in your relationship that’s made it hard to trust and jealousy feels like it’s taking over your life, couples counseling can help—you don’t have to go it alone; there’s hope.

It’s not a fun feeling to feel, but jealousy helps move us in the direction of relationship preservation—it spurs us to check on the health of our most precious bonds.

Additional Resources for Working with Jealousy:

Tristan Taormino - The Jealousy Workbook

Franklin Veaux - The Practice of Jealousy Management

Nancy Friday - Jealousy

Robert Leahy - What if Your Partner is Jealous?

Michele Scheinkman & Denise Werneck - Disarming jealousy in couples relationships: a multidimensional approach

The Gottman Institute - Why Do We Get Jealous in Relationships?

Take care of each other!

Love,
MJ

10 Questions That Could Change Your Sex Life

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1. Are we emotionally attuning together?

Attunement refers to the extent to which partners are emotionally connected. Dan Yoshimoto and John Gottman created the acronym, ATTUNE, to help us remember the components of attunement: Awareness, Turning toward, Tolerance of partner’s’ emotions and differing perspectives, Understanding, Nondefensive responding, and Empathy. I observe that when people are in tune with themselves and attuned with their partners, that’s when everyone feels most satisfied and connected intimately.

When couples first begin work with me to reconnect physically and get intimacy back on track, sometimes it can take some convincing that paying attention to emotions translates directly to better sex. When we’re not attuning, it’s sort of like music speakers when they’re facing each other wonkily and feeding-back. A big part of getting attuned if we’ve really lost our way home to each other is to increase quality time together that feels neutral-to-positive—to increase physical closeness and proximity so that our nervous systems and brains can chat easier.

Dr. Sue Johnson suggests that there are 3 kinds of sex and partners who are attuned experience “Secure Synchrony Sex.” Synchrony Sex is open to the moment, and involves clear communication and expression of needs as well as the ability to let go and tune in. If partners are not attuned, they’re typically engaging in what Dr. Sue refers to as “Sealed Off Sex,” or “Solace Sex.” 

With Sealed Off Sex, partners tend to focus on performance, novelty, aesthetics, and sensations—it’s very goal-oriented. If you know your attachment styles, we usually see more avoidantly-attached folks having Sealed Off Sex. With respect to Solace Sex, this refers to intimacy where sex is seen as the proof of love—it’s often very snuggly, but not that passionate. Partners having Solace Sex frequently show up as more anxiously-attached. 

2. Do we talk about sex openly?

Because of the way many of us were raised in our country, we inherit a legacy of sexual shame, stigma, and taboos related to intimacy and human bodies. Our culture puts us in a bind from a young age—we’re simultaneously instructed to stay pure and avoid certain sexual topics and then we’re blasted indirectly from every direction by media with insinuations and innuendo. All that to say, of course a lot of relationships struggle to share openly and comfortably about something they’ve been getting scary and complicated messages about since Day 1. If you don’t really talk about sex except for maybe a few sentences after having sex, you’re not abnormal and it’s possible to open up that line of communication with some courageous conversations together. 

There’s a pretty common myth that sex that is scheduled in planned is somehow less than or not as sexy as spontaneous sex. There are seasons in life that just call for more planning in order to follow-through in the context of chaos, transition, and exhaustion—having kids is a good example. It’s always okay if there are weeks here and there where everyone is too tired and overwhelmed to feel in the mood for sexing. In fact, that’s normal. Some people have a fire that gets lit by chaos, so it’s also normal if you’re having more sex than usual at times you might not initially estimate to be sexy. 

If you tend to avoid talking about sex, it can help to schedule a monthly check-in specifically to chat about sex and, in particular share: feelings, needs, fears, longings, fantasies. If you’re wanting a resource to help you kick off a conversation about intimacy, I highly recommend you check out Sue Johnson’s “Bonding Through Sex and Touch” conversation in her book, Hold Me Tight

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3. Do we know each other’s sexual brakes and accelerators?

If you haven’t read Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski, I find that it’s the single most effective book that couples can read together if they feel down about intimacy in their relationship. In the book, Nagoski addresses the Dual-Response Model of human sexuality—that is, we are wired with an accelerator and a brake pedal with respect to arousal and desire, like a car.

