For Shula Melamed any healthy relationship – new or old – starts with two people who share many things but still carry individual identities and who understand what they need and desire. When the relationship coach first answered an ad to assist New York’s top matchmaker in scouring the land for eligible bachelorettes, the luxurious experience scratched the service in transformative beauty and fashion changes and makeovers; eventually Shula was then propelled into a deeper commitment, helping people find and stay in love. She went off to school to study psychology and sexuality and is now the master of guiding individuals, couples and groups through the specific challenges and desires all humans encounter. Her goal is to convince the public that investing time and maintenance into creating a relationship and keeping it healthy is just as important as eating well and getting enough exercise. Shula believes there’s no shame in using any and all dating tools, and that booking time in your busy schedule for a date night with your partner isn’t cheesy. She helps people navigate through first date performance anxiety, emotional or physical ruts in current relationships, and anything related to pleasure and sexuality. Using an approach informed by psychological, sociological and anthropological theories, she invites people to rewrite their self-worth and build self-love through one-on-one coaching or through The Foundation, an online program she created to help women reflect on their values and commit to following through with actions that will ultimately result in a more pleasurable experience.
Reading dares you to grow and challenges your perspective
Leaving room for experimentation and exploration.
New York City
Witnessing someone create possibility for more in their lives
Putting myself out there
Not taking feedback
What’s the main subject matter you tackle as a relationship coach?
Most people come to me with issues around intimacy and communication, whether they’re looking for a partner or looking to create greater possibilities in their relationships with their current partner. Because I work with individuals, couples and groups, the topics can vary – a lot of the time with groups I discuss the things that affect intimacy, sexuality and healthy relationships. That said, many of the people who come talk to me aren’t happy in some way – they’re trying to find a partnership or relationship, but we end up talking about a lot of stuff that’s not necessarily just those broader things – we end up talking a lot about self-care, self-worth, and sometimes the creation of other possibilities to improve their lives and make them feel better about themselves. I’m willing to suggest resources for things outside of the relationships and dating realm, but that’s the main focus and what I’m known for.
What types of services do you offer?
I offer both one-on-one and group coaching in which people come to me with whatever issues or desires they have. I work hard to guide and support my clients in any way I can, including researching different ways to take care of themselves, like through exercise or nutrition for example. In that case I don’t personally craft the nutrition or exercise parts but I have a ton of resources and one of my favourite things to do is to create connections. I concentrate on the mindset, so the framing and reframing of whatever specific issue they want to work on, and then provide an actionable step to take.
Another thing I do is social skills feedback, so a sort of one-on-one date coaching. I used to work for a cognitive psychologist who focussed on first impressions management involving a framework of simulated dates and interactions. My role was primarily to mine the experience and dig in to come up with strategies to combat anxieties or other issues to help people relax, face challenges, or be more authentic in their interactions, and I use my experience doing that in my work now.
I’ve also got some weekend workshops launching soon, and a program called The Foundation.
Tell me more about The Foundation.
It’s a four-week online program for women that aims to literally build a foundation – just a good sense of who you are, what you like and how you can have healthy relationships. I feel a lot of us don’t really get a good education in a lot of areas, like sexual education. You’d be surprised how many people haven’t gotten any at all. The Foundation is a women’s workshop where we go through steps to understand self-worth, self-esteem, self-limiting belief, shame, boundaries, different relationship styles, sexuality, asking for what you want, and creating an implementation plan. There’s also Building the Foundation, a 21-day practice that includes an email subscription where I give tips and suggestions on how to build self-love.That’s actually something people will often ask me about; I think it’s something a lot of coaches, therapists or wellness people will encourage, like ‘you just have to love yourself and then everything will be great,’ but then people have trouble figuring out exactly what that is and how to do it; everyone has a different perception of it. I share small ways that you can take care of yourself every day and how to build self-esteem and self-worth, and I highlight the distinction I make between the two as well.
Can you explain that distinction?
Yes – it’s one of my favourite things. Self-esteem is something that’s changeable and a very important part of our self-construct. It’s when we admire something that we’ve done or achieved and hold it in high regard because it’s what we and the culture and people we surround ourselves with value. It can involve possessions, achievements, partners or experiences and has to do with a positive/negative feedback loop. That means if something changes about your state or opportunities, it can affect your self-esteem.
Self-worth is where you see yourself as a person of value regardless of any external factors. It’s the understanding that you’re worthy of being happy, being loved, feeling joy and having compassion for yourself no matter what situation you’re in. So there’s no outside achievement or social comparisons that can make you feel it. Something like ‘I’m doing better than this person’ doesn’t feed your self-worth.
Could you expand a little with an example?
