Intimate Tai Chi is an art and a science that helps couples create harmony and connection where there’s usually conflict. By following these steps, backed by scientific research below, people find themselves in a state of grace and ease together. They notice themselves relating to each other with more compassion, naturally in both autonomy and unity like a flock of birds. I refer to this way of being together as an Intimate Flow State.
If you have habits of escalation and disconnection when faced with stress, it may take some time to stop the cycle of reactivity in your relationship. I’ve had over a decade of dedicated personal practice and facilitating this process with others, and I’m still learning new ways to hone my Intimate Tai Chi skills! Fortunately, this practice doesn’t require perfection; whoever has more presence in the moment can decide to redirect a conflict with these moves. The best part? You can start at any point during an argument. It’s never too late.
My blood’s boiling so hot it’s heating up the room. I look at my partner scrolling through his phone again while I’m talking and I know I can’t take it anymore. Doesn’t he see how disrespectful this is? Seriously, what’s wrong with him? With a raised, angry voice I scold, “You never listen to me! Why can’t you just be present? You’re always distracted when I’m talking and it’s driving me crazy!”
I expect him to counter with a passive-aggressive comment about my sanity or shut down and walk away. Part of me’s itching for a fight. But he doesn’t take the bait. Instead, he breathes deeply and closes his eyes for a long moment. When he opens them, there’s love there. He takes a slow step toward me, looking beyond my angry veneer. He says calmly, “Thank you for sharing. I hear you wanting presence, and I’m willing to listen. I love you.”
“What’s this,” I think to myself, “some kind of intimate tai chi?” I feel disarmed. Now it’s my turn to counter. Am I going to reach out to the love that’s right in front of me or dig my heels in, responding in anger?
I decide to also deepen my breath and we look at each other in silence for thirty seconds, syncing our autonomic nervous systems. With our mirror neurons now firing, my sympathetic nervous system relaxes as he becomes more present.
I realize we’ve gotten a do-over. When I speak again, it’s with vulnerability, “When you look at your phone while I’m talking, I feel like what I’m saying isn’t important to you.” I name the exact behavior that’s bothering me instead of assassinating his character. This time, I don’t say the words “always,” or “never.” I stop building a case against the man I love deeply and keep my statements about the present.
He takes another slow deep breath and listens to me and himself before responding, continuing to regulate his own nervous system. He says empathically, “I appreciate you sharing this, I know that isn’t easy for you to say right now. I see how what I did came across that way. Is there anything else?” He acknowledges my intent to connect with him and my experience instead of defending himself with, “I got an important work email.”
Now I feel my walls have melted and my real need comes out. I ask him, “Will you give me a bear hug? I’m so sorry for yelling.” Relieved, he embraces me and offers, “I’m sorry for being distracted. When the time is right, I see how we can make a new agreement about using devices.” Our mutual willingness to take responsibility is contagious and now we are both able to fully repair together.
What happened here? How did my partner and I manage to intercept a potential downward spiral argument that would only end in suffering and disconnection? We used a process I call Intimate Tai Chi. It takes practice and advance set up, and sometimes a third party to help facilitate. I’ll break it down here so you and your partner can get started today.
Intimate Tai Chi: Three Movements
Movement One: Take Tai Chi Stance
The first movement of Intimate Tai Chi is to ground yourself and relax your nervous system. The goal of this grounding stance is to slow everything down so that there is room for you and your partner’s default reactions to become chosen responses.
In my story, you can see how my partner begins the dance and I’m invited to follow suit. When he receives my emotional punch, instead of defending, shutting down, or punching back, he grounds himself by closing his eyes and feeling his body. He refuses to fight, yet he doesn’t collapse and give up his power. Feeling safer and seeing his Tai Chi stance, I then feel I can begin to relax and do the same. Instead of clinging to my anger, I focus my attention on the present moment. I become curious. I ask myself, “What sensations are happening in my body? What are my behaviors right now? Is there a story I notice playing in my head? What am I feeling and thinking?” The key here is observing what’s actually happening in my experience. For example: my face is hot, my stomach’s in knots, my heart’s beating quickly, my feet are in kickboxing stance, I’m tallying up all the times in the past he hasn’t been present and what this means about me, I feel insignificant and hurt.
Luckily, by this point in life, I’ve been practicing this grounding movement of regulating my sympathetic nervous system with breath and focusing on sensation in my body instead of the stories in my head, so this circuitry is already pretty well-traveled. This practice is just like building a muscle: if your default during conflict is reactivity, you can still exercise and strengthen new neural pathways.
I’ve learned to break down the microsecond that separates a default reaction and a chosen response. To do this, we have to first down-regulate the sympathetic nervous system, which is basically our own screaming, frightened Inner Child. If you and your partner want to have an adult conversation, you can’t do this with a kid screaming in between you, much less two of them. Inner children have to feel soothed and safe before us adults can solve the problem.
When we begin taking deep belly breaths to down-regulate our sympathetic nervous system, we can move into operating from our parasympathetic nervous system, a more restful and relaxed place, capable of calmly addressing conflict. My partner above is an Intimate Tai Chi Master, and his signature move is to never let his sympathetic nervous system get fully activated during conflict in the first place. He remains calm and able to dance with my ‘fight or flight’ response. I can then more quickly down-regulate into my parasympathetic nervous system state by closing my eyes, breathing deeply, and moving my body out of tension and into an open, moving tai chi stance. As we continue to take deep belly breaths, looking into each other’s eyes, our mirror neurons fire and we move each other into accelerated relaxation and a deep intimate flow state.
