Meet intimacy coach Michaela Boehm — the woman the A-list hire to fix their relationships
Intimacy coach Michaela Boehm can tell if you’re touching your partner the wrong way and recommends couples live apart. Ben Hoyle talks to her.
The Times UK
Last month Gwyneth Paltrow announced that she is moving in with the man she loves. This modest domestic rearrangement rose above the usual clatter of Hollywood gossip for two reasons. One: Paltrow is less an actress these days than the driving force behind Goop, a lifestyle business that, despite accusations of quackery is valued at $250 million and appears bound for world domination. Two: the man in question, the TV producer and writer Brad Falchuk, has been her husband for nearly a year.
Everything Paltrow says or does tends to be scrutinised to see if it’s more enlightened or insane (delete according to preference) than her previous idea, so the revelation this summer that she and Falchuk had been living apart three nights a week since their wedding on the advice of her “intimacy teacher” prompted a large collective eye-roll.
What happened next? Why are they moving in together? And who needs an intimacy teacher anyway? These are the thoughts swimming through my head as I sit cross-legged on a cushion- strewn day bed in a brightly decorated shed in the Californian countryside with the woman credited with keeping the couple apart.
Michaela Boehm, 52, has spent two decades coaching a roster of celebrities and businesspeople towards healthier relationships. She has mountains of red hair and wears an embroidered black tunic over loose black trousers. Her laugh makes her shoulders shake and she swears with relish, although only in English; growing up in Austria she wasn’t allowed to use rude words and still can’t swear in German.
“We get an education in most areas of our lives that we’re supposed to be functional in,” she says. “You’re not expected to drive a car without getting a licence, but for some bizarre reason one of the most important areas in people’s lives is handed to them without an education.”
People think “sex and relationships are the most natural things in the world”, Boehm says. “Bullshit. Yes, when you lived in a cave there wasn’t much to it. You ate. You had sex. You slept. You hunted. You took care of the kids, you took care of the animals. You made sure the fire didn’t burn the kids or the animals. Done. That’s not the way it goes any more.”
Of course Boehm has to be “super-discreet”. She won’t say anything about her work unless clients have volunteered the information. “So when Gwyneth mentions me, then I can go, ‘Yes, I work with her.’ When Will mentioned me, I can go, ‘Yes, I work with him’ (she means Will Smith, who has spoken about how Boehm saved his family life). But I’m never going to say on what or why. Because first of all it’s career suicide, but I also have a very strong belief that everybody’s personal life should be kept as personal as they want it to be.”
She won’t say if she was consulted on her most famous client’s new living arrangements, but she sees Paltrow as a “trailblazer” for “how you can do the thing you want to do without compromising yourself”.
How did they meet? She cackles happily. “I’m not going to tell you.”
The shed is set amid flowers and statues of Indian deities on Boehm’s organic farm in the hills behind Ojai, an idyllic town 90 minutes’ drive north of Los Angeles known for its sunsets and bohemian atmosphere.
Boehm lives here with her South African husband and an assortment of rescue animals including goats, horses and pigs. She describes herself as “hyper-introverted” and never wanted children because by the time she married she had a successful business and “couldn’t stomach the idea of somebody else raising my children”.
Her work revolves around reawakening people to what their bodies are telling them and training them to meet adversity headon. “It’s an embracing of life versus an avoiding of life,” she says.
The approach is derived from tantric teachings, which she has studied since she was a teenager. In England the word tantric makes us think of Sting and his marathon sex sessions, I say. “Yeah,” she says. “It’s not that at all.” Rather, it’s a “full-bodied engagement in life” that emphasises the glory of even the most menial tasks. “One of my favourite things,” Boehm says, “is I love scooping horse shit.”
She won’t say much about her husband, partly because “when you do what I do for a living there’s a high risk to cannibalise one’s relationship . . . and that’s super, super-dangerous”. Besides, “if I lead with my relationship, then if I ever decide I don’t want this relationship any more, for whatever reason — menopause, I want to move back to Austria and he doesn’t, or whatever — then suddenly my entire brand is, excuse me, f***ed.”
All she volunteers is that he lives in a house of his own at the back of the property, while she spends the few weeks of the year when she is not away working living in an Airbnb down the lane.
Boehm was born in Austria to “amazing parents” who have a “very alive relationship”. Her father worked for Mercedes-Benz. Her “incredibly creative” mother stayed at home. At the age of 12 Boehm decided that she wanted to be a witch. She met an Indian woman, an Ayurvedic herbalist who initiated her into tantric rituals and became her mentor. Medical school did not work out, so Boehm took a degree in psychology, but when she decided to settle in LA in her late twenties, she realised that she would have to retrain to practise. To fund herself she worked on the lipstick counter of Fred Segal, where her customers included actors and top film and TV executives.
They confided their problems and she gave them advice. They told her to get in touch once she was qualified. “It was this really bizarre thing,” she says, wide-eyed. “I wouldn’t go and see somebody who sells me lipstick.”
She has a “gift” — she winces slightly as she says this — which is that “I can tell you somebody’s relational or sexual dynamic just from speaking with them for a few minutes”.