Because of how we’re enculturated in this country, people assigned male at birth typically act a bit more like an automatic car, and people raised identifying as female are a bit more like a manual, with a hand-brake and a shifter. Just like cars, everyone’s brake has a sort of different sensitivity. When sex has been feeling stalled out, it’s often because there’s been a hand-brake or brakes on while someone has been ramming on the accelerator. Instead of adding more gas pedal, brakes have to be disengaged *first.* 

I see so many relationships that are suffering, stuck in disconnection, and so often they have lost their way home to each other. They know the accelerators, but they just don’t seem to work, because they’re unaware of a hand-brake that’s been stuck on. Brakes can be anything from a past ‘affair,’ to struggles with body positivity, to a recently terminated pregnancy, and of course, Trauma. 

Don’t have time to read a book this hot second? With your partners, simply make a list: divide the page into two columns—brakes and accelerators. Then, talk about your lists with each other. Could you have guessed what was in each column for your partner/s? What did you maybe not fully realize? If you find out that one of your main moves is actually a brake, go easy on yourself—that’s normal. We all have to work together to use communication to undo the damage done by years of sex-negative education and cultural messaging. 

4. Do we appreciate how important context can be for desire?  

Another piece of research that Nagoski points to in Come As You Are explains why context is so important when it comes to great sex. Have you heard of your nucleus accumbens? It’s a neat little part of your brain that’s involved in reward circuity. These researchers found that nucleus accumbens will respond super differently depending on whether or not you’re feeling safe and relaxed. If you are not feeling safe and relaxed, activating it will make you move away from things and if you are feelings safe, you’ll move toward with curiosity and openness. 

While we’re here, have you heard about spontaneous and responsive desire? In an article on The Dirty Normal, “I drew this graph about sexual desire… and I think it might change your life” (16 Jun 2014), Emily Nagoski describes spontaneous desire as sexual desire that “feels out of the blue,” and responsive desire “emerges once a person is in an erotic context.” Nagoski explains: “[A]bout 30% of women and 5% of men experience their sexual desire as more or less exclusively ‘responsive,’ while about 15% of women and 75% of men experience their desire as more or less exclusively ‘spontaneous.’ And most of the other folks—about half of women—experience is as some combination of the two, depending on the context. ‘spontaneous.’”

I hear so many clients reporting that things get better when they go on vacation and stay in a new, clean place, in particular, without kids or pets with them. You don’t have to have the funds to rent a room; work to tidy up the space that you have—it doesn’t have to be “sexy,” per say, but move the laundry piles and kids toys, etc. and get a friend or sitter to take the kids for an evening/weekend. 

Talk to each other about your ideal contexts for sex. Take turns sharing what your ultra dream scenario is, and what your preferences for most times week-to-week include. 

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5. Do we practice rituals of connection (Gottman Institute)—e.g., breakfasts together, date night, vacations, 6-second kiss?

Rituals of connection are ways of “turning toward” our partners—experiences repeatedly shared which bond us. Healthy longterm relationships are intentional and consistent with planning and implementing this focused time together. Date night is probably the one you read and hear about most. 

Relationship researchers found that simply extending your kisses to 6+ seconds, as opposed to that quick, “hey, honey” peck, has some major benefits for your relationship. Another ritual that couples working with me report enjoying is making appreciation jars (can be digital or analog), where you leave expressions of gratitude and thanks.

For a month, I’d invite you to experiment with each partner requesting one ritual to add into the relationship. Keep it simple but meaningful. One that you can do daily that packs a lot of punch is a Gottman recommendation called “Take-Offs and Landings.” This refers to making a little ritual out of parting in the morning and reuniting in the evening. It works best if you can stop everything and kiss or hug each other and say some sweet words if you’d like. It seems simple, but when you connect like this twice a day most days, it strengthens the fabric of the bond. 

Time together to just be is essential for the health of relationships. This quality connecting time cushions relationships for when stress and normal relational maintenance issues arise. 

6. Are we kind of aiming for simultaneous mutual orgasm every time we have sex, or can we shift gears if we want/need or even have sex with no orgasm? 

