The past year has brought on a lot of unexpected changes. One profound change is that many couples have gone from working outside their homes to being at home together nearly 24/7—while simultaneously having to face numerous added stressors.
This has obviously put quite a strain on many relationships. As the National Law Review states, 2020 has seen an increase in divorce rates from the previous year due to the added pressures of political, medical, and socioeconomic upheavals. The effects of COVID-19 have also devastated families not only economically, but also their intimacy, closeness, and ability to be resilient and compassionate in the face of continued hardship.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Allow me to introduce you to Stefanos Sifandos and Christine Hassler (save $30 on Love Amplified, their breathwork and medication course, with code BEN), master life and relationship coaches with over 30 years of experience. They also happen to be a married couple who are passionate about living in sacred union with each other. Their love story is amazing, but not unique, because anyone and everyone is capable of a conscious, loving, passionate, and ever-evolving relationship. Stef and Christine love love and are committed to supporting others in having epic relationships with themselves and their beloved.
Couples who put the work into their communication, connection, and sex life thrive and grow closer. And couples who allow the stresses of daily life to take priority and put their relationship on autopilot tend to have more arguments, less sex, and grow distant from each other.
Today's article, penned by Christine and Stefanos (who were also my guests on a soon-to-be-released podcast episode this Saturday), will teach you how to put some simple, yet powerful, practices into place to immediately change the course of your relationship for the better. In it, you'll discover how to optimize four key areas of your relationship:
- Navigating Conflict
- Emotional Intimacy
- Connected Sex
You probably want to skip to the part about better sex, but without healthy communication, effective conflict navigation, and emotional intimacy, mind- and heart-blowing sex is not really possible. So, as tempting as it may be to skip to the last part where Christine and Stefanos give you some tantric practices, you will benefit greatly from learning tools to communicate more effectively, argue in a way that leads to fewer disagreements, and create and enhance emotional intimacy so that yes, you and your partner will have the best sex of your lives.
Communication Is Key
No matter how long you and your partner have been together, you most likely have fallen into some communication patterns that are keeping you from actually communicating with each other. Dr. John Gottan, a psychological researcher and clinician who did extensive work on divorce prediction and marital stability explains in his book, The Science of Trust, that both partners in a relationship are emotionally available only 9% of the time. This leaves 91% of your relationship ripe for miscommunication.
There are three key practices you can put into place to make communication with your partner both more effective and more loving:
1. Ditch expectations and form agreements: Let’s face it, when it comes to your partner, you probably have a lot of expectations: You expect him or her to be a mind-reader and just know what you want or need even though you haven't effectively communicated your needs. You get lazy in your communication and just expect your partner to fill in the blanks. All of this leads to conflict, which is completely avoidable if agreements are formed. None of us are mind-readers, and we just set ourselves up for disappointment if we do not form agreements over roles, responsibilities, and expectations in our relationships.
How to practice: Sit down and make a list of all the things you expect your partner to do and ask him or her to do the same. Then, come together and clearly express those expectations and form agreements around them. For example, if you have an expectation that your partner does the dishes, form an agreement on what days of the week he or she will do them. Write out the agreement (i.e., Richard does the dishes M, W, F and Janelle does the dishes T, Th, Sa). Stick to these agreements to build trust and prevent what Christine calls “expectation hangovers.”
2. Check your perception. This is one of the simplest, yet most effective ways to immediately have better communication in your relationship. The essence of this skill is: The message intending to be sent is actually the message received. Think of a time when you said something to your partner and they heard something completely different than what you intended. We all listen with a filter of sorts, meaning that we interpret what we are hearing in ways that are often different from how the person talking actually intended us to receive the message. Many arguments often include the statements, “That is not what I said!” or “I didn’t mean it like that!”
How to practice: To avoid misunderstandings of any kind, practice perception checking. When your partner says something that is triggering or confusing in any way, before reacting with a response, say, “I want to make sure I heard you accurately, you said . . . (and then repeat what you heard your partner say). Is that accurate?” This slows down communication and provides an opportunity to clear up any misunderstanding right on the spot, preventing a future argument.
