Romancing the Coconut
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So your standoffish therapist isn't helping that much in the romance realm. "Well, what do you think?" she asks, smiling noncommittally, as if you'd be there if you knew why you were dating the guy who was afraid to take off his pants. Or maybe she throws out that other conversation stopper: "That's an interesting question." Really, why go round and round about interesting questions when you have immediate, pressing, and deeply annoying love problems to solve? And while we're being honest, why do all that problem solving yourself when you could have someone else do it for you?
Maybe they can't do all the heavy lifting, but an array of spiritual guides, coaches, and renegade romantic consultants are doing their damnedest to help fix your love life. Depending on your financial situation, skepticism level, and particular vexation, this varied bunch of practitioners will summon relief through "lucky oil," life-partner-envisioning sessions, or the energy of your very own body. And while your therapist may sidestep the sticky questions of what you should actually do about your dilemmas (way too directive), some of the guides listed here will not only tell you how you should solve your problems, but also draw on higher powers to help you with them.
Take Papo, for instance. A practitioner of his own special blend of Santería and espiritualismo, a belief that centers on communicating with the spirits of the dead, Papo's happy to dole out predictions, if he's feeling them. At age 10 the young psychic, who then lived in the Rockaways, started having visions of what would happen, including a dead-on premonition that his mother's workplace would burn down. (Papo swears he didn't set the fire.) Next, his mother's friends started coming to him for guidance. And he's been reading cards ( brisca, the Mexican kind, not tarot), filling pumpkins with lucky oil, and lighting candles for a steady stream of clients ever since.
In almost 30 years on the job, Papo, who was born Carlos Altuz, has applied his intuition to illnesses, tax problems, and even a workers' compensation lawsuit. (After more than two years and several candle lightings and prayers, his client -- the plaintiff -- ultimately prevailed.) But this "spiritual psychiatrist," as Papo calls himself, says most of his clients journey to his East New York living room for his "white magic" love spells. Just bring him a picture of your beloved and an item of his or her clothing -- and pay about $25 -- and Papo will contact the appropriate spirits through the shell of a coconut to see that the arrows fly in the right direction. "The coconut has an oracle in it," he says. "The spirits do talk through it."
How does he hear them? "You have to believe," says Papo, smiling from his green velvet couch as his next appointment appears at the door.
At first the mood in Deborah Roth's peach-colored office seems slightly less mystical than at Papo's place. Talking on her headset telephone while thumbing through a binder, the interfaith minister, life transition coach, and relationship coach can seem all business. But beside her computer you may notice a container of yellow oil and roots. A towering blond who used to work in corporate personnel, Roth, it turns out, devised the love potion herself. (This one, which a couple will soon use to anoint one another at their wedding, contains cloves for protection and the root ylang-ylang, which Roth says she put in for "great sex.")
Personal coaching, which has exploded over the last decade, takes a direct approach to life's problems. Focusing on the present -- as opposed to psychotherapy, which traditionally deals more with childhood wounds -- a life coach might give you an assignment like "Join a gym by Wednesday" or "Write down the five reasons you want to change jobs." Roth began by applying her practical guidance in such straightforward areas, but soon found herself drawn into her clients' love lives. "Initially they'd come in and say they're not happy work-wise," says Roth. "But often we'd end up talking about their relationships."
As she saw more and more clients who were either struggling to work things out with their partners or trying to get into relationships, Roth began searching for a structured approach to working with them, ultimately taking up a meticulous relationship-coaching program designed by the California-based company LifePartnerQuest. The five-session course (for which Roth charges $595) begins with "readiness coaching," in which a single person examines his or her relationship history, develops a profile of an ideal life partner, and according to the manual, develops a "Relationship Plan to manifest/ attract Life Partner." After "Attraction Coaching," which includes where and how to meet potential life partners, and "Pre-Commitment Coaching," in which a client figures out whether someone they're dating is right for them, the search for satisfaction ends with both partners participating in "Bliss Coaching."
This resolutely no-nonsense approach can seem to treat love like Ikea furniture: Follow the directions and you'll end up with something at least serviceable. Indeed, some might find the content of relationship coaching sessions surprisingly banal; coaches talk to their clients about which Internet dating service to use, for instance, or whether they should get a haircut. But by adding in her interest in both rituals and astrology, Roth has built a strange amalgam of love tools. She helped one client come up with a ceremony to rid herself of her ex (the woman wrote his name on a stone and tossed it into her favorite lake). For others, she customizes candles with glitter and leaves to symbolize their relationships. And she's now putting together a group of both men and women who will go through the LifePartnerQuest coaching together, though Roth is emphatic that group members won't be allowed to date one another.
Perhaps that's fine, though. "First you have to be able to love yourself," says Laurie Bell, who has what she calls an intuitive gift for helping people and conducts workshops on self-love (not the physical kind). Bell also works with individuals and couples, doing everything from healing touch and body work to meditation -- all of which, she says, is rooted in learning to love. "Every single person from Bush to you and me is learning how to love ourselves," says Bell. "That's how we'll love others better."
"It's an exploration," Bell says of relationship struggles from the petty to the presidential. And as this alternative healer is warning you that the process is never easy and that, no, she can't really do it for you, you're reminded of your therapist. "No matter who you're with, your journey is about your own development," she says. "What do you think?"
Sharon Lerner is a regular contributor to The Village Voice, where this article originally appeared.