If you haven’t read Barry McCarthy, he’s a pretty great resource for enhancing sex. His approach invites us to focus on “shifting gears” and moving away from all-or-nothing thinking with respect to intimacy. He suggests there are 5 gears of touch

First gear: Affectionate touch. This usually involves clothes-on touching such as holding hands, hugging, or kissing. We do not consider affectionate touch sexual, but it provides the crucial base for intimate connection.”

"Second-gear: Sensual touch. This involves non-genital touch (also called non-genital pleasuring) which can be clothed, semi-clothed, or nude. Sensual touch can include a head, back, or foot rub; cuddling on the couch while watching a DVD, a trust position where you feel safe and connected, cradling each other as you go to sleep or wake in the morning. Sensual touch is an integral part of couple sexuality. It has inherent value and serves as a bridge to sexual desire.” 

Third gear: Playful touch. This intermixes genital with non-genital touch (also called genital pleasuring), which can be semi-clothed or nude. Playful touch can include touching in the shower or bath, full body massage, seductive or erotic dancing, playing games such as strip poker or twister. What makes playful touch inviting is the enhanced sense of sharing pleasure and playful unpredictability. Playful touch is valuable in itself and/or can serve as a bridge to sexual desire.” 

Fourth gear: Erotic touch. This is the most challenging gear. Erotic, non-intercourse touch can include manual, oral, rubbing, or vibrator stimulation. Erotic scenarios and techniques are an integral part of couple sexuality providing a sense of vitality, creativity, and unpredictability. Erotic touch can be mutual and proceed to orgasm or it can be one-way.” 

Fifth gear: Intercourse. There are two crucial concepts in integrating intercourse into our approach to gears of connection. First, intercourse is a natural continuation of the pleasuring/eroticism process, not a pass-fail sex performance test. Second, transition to intercourse at high levels of erotic flow and continue multiple stimulations during intercourse.”

I’ll add that you can always feel free to pull off at a rest area and put things in park if someone feels a need. Make sure you co-design a metaphorical rest area with partners—aftercare—that supports everyone after close, intense experiences, especially if you like to play with power or/and pain consensually during sex. If you’re going to play, always make sure to share your needs ahead of time and agree on ways of continuing to express needs during sex.

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7. Do we snuggle and express affection during day-to-day activities?

I invite couples to actually schedule “Cuddle Puddle” time during the week. For all you goal-focused problem-solver types following, this is where you can tell your goal-setting part that the entire goal is to intentionally schedule time to just not have a goal. Your only responsibilities are being present, and physically close. You want to create that context that invites all partners to feel relaxed. Something as simple as reading in bed with your legs intertwined can count if you’re feeling a lot of opposition to the idea at first. Having a bath together also counts. If everyone is down for it, it’s cool if cuddle puddling leads to sex—in fact, it’s common. 

Think about other opportunities for physical closeness throughout your daily/weekly routine. Do you hold hands when you’re heading into the grocery store? Where are you standing when you’re making meals; can you get physically closer? Look for quick ways to add in some closeness wherever you can. Little things aren’t little. Stack up these simple affectionate moments and they can really add some cushion during times of stress (including if the stress is related to sex). 

Sometimes people begin to avoid touch altogether because they have a 0-60 model that begins with touch, and everyone is so afraid of either being rejected/feel undesired or/and really overwhelmed that they begin to avoid any kind of closeness that could lead to sex. I’ve heard lots of people report feeling an urge to change in another room, and another common trend is avoiding showering or even stacking pillows and/or pets in-between partners in bed. Stay on the lookout for little moments where you can be physically close.

8. Do we verbalize appreciations, adoration, and compliments consistently?

A ritual I use with clients is what I call the “5 A’s”: you share with your partner, taking turns. In any order, share with your partner words and/or actions that demonstrate: Admiration, Adoration, Affirmation, Affection, and Appreciation. You can also get creative and share art, songs, and poems, etc. to express the 5 A’s, just be sure you also make time to list them with words face-to-face. 

Love is an active verb. It’s action over time. Not just something you say, but what you show. Time and time again. Hard times and smooth sailing. See if you can also ask your partner what makes them feel each of the 5 A’s. Even if you feel like you deeply know your partner, there’s always more to explore—we’re all constantly evolving. This suggestion is slightly old school, but clients repeatedly dig it, so: if you’ve never assessed the love languages in your relationship, now might be a great time! https://www.5lovelanguages.com to do the quick assessment.

