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
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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!