Intimate relationships are based on shared values and experiences, she says. So when you click with someone “usually you have sex and you talk all night. You find that you both have an obscure love of medieval poetry and it’s, like, ‘Oh!’ Then other commonalities start happening. You move into the same space. You have the same friends. You go to the same place on vacation.” If you maintain those shared values, deepen your common history and communicate well the relationship will thrive. If not you develop “a relationship problem”.
Sexual attraction, though, is “built on opposition”. It demands “somebody who is willing to be in charge and somebody who goes along on that ride”. It works best if partners take turns in each role, but “it’s only hot if there’s one of each”.
Familiarity is its enemy. “If you are no longer sexually attracted to your partner, that is not a relationship issue. It becomes one, but it’s not one to begin with, and this is what messes people up so much.”
Trying to solve a relationship breakdown is complex, but sorting the sex out is simple, she says. “Spend some time apart. That’s the only thing that you need to know.” That could be going out separately once a week or carving out separate areas of the home.
It requires couples to be disciplined about when they discuss kids, money and work stresses and to clear space regularly to focus on conversations about other things.
Boehm does on occasion advocate living apart, like Paltrow and Falchuk, who both have children from previous marriages, but that arrangement doesn’t need to last for ever. “These things should be temporary,” Boehm says. “Otherwise it’s weird and culty.”
She recognises that people sometimes find Paltrow’s approach to life aggravating, but that doesn’t mean she’s happy about the way she gets depicted. Take the notorious 2014 declaration by Paltrow and her previous husband, Chris Martin, that their marriage was over and they were going to “consciously uncouple”.
Boehm didn’t coin the term and did not lead the couple to it, although she was working with them at the time and thinks it an “excellent concept”.
“When you really look at it, people like Gwyneth who stick their head out there to essentially show that other things can be done get massive shit for it, for things that are actually good. Anybody should have a decent enough relationship with the father or mother of their children that they can do a handover without the kid being traumatised. What’s wrong with optimising your relationship? What’s ever wrong with trying to be a more loving, kinder partner and human being and a good parent?”
Most formerly good relationships can be repaired so long as there has not been infidelity, Boehm believes. “Repairing trust and resulting resentment is a lengthy and delicate process, which sometimes can take more than one or both partners are willing or able to sustain.”
Not all of her work is with VIPs. She teaches classes and workshops that start at $35 a person in London, Amsterdam, Melbourne, Sydney, New York and LA. High-performance people make up the bulk of her clientele, though, because they “tend to nip things in the bud” and are more likely to then think: “ ‘Who can I hire who knows everything about that?’ ”
Everyone she does counselling for pays the same flat rate of $450 an hour, which is not extortionate in affluent southern Californian circles.
She feels so “proud” of some favourite clients she has stopped working with that when she sees them on the red carpet it can make her tearful. And she nearly does start to cry in front of me.
Boehm’s best-paid jobs are when she’s on a retainer to be on call around the clock, or is hired for intensive assignments such as the one where she lived with an Anglo-American family on their massive estate in Sussex and watched their interactions all day “like zoo animals”. She could tell what was wrong within ten minutes. “It took a year to straighten it out, but I did.” The couple are still together.
Typically, she finds that men are “much better at implementing” her advice. Women have “a tendency to want to engage in the drama of life. A woman’s idea of a good time is not ‘Joe meets Mary, they live happily ever after’. You don’t see any movies like that. A woman’s idea of a good romantic situation is ‘Joe meets Mary, but Mary’s in love with Joe’s brother who has cancer.’ ”
She worries about technology further eroding intimacy, leading to “even worse disconnection”. Yet she is also a romantic who believes that there is “a basic goodness in humans”.
“People want to love and be loved. People are not innately crazy or mean or horrible, it’s just the product of situations or bad education. So I do think that there will always be a place for love and intimacy and connection.” Just not necessarily under one roof.
A guide to intimacy
By Michaela Boehm
Take responsibility for your energy levels and your pleasure
Don’t expect your partner to get you out of your head or romance you to open your heart. Your partner is also busy and tired. Have a bath, some exercise, massage your feet. Move your body in ways that bring you back to feeling and sensual awareness.
Treat your romantic time together as you imagine your ideal fantasy scenario to be. Be curious about who they are; ask new questions. See them with fresh eyes. And stay off your phone!
Play with leading and following
Here is a fun game to try on a date. One of you leads the whole date; the other follows. Whoever leads is in complete charge of absolutely everything. This includes activity, location, food, drink, timing and directions. Whoever follows goes along without giving negative feedback.
Pay attention to how often you touch your partner in a casual way. I often see women pet their partners as if they were children or dogs. Sweet but definitely not sexy.
Conscious touch exercise
Try using your nondominant hand to touch your partner on the arm. Touch their arm with one finger, very lightly. Then experiment with different motions, with speed, and with more and less pressure. See how light and subtle you can make the touch and still make it pleasurable. Give feedback in the form of “yes and no sounds”.
Give each other space
Spend time apart after work. Don’t complain about your day or discuss logistics immediately. If you are parents, take some time apart after the kids are in bed before you enter connection again.