You know the worst thing about February? It’s not the sleet and the snow or the reality that everything is gray and gloomy. It’s Valentine’s Day, which takes over our lives with a flurry of well-meaning reminders that we should find someone, anyone to share the 14th with (at the very least a hookup).
While Valentine’s Day is unarguably great for the greeting card and the restaurant industries, it’s also a reminder of just how many of us struggle with intimacy. Which is why consultants like Valerie Baber are never short on clients. Baber guides people through thorny relationship quandaries, helping them come out happier, more reflective, and truly ready to engage with others. But she’s clear about one thing up front: It requires effort.
If you’ve never heard of an intimacy coach before, you may have some misconceptions about what one does, so here’s the deal: As an intimacy coach, Baber helps men and women struggling with the issues of love and romance get the love they want. She offers private counseling sessions, speaks to clients all around the world via Skype, and even offers a “wingwoman” service which involves her going out with clients and acting as “social lubricant” (her words) to ease some of the anxieties of modern dating. She’ll give you feedback on your approach and interaction style, and she even offers multi-hour coaching sessions that give clients deep insight into their own patterns of behavior.
Baber’s job, as she sees it, is to correct and challenge people’s incorrect assumptions about sex and relationships and to get them to think more deeply about sex, love, and relationships — things most people don’t think too deeply about, because they’re uncomfortable.
“We’re under the perception that if we love someone, it should just work out. And that is a horribly unhealthy perception to have,” Baber said during a recent phone conversation. “It takes work — and not just physical work, but mental work. We need to be more analytical. We need to be more scientific with love, or we’re going to encounter the same problems that we’ve been encountering.”
So how do you “do the work?” Baber was happy to give all of us some real talk about the biggest mistakes we make in relationships and how to fix them.
Enjoy the work
Every once in a while, one of your Facebook friends (probably that co-worker you hate) will post some meme about “true love beating all odds” or how “if your relationship is work, then you’re in the wrong relationship,” and every time it happens, you probably have the instinct to wonder whether you’ve just never been in a great relationship before because, dude, some guy you hate from the office seems to be having the best time.
“That is a wonderful, romantic point of view,” Baber says. “I can’t help but think that those people are twenty one and clearly not experienced. Some relationships will take less work, but there’s no such thing as a fantasy romance where if you just love each other enough, then everything magically falls into place. Life is work, and relationships and love and sex are all a part of life. Anyone who says love and relationships are all a walk in the park hasn’t been around on this earth for very long.”
That’s somewhat comforting — and a good reminder to mute anyone who posts things like that — but it does make relationships sound a little more dull. Hollywood sells us grand romance and fairy tale fantasies that end with the most beautiful kisses, but Baber says that doing the work in a relationship can be an exciting process and not something you should shy away from.
“Work in a relationship challenges us to grow,” Baber says. “We should all be evolving. If we’re not evolving, we’re not living. We should be excited about our growth process. It gives us an opportunity to communicate with our partners in a way that we haven’t communicated with them before.”
“It sort of opens up a new playground,” she continues. “Yes, it’s a scary playground because there are toys and things on it that we’ve never encountered before and we think they might become obstacles. Maybe they will, but eventually we’re going to learn how to master them. It gives us this new space to play in so we can communicate with our partners in a way that we haven’t before. We can connect with them physically in ways that we haven’t before.”
Here’s an example: A client who Baber saw recently came to her because he was having trouble in his marriage, which had been sexless for a long time. He wanted to rekindle the physical aspect of the relationship, she says, but after years of not being sexual, he didn’t know what to do. He tried engaging his wife in the ways that he did many years ago and found that it didn’t work.
“He actually asked me, ‘How do I touch my wife?’ Baber says. “I was able to discuss with him some new techniques that might be more interesting to her than the same old thing.”
“It’s all about perspective. If you go into it thinking, ‘This is scary, this is terrifying,’ it’s going to make things worse. You’re setting yourself up for a really negative experience. But if you say, ‘You know what, this is opportunity, this is a new playground, this is something new to explore. I can relearn my partner. We can have a new romance,’ then I think a client will really get a lot out of that.