Also, practice perception checking when you want to make sure that something important you are saying gets across clearly. Right after you express yourself, say, “I want to make sure I communicated myself clearly, could you please repeat back what you heard me say?” This gives your partner a chance to repeat back what they heard ensuring that the message you intended to send was indeed the message that was heard.
3. Communicate your needs. You have needs in your relationship, and that is okay—everybody does. Humans are interdependent beings, and it’s healthy to desire certain things from your partner. Yet, just like we discussed in point #1, you cannot expect your partner to be a mind-reader, or have the expectation that if they loved you they’d “just know what you need.”
You are an adult and it’s your responsibility to express your needs to your partner. For example, one of our clients, Elizabeth, was consistently disappointed that her husband, John, was not affectionate with her in public. Physical affection makes Elizabeth feel safe and loved, but in public, it was rather awkward for John. Because it was a big need for her, she expressed that something as simple as holding her hand or putting his arm around her in public would make her feel really safe and loved. John could hear this was a need of Elizabeth’s, not a demand, and was able to honor her request.
How to practice: Consider what you need in your relationship that you are not receiving. Make a list and then formulate specific requests of your partner that could help meet that need. For instance, instead of “I need to feel more connected to you,” which is a vague request, ask for one date night a week with no phones.
How To Navigate Conflict Smoothly
Arguing is not really a thing to avoid in a relationship. The difference between happy, healthy couples and unhappy couples is not found in the amount they argue, but rather how quickly they can recover from arguments. In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman calls repair attempts the “secret weapon” of emotionally intelligent couples. His groundbreaking research over decades shows “the success or failure of a couple’s repair attempts is one of the primary factors in whether a marriage is likely to flourish or flounder.”
Bottom line: Fighting is not bad. However, not being able to repair after a disagreement and come back to a loving place together is.
In our work, we have found three key practices that both reduce the amount and intensity of conflicts and help couples repair faster:
1. Talk, don’t yell. We know this can be challenging when you are in the heat of an argument, but as soon as you start yelling, you are forfeiting the ability to be able to make your points in a clear way. In The Body Keeps Score, author Van Der Kolk elaborates on how trauma can affect the way we receive information, share intimacy, and open ourselves up to relationships.
It is 100% possible to disagree without yelling or screaming at each other, but it may take some practice. Next time you notice yourself yelling, take 3 deep breaths, and then continue speaking. If you are the one being yelled at, instead of raising your voice back, say, “I cannot hear you when you yell at me, I am going to leave the room and when you are ready to speak without yelling, I am all ears.”
2. Form “fighting rules” outside of a fight. Remember the power of making agreements when it comes to communication? The same applies to conflict. We have found it to be incredibly effective for couples to make “fighting rules” soon after an argument when they are back in a calm, connected place.
For example, after one fight we had when one of us stormed out, we made a rule that in an argument, there is no storming off with no explanation. If one of us needs space, we agree to say that we need space and commit to a time when we will be back to finish the discussion. That way, the other one doesn’t feel abandoned or betrayed, which only makes the conflict worse. We also have a certain gesture we use if an argument gets really heated to remind each other that even though we are really angry, we still really love each other: Christine will place her left hand over her heart then layers her right hand over her left and stands or sits there and breathes. This is a pattern interrupt and means that we need space. Stefanos will often drop to the ground, lie on his back, and place his legs over his shoulders in what is known in Western yoga as a “plough position.” This often breaks up the argument, creates space through laughter and the abrupt nature of the movement, and gives us both new perspectives.
To form your fighting rules, sit down with your partner and discuss some of your common arguments and what makes them worse. Does one of you leave? Does one of you shut down? Does one of you yell louder? Does one of you bring up things from the past? Does one of you call the other names? Then, together, come up with the fighting rules that will help prevent you from repeating the same unhealthy cycles.
3. Let go of being right. Arguments happen because two people disagree about something or see something differently, and each person believes that they are right. There is no way to resolve any conflict between two people who are stuck in their own position.
