How to put the pep back in your marriage by Gwenyth’s guru

Like many of us, actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband, screenwriter and producer Brad Falchuk, have found that amid the tension of lockdown — with the children ever present —bonding with your beloved isn’t easy.

Unlike most of us, the couple turned to intimacy coach Michaela Boehm to maintain their love and sex life while self-isolating. They even made their counselling session available on YouTube.

Now, Gwyneth hasn’t always given the best advice — her bonkers wellbeing website Goop famously suggested we steam our private parts and eat a supplement called Sex Dust to raise libido. But her video with Michaela suggests she may have got this one right.

It reveals the therapist, who was born in Austria and moved to California in 1994, to be an incisive woman who stands no nonsense.

Anna Maxted and Phil Robinson shared their experience of having a therapy session with Michaela Boehm via Zoom. Pictured: Gwyneth Paltrow and Michaela Boehm

Anna Maxted and Phil Robinson shared their experience of having a therapy session with Michaela Boehm via Zoom. Pictured: Gwyneth Paltrow and Michaela Boehm

Anna Maxted and Phil Robinson shared their experience of having a therapy session with Michaela Boehm via Zoom. Pictured: Gwyneth Paltrow and Michaela Boehm

When Gwyneth, who coyly claims she’s ‘asking for a friend’, inquires about what to do if you ‘don’t feel sexual’ in lockdown, Michaela points out that people respond to stress by displaying different survival behaviours. Some might want sex, while others might eat more.

So far, so surprisingly relatable. But Michaela has counselled a host of Hollywood couples, including actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, over the decades.

Could she really advise mere mortals like my husband Phil and I on how to stay close when we can’t get away from each other, and are home-schooling three teenage boys? We scheduled a therapy session via Zoom to find out…

ANNA SAYS:

Phil is scared about what a video conference with Gwyneth Paltrow’s intimacy coach might entail. There’s nothing to be worried about, I say. As Michaela notes, this is a chance for couples to pull together.

I’ve briefed Michaela on our issues, via email. We’re in crisis mode and running on parallel lines. For starters, I’m not a hugger, especially when I’m tense. Phil is.

Phil’s way of fighting anxiety is to do a lot — cook, clean, work, exercise, buy tins of tomatoes. I feel useless in comparison, yet irritated by the many tomatoes.

With three teenagers around, we also don’t have any private time, and while we could engineer it, we’re too tired to make much effort.

Anna and Phil (pictured) began their session with Michaela, by discussing the lack of cuddling in their relationship

Anna and Phil (pictured) began their session with Michaela, by discussing the lack of cuddling in their relationship

Anna and Phil (pictured) began their session with Michaela, by discussing the lack of cuddling in their relationship 

For our session, we perch together on the couch, laptop on the table. Michaela appears against a fabulous backdrop — ‘an illustration by a German biologist of mosses under a microscope, from the late 1800s,’ she reveals, when Phil admires it.

After she removes her ‘house jumper’ so I can take a screenshot she suggests we talk about our ‘objective for the session’.

First I raise Phil’s complaint — the lack of cuddling. Phil grew up in a tactile household, so this is ‘weird’ to him.

‘So why did you marry a woman who doesn’t hug?’, Michaela asks.

Tricks to let off steam… and boost passion 

  • Before engaging with your partner, soothe your jangled nerves through yoga, a walk, or listening to music. Be your own ‘retreat director’.
  • Being together every minute kills passion. And try to banish ‘administrivia’ — practical talk — from couple time.
  • Understanding one another will improve your connection. Ask ‘How are you feeling? Is there something you want to discuss?’
  • Don’t comfort your partner in a way that suppresses their reaction, ie by saying, ‘It’s OK, stop.’ If you make space for someone’s grief or fear to come out, it will subside.
  • An outburst of emotion can confuse your partner if they are more reserved. So you might say, ‘I just need to let off steam. I don’t need you to fix it.’ Or, they might say, ‘Are you venting, or do we need to address this?’
  • To release stress, try non-linear movement. Perhaps you feel tension in your shoulder. Rotate it then ‘move with your feeling’, twisting and stretching for five minutes. Try it with your partner, maybe while touching hands or hugging. Michaela says this is bonding without it being ‘a big deal’.

‘In fairness to Anna, every time I bring it up, I get a hug,’ Phil replies. But he says that having to ask is demoralising.

