It's a good time to be a relationship coach

[NEW YORK] Sofia Montijo's first 2-hour phone call with Samantha Burns in November 2020 was spent assessing Montijo's love life.

From then through last May, the women, who each live in Boston, focused on Montijo's mostly unsuccessful dating history for an hour every 2 to 3 weeks on FaceTime, and in weekly texts and emails. For Montijo, these conversations were supplemented with homework and workbooks; together, everything cost her US$3,500.

In June, Montijo, 37, started dating her current boyfriend. She described their relationship as the most successful one she has been in. "I knew I needed to change my dating patterns and I needed to find someone who specialised in that," she said of hiring Burns, a psychotherapist who in 2015 started a business coaching people through dating, relationships and even break-ups.

Before the pandemic, Burns said she received about 5 applications from new clients a week. That number has since doubled, Burns said, as people have had more time to "look at their relationships and to work on themselves".

As a result, she and other relationship coaches say they have seen an uptick in business from people who seek the goal-oriented, future-thinking approach of their work. Some, such as Montijo, see it as an alternative to therapy, which often focuses more on process and the past.

Although she has never seen a therapist, Montijo said that "therapy feels ADD-ish because you talk about everything". She added, "I saw Sam to understand how I can specifically date better."

Both coaches and therapists want to help people, Burns explained, "but coaches excel at a certain skill and want you to as well". "Coaching allows for direct feedback and change," she said. "Here you set a goal, then you meet it within a specific amount of time."

Max Alley, who lives in the New York City borough of Queens, in 2018 left his job as a customer experience manager at the dating app Coffee Meets Bagel to start Matchup Coaching, which specialises in online dating. Before the pandemic, he said he would get 5 or 6 new clients a month; now, that number is 9 or 10.

He attributes his increase in clients to the fact that the pandemic made online dating the best - and sometimes only - way to meet others. "People realised their digital presence mattered more than their physical one," said Alley, who charges US$200 for an initial 2-hour consultation that includes tips on bio writing and picking photos, and US$100 an hour for follow-up sessions.

Jessica Ashley, a divorce coach in Chicago who specialises in helping mothers go through the process, said that the goal-setting element of coaching has become particularly appealing to clients because it can deliver structure and tangible achievements at a time when both may be lacking in people's lives.

"We are having a coaching moment because we need someone to stand beside us and make a plan," she said, "and then tell us we can do it."

Like many coaches, Ashley offers her services via packages, including a 3-month plan that starts at US$3,300 and a 6-month plan that starts at US$6,000. Business used to be reliably seasonal, she said, but has become steadier over the past 2 years.

"Back to school and after holidays were busier" before the pandemic, she said, but "in 2020 and through summer 2021, the busy season was constant". Ashley added: "I've consistently had double the number of coaching clients than before it hit."

Corinne Reynolds, 41, director of advancement at Metropolitan Family Services in Chicago, where she lives with her daughter, hired Ashley in January 2020 when she was divorcing her now ex-husband. Although she was in therapy, Reynolds still felt overwhelmed. The pandemic made things worse, she said, by increasing her feelings of isolation.

"Therapy felt open-ended. I needed someone to give me advice, help me create a plan and have action steps," said Reynolds, who worked with Ashley for 6 months.

"Jessica helped me set weekly goals and created a better morning routine for myself and my daughter," she added. "She helped me find a lawyer and navigate the legal system. She reviewed my documents. I also joined her Facebook group of other mums going through this experience which made me feel less alone."

Tirzah Stein, a licensed social worker in Denver, recently left her job in that field to start NearlyWed Coaching, which specialises in wedding and premarital coaching. Since opening her business in September, she has taken on 24 clients, with 18 signing up in February, she said.

Because coaches do not have the same approach as therapists, Stein said they can develop an intimacy with clients that can be helpful to achieving goals. "Being a coach, you don't have the same boundaries as a therapist," said Stein, who charges US$550 for 4 hour-long sessions and US$800 for 8. "You show your emotions and are a human being. I'm a best friend who is still connecting as a professional."

Carly Wright, a 37-year-old firefighter and paramedic, and Chloe Wright, a 33-year-old psychologist, saw Stein together for 4 months before their wedding on Jan 8 in Denver. The couple, who live in Fort Collins, Colorado, had differing opinions about their ideal wedding day but felt therapy was not the right venue to hash them out.

"I didn't want to go to couples therapy because there wasn't a problem" with our relationship, said Carly Wright, who uses a gender-neutral courtesy title. "This was a specific problem navigating through an event that both of us were coming to from very different places."

Wright added that coaching helped the 2 see each other's point of view, in part because Stein "talked to us from a personal place". "She told us what she did for her wedding and how other clients were navigating this same space."

Said Wright: "A therapist wouldn't be able to do that." NYTIMES

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