The key here is to remember that you and your partner are on the same team. You both want a healthy, loving relationship. If you are stubborn about your position and do not see and empathize with their side of things, you are on different teams in a lose-lose situation.
A tool that works extremely well for us and the couples we coach to break free from the egoic need to be right in an argument is to write a mission statement for the relationship that is a “north star” for why you choose to be together. This kind of statement can remind you that you are on the same team and pull you out of the addiction of wanting to be right by helping you focus on the bigger picture.
Here’s an example of a mission statement written by clients of ours:
“We choose each other every day. We are committed to our own individual growth and growing together. We choose to understand each other over being right. We are committed to being supportive, understanding, and loving partners so that we are better parents, friends, bosses, and people.”
Set aside time with your partner to write your mission statement. It is a beautiful way to remind you of why you are together and create deeper intimacy. When you have a mission statement in place that you read daily (we suggest putting it up somewhere in your house where you can see it), you’ll be less likely to get stuck on being right in your next argument.
Creating or Deepening Emotional Intimacy
Emotional intimacy, even during the best of times, can be a complex and painful interaction between two people. One of the greatest blocks to intimacy is unconscious, unresolved childhood wounds.
While delving too deep into childhood trauma, attachment theory, and developmental psychology is beyond the scope of this article, if you are interested in exploring your past trauma, Healing Your Attachment Wounds is a great resource that outlines the importance of reconciling past traumatic experiences in order to have healthy, vibrant, and long-lasting intimate relationships as adults.
What we can do for you right now is provide you with five empowering strategies that can reignite intimacy with your partner:
1. Seek help. No person is an island. One of the biggest mistakes couples (and singles) make is that they try and do life alone. We attempt to figure it out by ourselves. We are relational beings, we have evolved and expanded culturally, relationally, and emotionally through connection and relying on other human beings to grow. In her article, The evolutionary roots of human collaboration: coordination and sharing of resources, author Alicia P. Melis states that “Humans’ ability to collaborate to obtain otherwise inaccessible goals may be one main cause for our success as a species.”
When you share things about yourself in therapy and work through them, you diffuse your shame, you heal your trauma, and you don't bring that baggage into your intimate relationships. You feel supported and therefore know how to also ask for help (or space when you need it) in your relationships.
The same can be said for romantic partnerships. Bonding in this way through sharing challenges and difficulties in vulnerable ways can actually deepen emotional intimacy and help you not only see yourself differently (through a lens of deepened self-worth), but also help you empathize, understand, and connect with your partner. These qualities have also been shown to deepen intimacy in romantic partnerships. With all of that said, seek the guidance of a coach, counselor, trauma-informed facilitator, therapist, support group, guide, psychologist, and/or someone you can relate to and trust who can lead you in a supportive way. You’ll be able to face those demons and the pain of the past once you're not in a vacuum. A great resource where you can find credible trauma-informed therapists is the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institue Practitioner Directory.
2. Love yourself. Seems obvious, right? Well, it’s not as simple as it may appear. Low self-worth, low self-esteem, and minimal self-love are some of the leading causes of couples arguing, hurting each other, or breaking up. We must be responsible for our own thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and states—otherwise, we will expect our partner to “make” us happy, which is an unrealistic expectation to put on anyone. Loving yourself first means you have a greater capacity for loving others. Why? Because you have a real-life, direct example of what love feels like.
Practice this exercise two times daily to begin the path to greater self-love: Spend 3-5 minutes every morning upon awakening and every night prior to sleep just gazing into your left eye. First, just hold your gaze and notice how you feel. Then begin asking yourself questions around self-love such as:
“Why do I love myself deeply?”
“Why am I worthy of love and affection?”
“Why do I care about myself?”
“Why am I so lovable?”
“Why is my body so beautiful?”
When you ask yourself a question, your brain must search for the answer, providing you with “evidence” and therefore reinforcing a new paradigm. This shifts your perception and state towards what you desire, as opposed to what you don’t have.