Sure – you could start the day feeling amazing, say you have a great job or you feel like you look really good or you have the right kind of partner or you make a certain amount of money – all of those things sound great, right? But say something bumps up against you – like you feel bloated, or someone doesn’t acknowledge the work you did, or you don’t get a text message back immediately from somebody, or you mess up – any of those might have you feeling like crap.
It’s really important to acknowledge and feel good about the things that you achieve and the things that you have, but it’s not the whole thing because those things can be taken from you, they can go away. Say you’re an amazing, award-winning skier and it’s the best thing ever; it makes you feel strong and adventurous and dynamic. If you’re suddenly injured you may ask ‘now what’s my value?’ If you can’t do the exact same thing that gives you that esteem you can still have that self-worth and still be adventurous and strong.
When did you start coaching?
I started doing the date coaching and social skills coaching with the cognitive psychologist in 2008, and then I started my own practice in 2013.
How has business been since you launched?
I’ve seen the field of coaching grow a lot; it’s been interesting because of the range of people out there – some build themselves as this expert or that expert and they don’t necessarily have the education or have spent the time researching, but there are all kinds. I just hope that everybody is being professional and being safe. I think with coaching it’s most important to find somebody you connect with while still understanding what their background is and what they’ve studied. Not to sound negative or anything but it’s good to be cautious in a space that’s grown a lot like this, especially in the discussion around sexuality and the importance of really investing in it as an important part of your health. I think the industry will keep growing, especially as technology advances and people get more curious about all parts of the human experience.
Let’s circle back to your roots a bit; how did your upbringing make an impression on who you are?
My parents are both from Lithuania, which is now an independent country, but was formerly part of the Soviet Union. I was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Long Island. My parents immigrated here with my grandparents, who are both Holocaust survivors, shortly before I was born. They had to basically leave their passports at the border and just hope they made it – they were in refugee housing in Italy before coming here and had to really just build their whole lives from the ground up, including learning the language. I think they definitely protected me from some of the experiences they had but they also let me know that even though the world isn’t always a kind place, it’s a place that lets you invest in yourself and your dreams, and if you make the right steps then great things can happen. They really instilled in me a very strong sense of working hard and also just the absolute fortune to be alive, really.
And it seems that work ethic has translated to your current profession; how’d you first get started?
I have a background in communication, event planning, marketing, public relations and that kind of stuff; when I was in my early 20s and working in the film industry I actually answered an ad for something that looked like a kind of funny, wild job as an assistant to New York’s number one matchmaker. I started working for this upscale matchmaker facilitating luxury dates for celebrity clients. It was very high end, really expensive and just totally interesting – we had one client who was obsessed with Canadian women so we did bachelorette searches in Toronto and Montreal, which was a total trip. What was so fascinating about this job to me was that the people using the service were people who had everything you could imagine; they had the most insane life experiences, Ivy League educations, more degrees than a thermometer, incredible jobs, incredible wealth – just everything you could imagine, but they still couldn’t meet anybody! My boss at the time had people getting their teeth done or cutting their hair, losing weight or buying a new wardrobe – but I mean you can dress it up, but can’t necessarily take it out. You still have to deal with what’s going on inside, right? I developed really deep empathy for the clients and I really wanted to see how to help people really figure out how to connect to one and another. I got really interested in what was standing in the way; you’d think if you had all of those things you’d feel confident and good about yourself – so what was missing? It made me want to go back to school to explore the issues people have really finding love and happiness and connection.
So that’s what you did?
Yes. It encouraged me to go back to school and study psychology and sexuality and human behaviour. I have an M.A. in Psychology from the New School University and an M.P.H. in Sociomedical Sciences from Columbia University.
And did that help you figure out what was missing for people looking for a connection?
I honestly think it’s self-worth; I think it’s knowing you’re a person of value.
People can have a hard time asking for what they want in relationships; it’s tied up in a sense of being deserving and worthy. People want to feel worthy of being seen and getting what they want from a partner no matter what they’re going through. It can be hard to feel you have the right to ask for what you want, or to want more than what you’re getting from your partner. You could be in a relationship with somebody for 25 years and still have that, that’s the interesting thing; just understanding that you can speak up for yourself can really change your relationship, and sometimes it changes you right out of the relationship. When your partner sees you taking better care of yourself they may take better care of themselves and then you can take better care of each other. Distilling it to any essence really ends up as worthiness.
You said you used to work with people around first impressions. What are some of the most common challenges that occur on first dates?