There’s no shame in asking for help, especially if you’re beginning to suspect the problem lies within
“There are certainly a lot of people I’ve encountered who think that they could do no wrong,” Baber says. “They know everything they need to know, they’re superior lovers. If there’s anything that’s unsatisfying that’s happening in their lives, it’s because of the other person.”
While it would be great if all that were true, you have to go back to the old adage about you being the common denominator in all your relationships. And if things aren’t working out, Baber says, there shouldn’t be any embarrassment about going to see an expert for help. Baber may not be able to help everyone — narcissists may not find her advice useful because it puts the onus back on them — but she says that if someone’s “a little intimidated” but open, then there’s no reason that several frank conversations can’t revitalize (or just vitalize) one’s struggling interpersonal interactions. People need tools for love, just like people need tools for keeping their finances straight.
“It’s strange to me that if anything is wrong with us physically, we’ll go see a doctor,” Baber says. “If we’re feeling down, we’ll go see a therapist or a psychiatrist. There are people for us to go see if anything isn’t quite working correctly. But if our love life isn’t working correctly or our dick’s not working correctly, why should that be any different than any other element in your life?”
Good question. Sure it may feel weird or even emasculating to go see someone who specializes in teaching you how to do love and sex right, but if you don’t have the skills to explore your own insecurities, why shouldn’t you visit someone with experience? That may be a sex therapist, that may be an intimacy coach, but admitting you might need help is the first step to changing how you view sex and relationships.
Communication is key
Every time we discuss sex, the topic of communication comes up. Sometimes, it can be frustrating to hear that the most important part of achieving a healthy sex life and a happy love life boils down to speaking out about what you want more and hiding your feelings less. But Baber says that there’s really nothing that will take the place of open and frank discussion if you want your relationships to flourish.
“If you’re holding something in, if you’re too afraid to talk to your partner about something, that’s going to complicate the situation,” Baber says. “There is no physical thing that you could do with your partner to make the internal issue disappear or become better. That’s number one.”
So start talking! If you’re struggling with a sexual or romantic issue, it’s not going away if you ignore it. If you approach it in a mature adult way, however, then you’ll likely come out of the discussion feeling understood, validated, and, hopefully even more comfortable.
Of course this doesn’t mean you should spill everything. Too much honesty can also ruin a romantic prospect, especially if you don’t think about how what you’re saying will affect the other person. Discussing the possibility of having anal sex? That’s something you can approach in a manner that won’t hurt the other person — even if they’re not into it — but does anyone really need to know about all your exes?
“A lot of people are too honest,” Baber says. “It’s wonderful to want to not hold anything back from your partner. It’s great that we want to share and that we want to be transparent, but we can be transparent and honest in a relationship without being oversharers of useless, potentially harmful information.”
“For instance, you don’t need to ever tell your partner how many people you’ve been with and what it was like to be with them. That’s useless information. If they ask, their priorities are not in the right place and you might want to assess what it is they’re really after or what their insecurities are.”
Baber suggests reassurance if that topic comes up. If your partner asks you about how many people you’ve slept with, for instance, it may be because they’re not certain that your mind is on them. Reminding them that both your mind and body are focused on them and that past lovers are nothing to be intimidated by. And it goes the other way, too. If you suddenly start worrying about your partner’s former flames then it’s likely less about the sexual experiences they’ve had and more likely that you’re feeling inadequate for any number of reasons. Discussing this — without getting into specifics — is a good way to assuage any fears.
One more important question: Should you tell your partner that their friends are hot? It’s something that’s been debated forever. On one hand, it’s good to be honest; on the other, it’s bound to cause strife. Baber suggests that if your instinct is to let your paramour in on the fact that their best friend is hot that it’s best to squelch it unless there’s something specific you’re looking for.