‘So this is ongoing, but during the pandemic it has become more of a thing?’ Michaela says.

‘It is very hard to do intimacy when you’re playing more roles than normal; when you’re busier, more tired,’ Phil says. ‘We’ve got on well, but there hasn’t been the hugging.’

He adds that his expectations are low. ‘I do understand there’s a war on. On the surface it’s fine, but deep down I’m probably crying like a lonely, abandoned child.’

He’s joking — but Michaela notes: ‘How you were raised is how you experience and expect love.’ Even if you grow up and discover a healthier way to be, that ‘love imprint’ remains and a small part of you thinks: ‘I want it this way.’

Indeed. My family wasn’t tactile. I chose a man who is the opposite. I adore him, but it rarely occurs to me to spontaneously offer hugs.

Michaela describes the impact of that. She tells Phil: ‘You’re not getting something you want.’ For me, she says: ‘There is a certain “I’m not good enough the way I am”.’

She suggests the result is that we share a feeling of ‘not being good enough to get what I want’. She’s right. It cools our connection.

‘You’re constantly reaffirming the “not good enough” idea by not getting the thing you want, and not giving the other person what they want. It becomes this odd stalemate,’ she says.

Phil tells Michaela her explanation helps him understand me. It helps me understand myself, too.

We’ve had therapy before to cope with bereavement and depression, and know that a wise, compassionate therapist can foster self-awareness, and help you change unhelpful behaviour and become happier.

Michaela (pictured) told Anna and Phil that their survival impulses in lockdown is affecting the way they bond

Michaela (pictured) told Anna and Phil that their survival impulses in lockdown is affecting the way they bond

Michaela (pictured) told Anna and Phil that their survival impulses in lockdown is affecting the way they bond 

Michaela says our survival impulses during lockdown aren’t helping us bond, adding: ‘Anna feels like she’s not doing enough — she’s clearly lacking as a human being, wife and mother. I’m exaggerating wildly.’

Phil’s primal instincts to ‘fix, problem-solve and have direction’ are kicking in, which is why he buys tomatoes. ‘You should celebrate that,’ she tells me. ‘It’s a distinct sign that he’s a good provider.’

We had a huge row when I chased after our escaped cat (who was meant to be indoors after an injury), which led to our son dislocating his finger. Phil had said: ‘The cat will come back.’ But I’d felt compelled to mount a rescue.

‘Phil’s a general right now — he’s running a war operation,’ Michaela says. ‘You are camp nurse. You’re making sure no one gets left behind. You have an almost neurotic need to make sure everything’s nurtured. For Phil, anything that takes away from possible survival needs to be cut off!’

Phil cries: ‘This explains so much!’ Yet our differences can make us a good team. Michaela says: ‘If you play it right, you could create a stronger bond. You can use this crisis to strengthen your resilience.’

First, ‘assess your weak and good spots. List what you’re contributing, and what you’re not that good at’. It’s easier to empathise if you know what drives your partner’s irksome actions. I am astonished when Phil tells me: ‘I appreciate that you stay up a bit later and clean the kitchen.’

Phil and Anna (pictured) were advised by Michaela to address their habit of wrongly assuming you know what your partner is saying

Phil and Anna (pictured) were advised by Michaela to address their habit of wrongly assuming you know what your partner is saying

Phil and Anna (pictured) were advised by Michaela to address their habit of wrongly assuming you know what your partner is saying 

Then, Michaela advises that we address a habit she calls ‘always already listening’, when you wrongly assume you know what your partner is saying. It’s linked to established patterns. So, when I asked Phil to get up more quietly one morning, it turns out he assumed I was accusing him of being purposely loud. Oh dear.

We also need to give each other space. (As I write, Phil is reading on our deck in blankets and a coat. I’m inside.) That way you fix little irritations on a logistical level. ‘Now is not the time to fix things on an emotional level as you’re dealing with a survival situation,’ Michaela says. ‘Emotional depth is one of the first things that goes.’

Underlying pressure gives you a shorter fuse, too. ‘You’re going to be a bit more sensitive when receiving or giving criticism. There will be flared tempers.’ The next step is ‘to look at the needs you have that the other doesn’t fulfil’.

Michaela suggests fulfilment of these needs correlates to how we perform in the relationship. ‘Let’s assume Phil would be able to fulfil all his functions better with the fuel of physical touch.