If you start focusing on demonstrating love in ways that your partners can really recognize and absorb, your effort will feel more rewarding.

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9. Do we feel confident as individuals and find joy in life?

Partners feeling connected intimately and sexually are able to focus on their own pleasure as well as their partner’s’. Psychologists often use the term, “sexual ruthlessness,” to describe that act of tuning into our own pleasure and bodies during sex. Healthy relationships balance togetherness and autonomy, unity and individuality. It’s important that each partner has the amount of alone time and space they need to feel resourced and decompressed. Sometimes sex is suffering because partners have almost gotten too close—enmeshment—where they have few to no separate activities, friends, interests, or outlets. Joy can take a nosedive when partners have gotten too enmeshed. 

Having a good relationship with our bodies can be a difficult but beautiful place to begin if we’re wanting to begin shifting intimacy to a place that feels deeper and more connected. It’s hard to be a joyful sex partner when you’re carrying around the heaviness of old wounds and unkind internal talk. Emily Nagoski recommends a simple but evidence-based way of beginning to shift your relationship with yourself: keep a running list of things you like about your body, even if it’s a short list to start. Trying yoga or another movement-based activity might also feel good; seeing how capable our human bodies are can be inspiring and sexy.

Mindful breathing is another way to support your body to feel more confident when you’re having sex. Plenty of clients let me know this can sound overly-simple-verying-on-absurd, and I validate that mindfulness has gotten overly-used as a buzzword, *and* when they actually use it, things feel better. Especially if you have started feeling fearful, for instance, that you might not get or keep an erection, it’s really important that you keep breathing evenly in and out because without your out-breath, blood won’t get pumped where it needs to get. That’s why it can be so helpful to develop a mindful breathing practice; it’s like muscle memory—if you practice steady breathing during times of calm and when you’re feeling stressed, that can help you keep calmer if you bump into that catastrophic thought that it’s not going to work

10. Have we co-agreed on rituals for initiating sexual activities?

A lot of partners get stuck when it comes to intimacy in longterm relationships because it can be easy to fall into one or two primary rituals for initiating sex—these rituals are kind of like ringtones that get over-used for early morning alarms; we have to work to mix things up. Sometimes it’s the initiation sequence that actually turns off one of the partners or stirs up resentment feelings.

Have you ever actually discussed what you ideally dig when it comes to kicking things off sexually? If you’re just beginning to have deeper conversations about sex and intimacy and talking about it is still super sensitive, try warming up to it by writing out your ideal sex scenario and sharing that. Sue Johnson recommends that each partner write and share a manual for themselves, “For the lover of _____ (your name)” with their lover. Clients report liking this activity because it’s more of a fun way to frame things that can be done in a lighthearted way.   

Most times we want to aim for sex that’s mutually satisfying, and I also think that relationships that are thriving have members that intentionally curate special experiences that are tailored to their partner’s’ specific interests and fetishes, if any. My bet would be that if sex was mutually satisfying around 70% of the time, that’s kind of the minimum needed to sustain a longterm sexual relationship. If that’s the case, it matters that the remaining 30% of the time that it feels evenly shared among partners over time so that everyone feels special and treasured. So, if each partner has a really particular way that they like to initiate sex, I’d just invite you to aim for making sure that that happens consistently. 

One additional thing worth talking about, even if it feels a little uncomfortable, is what each person needs to sense/feel if their partner is declining an intimate invitation. It might be something as simple as hearing “I love you,” or knowing when might be a good time to reach out again, maybe an affirmation. A question to ask that captures this might be, “What do you need if there’s ever a time that I’m not in the mood for sexual activity so that you can feel reassured and soothed?”

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Wherever your sex life is, working through these questions together is one way to kick off conversations to begin to feel better about sex. If you use this list that way, I’d like to invite you to make a list of co-agreements together based on your conversations. Keep the list, and if you have a monthly or every-few-months relationship check-in conversation, you can reference it and see what worked, what didn’t, and adapt it.

Take care of each other!
MJ