“My question would be, ‘why would you want to share that and what good do you think would come of it?’” Baber says. “Is it important?” In other words, it can be fine to just appreciate others it in your head. There’s no reason to share it.
Important note: Celebs are generally okay to discuss in this manner, because society has made “hotness of famous people” part of the cultural conversation.
Good sex (generally) takes some planning
“I think that setting an environment and having a good sense of timing are critical to a great sexual experience,” Baber says. “A lot of men don’t understand that not every time is the right time for sex, at least not for a woman. If she’s feeling fat, and she’s cramping, and she’s late for work, and the dog is barking, and somebody’s knocking at the door, and the lights are bright, and her hair is everywhere, and she’s not feeling sexy, that’s not a good time to get it on.”
Baber speaks about heterosexual men because that’s her primary client base, but she says that this is a good rule to follow for anyone. Always consider the timing and the setting before you jump right into bed. “People need to be relaxed,” she says. “The more relaxed you are, the better physical experience you’re going to have. And the better emotional experience, too.”
That may sound a little boring, but it takes some of the pressure off men, too. “Men think that they should be hard and ready to go at all times with any woman. And then they’re upset, they think that something is wrong with their genitals when they aren’t able to either get or maintain an erection,” Baber says. Some men, she continues, even think about taking drastic measures when they’re faced with the pressure to perform and are disappointed in the results.
“I’ve had a client recently who thinks that the answer to that is to get a surgery. He wants to lengthen his penis. For me, that’s really disappointing and upsetting because I think it’s psychological.”
Making a connection in this time of Tinder and Bumble can be a thorny path. And with people ghosting, benching, and breadcrumbing (it’s a thing) each other at alarming rates, it’s possible your heart will be broken before the relationship even starts.
Baber believes that the only way to change this is to stop relying on texts and start meeting the people you’re interested in. Sure, you may come off as fun and witty in text exchanges (especially now that we have gifs and stickers and all manner of other novelties to invigorate the exchanges), but will that matter as much if you’re not the same way in person? Prolonging the texting may feel good in the moment, but the intimacy you’ll experience won’t be real.
“We lose connection with people when we lose our ability to communicate in person and by voice,” Baber says. “Text is a great way to communicate in certain situations, but it shouldn’t be the only way that we communicate. We have much more rewarding, soulful experiences with people when we approach them and communicate with them like human beings and not like robots on the other end of a screen.”
“You can connect with a person by text, think that you found your soulmate or your best friend, and then when you finally do meet with them in person it’s a completely different experience,” Baber cautions. “The chemistry is wrong. The attraction is wrong. You don’t like their voice. You don’t like the way they smell. That will destroy everything. You will have completely wasted all that time that you invested in texting. “
So what should you do? Meet as soon as you feel comfortable — in a well-lit public place! — and take it from there.
If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?
If you’re currently looking for a significant other, Baber says you should ask yourself some difficult questions: Are you happy? Are you healthy? Are you in a good space for yourself? Those are all things that she asks her clients, and the answers will reveal whether it’s time to look for a mate or to fix your own problems first? (Spoiler alert: a partner won’t fix anything you don’t already like, whether it be low self-confidence or loneliness.)
“If you’re saying, ‘No, I’m in shambles but I think a partner would help get me together,’ you’re definitely not ready to pursue anything romantic,” Baber warns. “So, get yourself right first and then you’ll be ready to find a partner. And you’ll radiate. When you’re in a good place in life, you’ll put that out into the world.”
That may sound a little hokey, but it makes a lot of sense. After all, if you’re not even 50 percent okay with yourself, it’s unlikely that a partner will make that better. You need to come to a relationship from a place of equity (so you’re both putting in as much as you get), and the best way to do that is by being chill with yourself and seeing a relationship as a value-add to your life versus the one thing that will finally make you happy.
Love yourself, communicate, and put down the phone and you’re on your way to a better love life and (hopefully) an even better sex life. Of course, if you need some more help, you can always check out our guide on how to have the best sex ever — without getting weird — here.