One thing we Brits have learned over the years is that it really doesn’t do to be airing our personal laundry in public. No matter what’s going on behind closed doors, we present an unflustered veneer to the outside world and plant a sign in the garden that reads: Nothing To See Here.
In relationships this is doubly true. An Englishman’s home is his castle, dammit, and regardless of the problems that might lie behind its portcullis, the façade is still an unmoving wall of brick and mortar through which no stranger should be allowed to penetrate.
Even when everything else is flaccid and unresponsive, a British chap – or chappess – must still be able to raise a stiffened lip in the adversity of popular perceptions about what it is and isn’t acceptable to share about one’s private life.
If that’s all true (and, for the most part convention, taboos and exceptions prove it still largely is) what must we buttoned-up Brits make of those free-thinking Americans and their outrageously liberal ways?
Only last week, Gwyneth Paltrow openly volunteered the fact she has an intimacy coach. You could almost hear the gasps of shock in the well-appointed chocolate boxes of the Home Counties as their occupants choked over a copy of the Daily Mail.
To add insult to injury, a furtive glance at the website of said coach – Michaela Boehm (go on, Google her – I know you’re dying to) – reveals that she’s also giving lessons in love to the ever-cool Will Smith.
(And before you get the wrong idea, I think we can safely assume this is the kind of coaching that’s done from the stands rather than on the field of play.)
Then, in a move that is liable to blow the minds of some Middle Englanders, Mr Smith and his wife Jada have only gone and shared all of their trials and tribulations on social media.
And you know what I say? I say hallelujah. I say well done Gwyneth, Will, Jada and anyone else who is brave enough to open up publicly and say, I’m having problems connecting with another human being and I’m getting some help to find a way through it.
Gwyneth and Will are well qualified to lead the charge on breaking the intimacy taboo.
Both have lived through broken marriages. Both have since remarried. Both have careers that, presumably, are the equivalent of Kryptonite in a relationship – regular and prolonged absences usually make the heart grow colder rather than fonder. Both are, outwardly, at least, self-assured, happy, seemingly content individuals without an obvious care in the world.
Both seem like the last people who could possibly need the services of an intimacy coach.
But that’s the point. Intimacy is a two-way street and it works only when both people in a relationship sign up to it. Sometimes, when you’re removed from intimacy for a period of time it’s hard to re-learn the dance when you’re thrown back together.
Perhaps the willingness of these actors to open up their personal lives so openly is an intuitive and natural response to a problem. These are people who count their fans as a family of sorts, and social media is increasingly becoming the confessional of choice for the celebrity set when it comes to emotional and mental health.
And, let’s face it, Americans famously love their therapy – so a predisposition to sharing a very personal struggle isn’t as alien over the pond as it still is here.
But Lord knows we could do with a bit of that on our small island where the concept of keeping it real is still seen as bewilderingly inappropriate.
As a race, we don’t often get to have this type of access to such openness from a couple who are willing to share so openly about their difficulties and how they get through it, but we need these positive role models who are prepared to talk publicly about relationships.
They are far and few between and while we look on open-mouthed at the brazenness of it all, the wreckage of failed relationships that crashed for want of a conversation gets strewn across life’s highway.
Here’s the problem with that stiff upper lip: it’s formed in schools where, as children, we aren’t taught to have successful relationships.
It’s formed from in an upbringing where the very notion that parents might share their problems with or in front of the children is positively scowled upon.
It’s formed in formative years that are geared to hiding any sense of inadequacy or dissatisfaction in life because, well, there are children starving in Africa and we need to be a bit more bloody grateful for our lives, thank you very much.
The art of communication, the art of intimacy. They’re two sides of the same coin and here in Britain we’re often just bloody rubbish at both things. And we mask our shortcomings by pretending that what’s abnormal is normal.
Being unhappy is exhausting, but we struggle on because that’s what society has always shown us we should do. I think it’s time we stopped struggling and started asking for the kind of help that Will and Gwyneth are already getting.
Because maybe – just maybe – they’re onto something by getting some support from a professional when it comes to intimacy.
I recently read in a couple’s forum that we are not meant to do this alone. That we can become isolated in our culture and that it’s vital to get outside input and guidance that supports couples who want to stay together but just haven’t got the skills to navigate the conflict or distance that’s between them.
Hollywood is 5,437 miles from London. But Will Smith and Gwyneth Paltrow are light years ahead of us when it comes to emotional intelligence.