‘But Anna is an introvert. Staying behind to clean the kitchen is a prime self-care mechanism for an introvert. It’s creating order out of chaos by yourself. This is why she’s not a hugger. She straightens herself out by herself. Phil, you straighten yourself out by being in contact with [others].’

Anna (pictured) admits they were momentarily speechless, because Michaela seemed to know them better than they know themselves

Anna (pictured) admits they were momentarily speechless, because Michaela seemed to know them better than they know themselves

Anna (pictured) admits they were momentarily speechless, because Michaela seemed to know them better than they know themselves

We’re momentarily speechless. Michaela appears to know us better than we know ourselves.

She says that once you remove this idea of ‘the other person’s way is wrong’, you can practise what ‘makes all the difference in the long-term relationship: generosity. You give each other the things you need before they’re requested. That creates a whole other depth of appreciation and intimacy.’

So Phil might ‘actively participate in me “separating out”’ — say, by running me a bath, lighting a candle, and leaving me be. And I might face Phil on the sofa, ‘grab his feet and legs, and massage and squeeze, while we talk about anything except logistics and business’.

It’s a non-invasive way of me experiencing touch, she says, adding: ‘Before you start talking about sex, [you need] that basic reconnection as a man and a woman. Phil, you’re not going to touch her until she asks.’

I realise that I perversely don’t like this rule. I like that he’s affectionate, so I need to stop taking this for granted and instigate more hugging myself.

‘Make time for ten minutes a day,’ she says. ‘I’m sure the kids are not around that much. Within a week or two your relationship will have radically changed. That is the beginning of sensuality.’ As we wave goodbye, I feel optimistic.

PHIL SAYS:

I was prepared for a stream of trendy waffle. But Michaela was practical, and her analysis was powerful. It made me emotional.

The pandemic is frightening and everyone is seeing its impact on their relationship. Anna has been quieter and disappeared within herself, but she’s coped well.

Phil (pictured) admits he became emotional, because Michaela was practical and her analysis was powerful

Phil (pictured) admits he became emotional, because Michaela was practical and her analysis was powerful

Phil (pictured) admits he became emotional, because Michaela was practical and her analysis was powerful

I’ve never been this busy. It’s exhausting, and I don’t ever feel normal. I’m just trying to do as much as I can for everyone.

This is a partnership. But with three children at home, there’s little privacy. That’s one of the biggest obstacles to intimacy. Although I’m not sure anyone feels slinky right now, unless they’ve got a high salary, a secure job and no one to worry about.

When Michaela talked about what we might do to be generous towards each other, I felt she was cleverly getting us to mimic the behaviour of a good relationship.

Another thing we learned is that Anna needs time alone. I joked to her: ‘There’s the door, the park is down the road!’ But Michaela talked about ‘pre-empting Anna’s inner critic’, by proactively making her take time out so she can’t feel guilty.

Especially now, when there’s a war on — the enemy being a global pandemic — she believes I consider any time she takes for herself to be ‘slacking off’. I don’t, but Anna thinks I do, and the fact Michaela understood that was impressive.

She reminded us that making your partner feel bad about themselves fosters resentment. You might not mean to do this — sometimes it’s because of insecurities or pressure.

Phil claims their session with Michaela has helped them to understand each other better and is already building intimacy. Pictured: Michaela, Anna and Phil on Zoom

Phil claims their session with Michaela has helped them to understand each other better and is already building intimacy. Pictured: Michaela, Anna and Phil on Zoom

Phil claims their session with Michaela has helped them to understand each other better and is already building intimacy. Pictured: Michaela, Anna and Phil on Zoom 

But simply being mindful of the other person equates to caring, and is preferable to constantly messing up and apologising.

Establishing a daily ritual of making ten minutes for each other resonated. We say there’s no time, but ten minutes is possible.

Michaela also talked about getting into a more sensual space. The will is there, but frankly it would be easier if we’d had the loft converted. As it is, there’s always a teenager in the room next door.

But the day after our session, Anna lay with me on the sofa and cuddled up for ten minutes. Earlier, she spontaneously hugged and kissed me. I said ‘Thank you’ in a formal way that made us laugh. But Michaela said that’s OK; the generosity you show can be overt.

Understanding each other better, and acting on that knowledge, is already building intimacy. It’s like being diagnosed by a skilled doctor. You now know what’s wrong and how to make it better.

My gratitude to Gwyneth for the recommendation! 

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