Movement Two: Receive, Redirect, Disarm
In my conflict with my partner, notice that he doesn’t defend himself against my emotional punches by using logical arguments. Though it was true, responding to my complaint with, “I was checking an important work email,” would only invalidate my feelings and feed into my fears that I’m overreacting or out of control. There’s a time and a place for productive conversations about details: when our nervous systems are both regulated. But if one person throws a punch loaded with emotion and the other throws up a logical block of equal force, this only adds more energy to the next emotional counterpunch. In Intimate Tai Chi, you listen for where your partner’s energy is coming from and instead of reacting with a block, you receive and redirect the punch, neutralizing the conflict.
Two people can spend a lifetime arguing over logic and content and never solve their problem (or even agree on the accuracy of the content on which their argument is based!). The beauty of practicing Intimate Tai Chi is that the content doesn’t even need to be agreed upon for the conflict to be neutralized. This is because the true source of conflict arises from emotional experience, which, by definition, is not logical. If we only hear and attempt to rationally respond to the words we are hearing, we miss the true source of our partner’s reaction. If, instead, we ground and receive how our partner is feeling, the energy beneath the words is neutralized and both of us can return to an Intimate Flow State. From this place, more constructive conversation can happen about details and how to better navigate around them in the future.
Four Magic Words
The four most valuable words to program into our psyche for this movement are “Thank you for sharing.” If we can get yourself into the habit of saying this in heated situations, we give yourself space to choose a response instead of react out of emotion. Simply saying, “Thank you for sharing. I love you and I want to support you, how can I best do that right now?” is enough.
It also helps to remember even though our partners are reacting, they love us. We can trust that whatever our loved one is saying, no matter how charged with emotion, can be an opportunity to move the relationship forward in some way. This can be challenging to remember when we are stuck in our point of view as being the only right one. Often, when our partner seems to be flying off the handle or having outsized reactions, there is still some truth in what she’s saying. Behind the emotional reaction, they are seeing a blind spot in our relationship. It helps to practice regularly asking ourselves, “What is my partner consistently getting upset with me about? Is this an area that I also see room for improvement?”
All emotional reaction is really a sideways attempt at connection and repairing feelings of separation. We can choose to take the perspective that our reactive partner is trying to get back to love with us, but they can’t see, or don’t know, how to do so. “Thank you for sharing” is always appropriate and can be said and meant even if we are hurt, angry, upset, or sad. By doing this, we aren’t being passive or a doormat, we are simply acknowledging the emotional truth of where our partner is coming from.
Movement Three: Hold Space for Connection
Once we’ve redirected our partner’s emotional punch with listening and acknowledgement, our partner has the opportunity to step into connection with us or try to throw another emotional punch. In Intimate Tai Chi, if our partner chooses to keep throwing punches, we can still remain centered in our own experience and hold space until they tire out. It’s almost impossible to keep lobbing emotional blows at someone who loves you through it all without taking what you’re saying personally or making you wrong for your emotional state. Eventually, you will give up the fight.
There are a couple “near misses” to watch out for in Intimate Tai Chi. These moves can seem, on the surface, like they are mature or healthy, but will actually exacerbate any conflict:
1. The Stonewall – Nothing pisses off an emotionally activated person more than someone silently judging them with cool, closed-off calm. This is called stonewalling, and people use this technique to appear like the sane person in the midst of crazy. While it might look like you’re in the right, you’re actually perpetuating the conflict by reinforcing your partner’s sense of shame for having intense feelings. In order to avoid feeling the shame, your partner will only double their efforts and escalate the argument in an attempt to break down your resistance.
2. The Fix – Have you ever had someone try to fix your emotional outburst? Emotions don’t like being constrained once they’ve found their way out. Though it can seem generous or caring to try to “make it better,” this can actually feel invalidating and patronizing to the emotional party. It’s only by turning toward the punch with presence and accepting the emotions just as they are, that we are in the correct stance to redirect. Redirection cannot come from any kind of resistance. It happens naturally when the force of the emotional energy is met with listening, compassion and openness.
One thing that characterizes couples who don’t let conflicts escalate is having the same team mentality. It’s possible to maintain this perspective even when in conflict. Instead of separating from your partner during an argument and demanding they “figure their shit out” through fixing, stonewalling, or defending, remember the Intimate Flow State with the flock of birds and look at the contraction as a opportunity to grow together.
Modern personal development is very much about self-reliance and self-regulation. Though these are great skills for autonomy, they don’t help very much during heated moments in partnership. We can also develop skills of maintaining unity while in confict. When we can turn toward our partner and maintain our connection through tensions we build new neural pathways that support us in feeling safe in our messy imperfection. Then all of us is welcome in our relationship, not just the “put together” parts.
Remember, this practice isn’t about content or being “right.” It’s about staying in connection. Before attempting to solve a problem, repeat the steps above to get back to an emotionally regulated state and a space of love for each other. Solving a problem prematurely is like cutting the branches off of a tree and never getting to the root. The emotional roots of the tree will keep growing new branches of content for you to fight about. Meaning of the same thing can be different for each person, so arguing about content is futile. You’re both right, you’re just looking at a situation from different perspectives. Intimate Tai Chi transcends our concepts of right and wrong and brings us back to where we really want to be: together.