Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Singles looking for help from Dr. Love in Bethesda — stat!

Dating coaches help busy professionals find true love

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Benjamin Corey Feinblum says he was able to get serious about finding the woman of his dreams, Rachel Anchors, with the help of a dating coach.
Benjamin Corey Feinblum was a 20-something magician living in Bethesda. He was also a somewhat reluctant bachelor. He could make a Queen of Hearts appear with the wave of a hand, but he couldn’t find the perfect woman.

So he got himself a coach: Amy Schoen of Rockville, one of a handful of dating and relationship coaches serving Bethesda-Chevy Chase.

‘‘I had plenty of people I could date. I just wasn’t exactly certain what would work with my lifestyle, and also I was running my own company,” Feinblum said. ‘‘I wanted to work with somebody who would guide me and help me make decisions.”

The area is replete with ideal candidates for the emerging industry of singles coaching: men and women whose demanding careers leave little time for aimless dating. They bypass the speed-dating circuit in favor of a focused take on courtship — a ‘‘scouting, sorting, screening and testing” regimen that coaches call ‘‘conscious dating.”

Coaches lead these men and women through the dating maze. They use a semi-Socratic method, asking questions that slowly winnow down the coachee’s romantic prospects: One coach asked his client — a Democrat lawyer who drove a hybrid — if she could stand to see her Republican boyfriend’s SUV in the driveway for the rest of her life. The answer was no, and the client eventually moved on to search for a better fit.

This industry has cropped up partly because the landscape of courtship is in flux.

‘‘The rules of dating have changed, and the rules of relationships have changed. We don’t know what the new rules are,” said David Steele, the founder of Relationship Coaching Institute based in California and teacher to a handful of local coaches.

‘‘In the past, there were conventions,” Steele said, like who asks out whom, or when to have sex. ‘‘Now, it’s like everything is up for grabs.”

Coaches in Montgomery said their clients are usually female, successful professionals in their late 30s or early 40s, hoping to start a family. Or they’re recently divorced, on the market after 10 or 20 years of marriage, and nervous about dating again. Some are younger, unmarried and looking for focus in their dating lives.

‘‘Time is a premium in the city,” Schoen said. ‘‘People are so busy they don’t make time for relationships.”

Schoen is a businesswoman who got into coaching in 2005, working with a lot of single entrepreneurs. She had divorced her husband about 10 years earlier and threw herself into courtship, even hiring extra staff to help run her business while she got out and dated. She remarried and decided to use what she had learned.

‘‘I was very active as a dater in Washington, D.C.,” said Schoen, a Rockville resident. ‘‘I am able to help [singles] and figure out the best places for them to go based on their personalities and values.”

Coaching takes clients through activities and exercises, like making collages of their lives or having ‘‘homework” that could consist of striking up a conversation with 10 women in a week.

Coaches treat clients as functional, mentally healthy people working toward a goal. With so much reflection tied in to the process, coaching does deal with emotions.

‘‘I can’t tell you how many clients I have who come to me and say, ‘I keep getting into relationships that I shouldn’t be in,’” said Ken Sprang, who leads ‘‘conscious dating” workshops at Bethesda-Chevy Chase Counseling & Consulting, a counseling center on East West Highway. Clients are ‘‘basically emotionally healthy people,” Sprang said, ‘‘but find themselves in patterns.”

If it’s serious, he refers clients to therapy.

The coaching profession is not the same as psychotherapy or counseling. Though some mental health clinicians do double duty as coaches, coaches do not heal wounds from failed marriages or diagnose mental illness. Coaches are neither licensed nor regulated by the state.

‘‘It’s very much a thin line between coaching someone on relationships and working with a licensed clinician,” said Risa Davis-Ganel, of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists’ mid-Atlantic division. ‘‘Anyone can become a coach without being a clinician, so when it comes to consumer safety, it’s important to know that.”

Coaches said their job is to help clients accomplish a goal, whether that goal is sport-dating or marriage.

Feinblum’s goal, in part, was to find the love of his life.

When Feinblum showed up at Schoen’s office, she asked him to make a list of his ‘‘must-haves.” The exercise was a staple of singles coaching. Clients write a list of qualities they’re looking for in a mate: deal breakers like ‘‘wants a family,” or icing-on-the-cake things like ‘‘black hair.”

Feinblum’s list was huge, he admits. He wanted a successful, attractive Jewish woman who cooked like a gourmet chef, danced, sang, worked passionately in a creative field, and loved to travel — or at least would be willing to travel with his magic show.

Feinblum went through coaching for about a year. Schoen coached him through four short relationships, helping him see that the trysts were going nowhere, he said. Coaching illuminated what was most important to him, which he then put into an online dating ad.

Then one day, voila. There on was Rachel Anchors, 25, a character animator with a slender physique and long light-brown hair, who loved to cook and dance.

‘‘The first date with my girlfriend was the most romantic day I ever had,” Feinblum would later say of meeting Anchors. ‘‘We smiled and laughed so much that our faces hurt — really, sincerely hurt.”

Although the coaching process was systematic, planned, and not exactly the stuff of fairytales, Feinblum said it made his life more romantic.

‘‘The methodical thing is really just a clearing away of the garbage that piles up, that keeps us from seeing what we want for real,” Feinblum said. ‘‘It takes out a lot of trial and error.”

Could Feinblum have found true love on his own, without a coach? Yes, he said, ‘‘I could’ve by the time I was, you know, 40.”