Doing this exercise when you first wake up and just before bed is important because your brain is most susceptible to suggestion during those times. If you want to take it even further, you can do this naked and really embrace all of who you are. This will also support you in feeling more confident in your sex life. We suggest doing this practice for at least 66 days as science demonstrates it takes at least this long to form a new habit. However, it can take up to 254 days, depending on various factors.
3. Be less reactive and more responsive. When we are young, we form coping strategies or mechanisms to deal with difficult circumstances. As adults, these “patterns” or strategies continue to play out, irrespective of whether they are applicable to the present moment. Think of it as a “serve and protect” mechanism ingrained within the behavioral foundations and neuronal networks of your brain with relation to how you deal with difficulty and conflict and how you give and receive love. Your brain is often hyper-vigilant and would rather err on the side of caution than be hurt again. You become hyper-protective of yourself, and the “better safe than sorry” card is played reactively. This now becomes what is known as a maladaptive coping strategy.
Here’s an example: We have a client who grew up in a very chaotic home, her parents fought a lot of the time and she walked on eggshells hoping she wouldn’t get in trouble and trigger more yelling. She discovered at an early age that if she was just a “good girl” and pleased her parents, she didn’t get yelled at. This pattern of people-pleasing protected her from more chaos. Now, any time she is concerned about upsetting someone or wants someone to like her, she engages in the pattern of people-pleasing. This is a maladaptive coping strategy because although it may prevent people from getting upset, this pattern hurts her because she ends up feeling like a doormat. In her marriage, she ultimately got so resentful and started pushing her husband away until she shifted out of the people-pleasing pattern and became more authentic.
All you are doing here is bringing the past into the present, and bringing these hyper-vigilant behaviors into your intimate relationships often pushes your partner away. The “fix” for this is breathing. Yes, just breathe… The power of pausing AND breathing will allow you to reflect and be introspective, while consciously choosing the next action you wish to take. This breaks the cycle that is no longer serving you relationally—the cycle that, rather than building intimacy, is destroying it.
Next time you are about to get reactive, do the following:
- Feel your body becoming tense.
- STOP – PAUSE
- Take 5 long, slow breaths. This will calm your nervous system and slow your thoughts down.
- Ask yourself: “How do I want this conversation or situation to go?”
- Choose to respond consciously, and not react.
4. Give your presence. One of the greatest gifts you can give to others is your full attention and presence. Be interested in the whole of your partner, and embrace all of who they are—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Giving your presence means practicing seeing your partner—asking questions, getting to know them, empathizing with them, and checking in regularly with how they are feeling.
Men, this one is particularly for you. When you are in the presence of your partner and they are expressing something that has hurt them, or has concerned them, be there for them in the most honorable way.
- Stand up straight.
- Gaze deeply into their eyes.
- Breathe slowly.
- Pin your shoulders back.
- Physically lean in.
- Ask meaningful questions, such as “What do you need from me right now?”.
- Be sincere.
- Listen intently, without waiting to respond.
5. Give the gift of novelty. Learn to surprise your beloved with a date night, a present, kind words, or a thoughtful gesture. In his best-selling book, The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman discusses the importance of meeting your partner's needs through their love language. If you're not familiar, the five love languages include physical touch, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, and quality time. Gary Chapman believes that we communicate, and both receive and give love, in primarily one or two of these “languages.” When we receive love in our primary love language, we feel fulfilled and become healthier in the relationship.
Novelty in a relationship can be very healthy and fulfill your partner's love language needs, particularly if done with the right intention. In the article Making It Last – Combating Hedonic Adaptations In Romantic Relationships, authors Bao Jacobs and Lyubomirsky discuss the importance of healthy novelty in relationships. “Healthy,” in the context of a relationship, can be interpreted as consensual, varied, risky (but not unsafe), pleasant to the senses, intriguing, wanting more, encouraging, intimacy building (a deeper sense of closeness is formed), and joyful. There are more elements of course, but these are the core elements that would make bringing novelty to a relationship healthy.
This can present in many ways as mentioned above. Being regular with creating intimacy through novel excitement in the relationship improves connection and creates longevity in romantic relationships.