I would say one of the most common mistakes is being so wrapped up in your own performance and the impression that you’re making that you behave in a way that makes it seem like you’re disregarding the other person’s experience. For instance, if somebody is really nervous about whether somebody else likes them, if they sound smart, if they sound charming, or if the person is having a good time, it can come off as kind of disconnected and cold. Having a running monologue in your head about everything you’re trying to share on a date can make you sound self-absorbed or like a real asshole. Usually the fact of the matter is that a person is just too stressed to really be in the moment and pay attention to what the other person is saying. People worry about how they’re being evaluated; my suggestion is always to check in with the other person and react to what they’re saying as opposed to trying to come up with a million things to say and share. There’s a place for that but trying to stay present is the most important.
How do you feel about online dating and apps?
Online dating is huge – I think about 40% of people use dating apps, and I’ve heard that a third of marriages are starting with online introductions. I think we’re still just in the beginning of seeing where it’s going to go though; technology has always influenced dating and relationships. That said, I think there are some trends that aren’t great, like ‘relationshopping,’ which is a term that I just learned – I actually find it depressing but also kind of funny. At a workshop I did the other night at a fitness studio we were talking about online dating, and I asked how many people were using apps and when they used them. Most said they used them when they were bored or doing five other things at once! I was like, ‘Dude! There are people with hopes and dreams on the other end of the app!’ I just feel like people are swiping mindlessly a lot of the time; I think a better practice would be to take time to engage, just sit and be a little more mindful. I suggest having a glass of wine or tea and really looking and not being so rapid-fire about it – otherwise it’s sort of weirdly dehumanizing, with quick jolts of satisfaction in accepting and rejecting people as avatars. We’re all still figuring out how to use technology responsibly, even with texting; it’s great because we can connect so quickly, but it’s just as easy to disengage. We’re seeing people be less accountable for their flakiness, or breaking up in weird ways like ghosting. People have always ghosted but it seems even harsher now because phones make people so connected and accessible – we can see what others are doing on social media all the time.
Online dating can be great in creating opportunities for people who don’t necessarily go out as often though. Whether that’s people who are maybe in their 50s or 60s who aren’t out at bars or parties all of the time, people with disabilities, sexual minorities or LGBTQIA people, or those in communities where it may be less safe to be physically out, or people who are just busy, it offers potential and we’re just beginning to see the reach.
And now let’s get into the midst of it - how do people learn to have healthy relationships?
I don’t think we’re really taught how to have healthy relationships; we gather information from the outside world, like learning from our caretakers – who do the best they can but they’re humans with their own issues – or from our friends, which can sometimes be like the blind leading the blind. Then there’s the media, which also can present a very specific view of relationships or types of relationships which are sometimes skewed towards things that are not necessarily great for all people. Knowing who you are, I would say, is the cornerstone of having a healthy relationship.
Basically I feel like people have to start by learning about how they feel about themselves, realizing what they bring to the table, and understanding that they’re lovable. A lot of people who I work with don’t really know what they bring. In looking for a harmonious and reciprocal relationship it’s really important to know that you’re half of it; it’s a huge part of evaluating whether or not your relationships are healthy.
What are some characteristics of healthy relationships?
Some of the features of healthy relationships include respect, communication, trust, honesty, compromise, individuality, ability to argue (and make up), and novelty. Healthy boundaries are another really important feature because of the complications and confusing parts of hormones, attraction and all of that stuff – it’s all really powerful and in play over everything, so knowing where your boundaries are or need to be is helpful. Understanding that other people have boundaries they would like respected helps you have sensitivity and perspective with them too.
On the flip side, unhealthy relationships can include manipulation, where you feel like you’re crazy or your needs are crazy. Some people are controlling, don’t offer constructive criticism, or use intimidation or threats to address issues with their partners. That’s where the component of knowing who you are is really important because if someone is making you feel like that but you truly know yourself it’s possibly the relationship that’s unhealthy and not you – there’s a distinction there.
What are some common myths you see around healthy relationships?
I think a big one is spontaneity; we think that relationships that are really great are going to be easy, and if you have to work on some stuff that means something is wrong. That’s total bullshit and something that doesn’t set people up for success. It’s like the fairytale endings in movies – people don’t necessarily write in the challenges there are to maintaining a connection. Part of it is building in that spontaneity, especially if you’ve been together for a long time. People have careers, they’re managing households and families, there’s a lot to life – you’re not necessarily always going to be able to all of a sudden jump into the bathroom and have a quickie or whatever it is. Building in that type of moment is important, but some people find shame around that; they’re like ‘oh why do we have to have a date night, that’s so lame.’ But you know what’s even lamer? Not ever connecting and not ever touching each other because you’re too cool to set up a date night – that’s pretty lame to me. I think people feel like they have license to give up or get lazy over time, but you actually have to turn towards each other and work on each other. I don’t even want to call it work, it’s more maintenance, like going to the gym; doing it once by accident it might feel good at the time but there’s something better about building in consistent practice. You have consistent practice around everything else, why not sex?
