I spent my childhood in a series of all-boys boarding schools in England. This was the way it had always been for men in my family; it was just part of who we were. My parents were kind but reserved – very English, and spending so much time away at school kept us from getting as close as we might otherwise have been.
The thing about these English boarding schools is that with no female energy around, you end up putting women on pedestals. We were given no formal sexual education except for some very basic anatomical stuff, but there was a lot of talk about how important it was to respect women. We read about love and were told that that was important, but respect and even reverence were even more central to relationships with women. Before I’d even kissed a woman, I had a complex about not offending or upsetting women.
I learned early on to walk on eggshells with other people. I was very good at reading them, and quickly changing my personality to try to accommodate them. I didn’t think of it as weakness or cowardice. For me, it was my job: a gentleman has an excellent filter, and a gentleman is malleable in order to make other people feel comfortable. For a while in my early 20s, when I was single, I got a little better at being honest – and then I met the woman who became my wife, and I slipped right back into my old programming.
Every time my wife was upset, I was upset. She was often upset about things that had nothing to do with me, things related to her work or her friends or her family or her childhood, but it didn’t matter. Whenever she wasn’t happy, I wanted desperately to fix whatever was causing her unhappiness. Whenever she felt like the whole world was against her, I had to be the one that was there by her side. It was my job to make everything okay. That was what I thought it meant to be a good man who respected women, but it was exhausting.
My marriage drained everything from me. I was working harder and harder to make my wife happy, and I was in a business situation that was increasingly complicated and tense. All I could think about was solving problems for other people so that they could be happy. If they were happy, I could breathe. If they weren’t, I got frantic, and worked harder to make it better. My world was getting smaller and smaller.
I used to read advice columns and women’s magazines, looking for ways to make my marriage better. That’s how I first learned about OM, in the UK edition of Cosmopolitan. The article was fascinating, and I made the decision to sign up right away. My motive was simple: this might help me relate better to my wife. This might be the thing that could make her happy and save our relationship.
When I first OMed, I was focused on doing everything right. I had paid close attention in the workshop, wanting to make sure that when I had my first OM, I didn’t do anything that might upset or turn off my strokee. My main focus was on being as calm as I could be. I had heard them call the place where an OM happened a “nest” – but for me, it was my job to be the nest that could make a woman feel safe. I was still trying to protect and serve and soothe.
When the OM began, though, something shifted for me. I looked down at this woman I was stroking, and she wasn’t a delicate frightened little bird. She responded to my touch not with irritation but with her whole self. I could feel something radiating out of her and into my finger and from my finger into my chest. And as I felt the heat in my torso, I realized that this experience wasn’t just for my strokee, and it wasn’t just for learning how to be better with my wife. This was for me too. What I get each time I OM since that first time is this sensation of landing in myself and my body. There's a hole that I had been trying desperately to fill by making others happy, and in OM, that hole fills up with...me. It starts with the first stroke, and it just continues to fill me.
Over time, I’ve learned to be present for whatever is happening with the woman I’m stroking. She might be impassive, or she might go wild. She might be quiet, or she might groan and moan. She might giggle. She might cry and be moving through grief. And the thing is, I’m there for those 15 minutes no matter what. Her feelings and experiences aren’t about me. I don’t need to fix her or fix anything to make something happen for her. I’m just present with her.
This might seem obvious to some, but to me it’s revolutionary. I always said I was taught to respect women, but I never gave them the agency they deserved. OM showed me that women are able to decide for themselves whether they want a situation or not. It’s not up to me to fix anything for them. I’ve come to see that’s a lot more respectful than the kind of frantic caretaking I was doing before.
One thing I started doing during some OMs is to stop stroking and hold my finger still for a while. It’s not about teasing – it’s about stopping to be aware of what’s happening. It’s about remembering that sometimes the right action is no action. I don’t know quite how I figured out how to do this, and why it worked so well for the strokees as well as for me. What I do know is that that deliberate pause has changed so many things for me.
My business has me working primarily with women. And sometimes, a woman will break down in my office during a meeting. The old me would have done anything to make her feel better. Now, though, I know to introduce that pause. She’ll say something like “I’m so sorry to be crying.” I’ll reply that it’s just something that happens and that I know she’s still present and capable, and we can wait a moment. Every time, she takes a breath and a pause and then we go back into what we were talking about.
OM brings me back to the basic truth of what I can and can’t do for others. That’s a remarkable gift.