Practices To Heat Up Your Sex Life
Some of what you're about to read may seem obvious and simple, but with the busyness of life, it's not uncommon to neglect your love life. Sex takes a backseat to the bills, kids, responsibilities, family dynamics, stress, and balancing work with life.
The key is to never stop “dating” your partner. Having them isn’t an entitlement—so, don’t be lazy, continue to be curious, share yourself, be real, create novelty together, and deepen your love for one another. Years together is not an excuse for complacency.
What all this means is that, essentially, you must venture into the unknown together. Below are four powerful practices to reignite (or ignite) your sex life, and take your intimacy to the next level:
1. Breath, Sound, Movement. The various stresses you face in life affect your anxiety levels, your self-worth, immune system, digestion, relationships, quality of your sex life, and mesolimbic dopamine system. One of the ways you can combat stress is through calming breathing techniques, particularly during the sharing of sexual and physical intimacy. See, stress can kill good sex. Quality breathing can improve cognition and circulation, focus, attention, and provide you with a boost of energy during sex. Appropriate breathing techniques can help you relax, concentrate, and last longer in the bedroom.
The lower the stress in your life, generally the more connected, exciting, and fulfilling sex with your partner will be. Deep breathing is crucial to remaining calm because it is linked to your parasympathetic nervous system, the reflex responsible for the “rest and digest” response. Shallow breathing, on the other hand, is more closely associated with the sympathetic nervous system, the reflex responsible for the “flight or fight” response. Irrespective of the “type” of sex you are having, sex in a relaxed state is much more appealing than getting it on under acute stress.
During sex, breathe in deeply and imagine the breath flowing into your genitalia. This will enhance pleasure and allow a sexual rhythm to unfold between you and your partner. As pleasure increases and you are both reaching climax or intensity, slow your movement down and continue to breathe deeper. This may appear as if it is taking you away from focusing on your partner, but what is actually happening is you are deepening your connection to each other through breathing rhythmically, aligning your breath and slowing it down—inhaling as your partner inhales, and exhaling as your partner exhales.
When it comes to sounding, some of you may feel self-conscious. Please don’t. It is natural to make all sorts of sounds, particularly during pleasure. Inhibiting this natural function will retract your intimacy. When you are not vulnerable and open, your partner can feel that and move with trepidation. Opening your voice when feeling pleasure is useful in connecting and deepening intimacy, arousal, and sexual exploration. Push your edge here a little and sound even though you may feel uncomfortable doing so.
Next, ensure you are breathing through your nose. This brings in more oxygen than breathing through your mouth and can provide you with a “natural high” from the accumulated nitric oxide. It also engages your core and pelvic floor in such a way that can enhance your sexual experience. If you want to dive deeper into the power of nasal breathing, check out Patrick Mckeown's book, The Oxygen Advantage: Simple, Scientifically Proven Breathing Techniques to Help You Become Healthier, Slimmer, Faster, and Fitter, and Ben's podcast with Patrick here.
2. Divulge your fantasies, then play. It's not uncommon to be intimidated by your own fantasies. You have told by society what is right and wrong when it comes to having sex, and there is often a narrow view of this. You may hide in secret because you are afraid that you may be shamed for your thoughts and feelings towards what you secretly desire.
When you hold in too much, you hide and that behavior can often leak out in “shadow” ways, such as watching pornography in secret, or possibly even having an affair. Ben has recently written two compelling articles on this subject in his Sabbath Ramblings articles, Sex, Porn & Polyamory Part 1 & Part 2.
This long-term level of suppressing oneself is not healthy. You have to first get comfortable enough with yourself, know what you desire and give yourself permission to share that with, first yourself, then your partner. After you've done this, set a time with your partner to discuss this in an agreed-upon way (non-judgmental and an anything-goes style of conversation). Then, simply agree on what you wish to explore and go for it. You can also really push your edges (in a safe and agreed-upon way) and venture into the unknown, this may look like:
- Having the more submissive partner get bound and teased.
- Film yourselves having sex together.
- Massage each other.
- Incorporate toys into your sex life.
- Watch your partner self-pleasure.