What do you recommend to people looking to keep the spark alive?
Novelty is one of the most important parts of keeping a long-term relationship exciting and fresh. It’s something that people haven’t really talked about in depth until quite recently actually; everybody always thinks of the growing closer and closer, and we also talk about maintaining some distance from each other in long-term relationships. People should be investing in their own growth as a way of investing in their relationships; in order to be interesting to one another, you have to stay interested and committed to your own loves. That means having experiences that are outside of the relationship so you can bring them back to one another. I’m not talking about sleeping with other people, although some people decide to do that and there is nothing wrong with that – I’m talking about staying interested in what you’re doing and bringing it back to your partner.
Sexuality can be a difficult topic for some people to discuss - how do you broach it?
A lot of people who come to me tell me they’ve been in therapy for x number of years or months but haven’t had the real opportunity to talk about sex. I think it’s so unfortunate that we don’t have a lot of places to talk about it and often have to rely on what I was talking about before – watching people, watching media, comparing ourselves to other people. That doesn’t necessarily allow us to ask the types of questions that we’d like to or get any answers. I really love to have people talk to me about what it is they’d like to explore and what it is they’re afraid of to try to release the shame around sexuality.
For instance, I recently worked with somebody who is trying to reconcile their ideas around casual sex. They were questioning their enjoyment of it and also their guilt about the desire for casual sex. To help figure out the distinction I asked if they felt guilty about having casual sex or if they felt like they should feel guilty, and we unpacked it from there. Sex is a social act. It can be personable, private, it can be a lot of things – but what we do and how we feel about it isn’t only influenced by our desires and what’s inside us, it’s affected by the impressions we get about what’s right, what’s wrong and what’s shameful – there’s so much of that. Around this very simple, extraordinarily pleasurable act there’s a need to break things down and really understand where those narratives come from. My thesis for my sexuality and health program was about the use of pleasure in sexual health intervention, so I’m very passionate about getting rid of the shame and the negative views on sexuality education.
How do you work with couples who are struggling with having sex regularly?
I’ve had some couples come to me and say all kinds of things: ‘our sex life isn’t good, it’s never been good, we don’t know what to do, we’ve tried this and that,’ but it usually ends up being a result of the story they have around sex, and the story they have around their potential as a couple to enjoy sex. I help them look at how their pasts have influenced their current sex life and a lot of times my job is just to give them permission to explore, to really let them know that it’s ok to say things out loud and then do something that could actually increase the pleasure in their lives.
Speaking of struggles - what challenges have you personally faced in starting your own business?
Being an entrepreneur is of course challenging; you have to be self-motivated. I approach a lot of people to collaborate or partner and there are times where I connect with somebody and I’m like ‘ok, this is going to be a great partnership, this is going to work out really well’ and then it just doesn’t end up being that – people aren’t always forthright or organized or commited or whatever it is. Finding the right communities and figuring out the best way to manage my time between marketing and the work is something that’s often difficult too. I’m running my own practice, doing hours of promotion and making sure I’m representing myself well online – that’s such a huge thing now – and trying to figure out the most time and cost effective ways to do it all.
In my field, which is one that can bring up a lot of issues for people looking to grow, you assume they come to you because they want to change. But a lot of the time people are going through something that I like to call the ‘self-improvement honeymoon phrase,’ where they’re leaning all this stuff about themselves and are all ‘oh this is so interesting, and this is a narrative I need to reconstruct, and I know this, and this is so great.’ Then all of a sudden they’re faced with doing the work – maybe they can’t speak to me for a while while they figure out how to do that. It’s all about patience for me then; I’m here to support the experience and to push them lovingly, but if somebody doesn’t show up to an appointment or doesn’t stay on their path, I have to let it go at a point. I’m very firm but kind.
I have to ask - do you consider yourself a romantic?
I definitely think that intimate relationships are a wonderful way to learn about humans in general; I want people to have satisfying relationships and I enjoy having satisfying relationships. I’m romantic in the way that I’ll never give up and I’ll never stop believing in love, but I don’t think that it comes by magic. I think there has to be belief, hope, effort and an understanding that it’s a dynamic process. I really truly believe that love is a verb; I don’t think it’s just a state, it’s something that you do.
What's next for you?
My goal is to make this year the year where healthy relationships are just as important as eating healthy and exercising. I want to make relationships accessible as an area of deeper enquiry for the average person while keeping it sexy and fun. I want to keep doing more of what I’ve been doing, and really help people realize that putting effort and attention and care toward intimate relationships and sexuality doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with those areas in your life, it just means that you’re creating potential for more, for a better life. I hope to meet many more people and help them find new and creative ways of doing that. I’m ready. I’m ready for it all!