Remember to be safe, know the risks, talk it through, seek support, and do not criticize what the other person is thinking or feeling. This can be very vulnerable and deep for both of you and can push on old low self-esteem issues, so use this time to not only get to know each other differently, but to also build intimacy through trust and nurturing your partner’s vulnerable expression.
3. Explore Tantra. Primarily, Tantra is a way of being—a philosophy and spiritual practice of sorts. Tantric sex is only a small part of the embodied practice. Tantric sex originates from ancient Hinduism and revolves around sexual practices that focus on creating a deep, intimate connection with self, the Universe (nature of reality), and your partner. During tantric sex, the aim is to be present in the moment to achieve a sensual and fulfilling sexual experience.
To be in more of a Tantric space, practice the following:
- Make sex non-linear. It needn't be about direction and orgasm. Explore the body, the mind, stop, connect, talk, feel, be silent, breathe, go back to intercourse, come back to feeling. Eat, be sensual through sounding or movement. Explore each other through all of your senses.
- Make eye contact and gaze into each other. This is known as transfiguration. Take your time absorbing your partner and really feel their expression.
- Slow it down and don't rush. Place your inner focus on your pelvis, then bring it to your heart, your mind, hands, thighs, and then to your partner’s body. Be present to the environment and the room.
- Synchronize your breath. At the same time, you and your partner should breathe in deeply through your nose, hold for 5 seconds, then exhale through the mouth. Feel each other’s abdomen expanding on the inhale by pressing against one another, and then hold and feel the release by paying close attention to it. For males, if you are getting close to orgasm you can try Kapalbhati breathing. If you are about to ejaculate, forcefully exhale all the air out through your mouth, then engage in an automatic deeper (yet passive) inhale through your mouth. Kapalbhati breathing helps prolong/lengthen ejaculation in males. This level of self-control also transfers to other areas of life, reinforcing discipline and confidence.
- Yab-yum is a position where you can practice matching breath and also eye-gazing. One partner sits with their legs crossed, and the other partner sits on their partner’s lap, wrapping their legs around their waist (usually the female or feminine dominant person). You can rub your genitals against each other, engage in penetrative sex, or just sit there in the moment (clothed or unclothed).
Tantric sex is about being in tune with your body and the body of your partner. Part of this process is reaching “God” through each other by slowing down the moment of peak sexual arousal and coming back into presence. Part of Tantric sex is full body orgasmic experiences, multi-orgasmic experiences, and non-ejaculatory practices to prolong sexual intimacy—with the premise that if two people can remain in this space long enough, they may experience a spiritual revelation or what is also known as “Kundalini awakening.”
For more on tantric sex, check out the book Tantra – Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion (available as a free PDF) and also Ben's podcast episode with Jamie Wheal titled “Recapture the Rapture: Biohacking Sex, Tantric Breathwork, Plant Medicines For Orgasmic Enhancement & Much More!“.
As coaches and a married couple, we have experienced and observed a lot over the years about what it takes to have a thriving and passionate relationship.
With everything we’ve learned, we know that what makes a relationship last is relatively simple: healthy communication, fast and effective repair of conflict, emotional intimacy, and connected sex.
The key is putting in the work. No matter how long you have been together, or what you have been through, if you practice what you learned in this article, you will notice a positive shift in your relationship.
- Navigate conflict by talking, not yelling; forming “fighting rules” outside of a fight; and letting go of being right.
- Create emotional intimacy by seeking help; loving yourself; being less reactive and more responsive; giving yourself presence; and surprising your loved one with “gifts of novelty.”
- Heat up your sex life with breath, sound, and movement; divulging, and acting out, your fantasies; and exploring tantric sex.
If you would like some guidance to practice some of the processes we’ve shared above, you can get our free experiential Sacred Union process for couples here. Or, to save $30 on lifetime access to Love Amplified, our breathwork and medication course that includes eight downloadable audios and videos to guide you through your own breathwork and meditation journey, click here and use code BEN.
If we left any questions unanswered, or you have any comments or thoughts to share, please leave them below, and we will respond!