Valentine’s Day is just days away and there’s one ultrarunner I can turn to for advice. Elisabet Barnes pops on the screen and we skip past her two wins at the Marathon des Sables stage race, her races elsewhere in Morocco and Costa Rica, her earlier careers as a management consultant and running store co-owner, and her concurrent career as a run coach.
“There is something called the five love languages. It’s not particularly scientific, but it’s based on someone’s 30 years of seeing couples in therapy, and there are five ways of expressing and receiving love. I really encourage everyone to Google it and take the quiz, and do that with your partner. You might give her chocolates or roses for Valentine’s Day, but maybe she just wants you to empty the dishwasher,” Barnes said of her advice for this upcoming holiday that celebrates love. “Don’t assume you know and use it as an opportunity understand each other better.” My immediate thought is to do all of it–chocolate, roses, and empty the dishwasher–but days later I’m still wondering if that’s how it works.
Barnes, age 43, originally of Sweden and now living in Norway, started the program at Denmark’s Sexologiskolen, or sexology school, in March of 2020. She’ll be a certified sexologist in early April of 2021, and gain the same relationship therapy certification in the fall of 2021. Marriage counseling is a more well-known term in the U.S., as opposed to couples therapy, and Barnes picks at the label when asked. “Couples, well, it’s really relationship therapy. It doesn’t even have to be a couple; there are polyamorous relationships,” she explained. “Marriage therapy sounds quite conservative and with religious undertones,” and then she starts to describe the program in greater depth. “We work very much with the mind, problems that have their root in people’s minds. We do learn about anatomy and sexual dysfunctions, but we don’t fix those problems medically.” She gives an example of a common problem, and her solution, and we’ll skip to the solution here for brevity. “I could help him to better accept himself, normalize self esteem, and practice self acceptance. Women can have all sorts of problems and a doctor might write a prescription, but maybe there was some trauma in the past, something psychological. We learn one-on-one therapy and different therapeutic methods,” she described.
She dives into her motivations and goals. “I love to inspire people, like in running. I love to reach out and more broadly, educate and inspire. There’s so much shame surrounding sex,” Barnes said with a slight head shake. “We don’t talk about sex. There’s sex education and sometimes it’s good, but mostly it’s bad or nonexistent. What do women learn in sex education? That sex is dangerous, that you can get sexually transmitted infections, that there are unwanted pregnancies, and that if you like sex too much you’re…. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of people struggle. Sex should be something that we enjoy. Our sexuality is a big part of who we are.” I press Barnes on how technology has impacted sex and her work and she points to some good and some bad, and echoes her earlier theme. She laments that, “Boys don’t learn how to treat girls right. They don’t learn about female pleasure. Technology brings a lot of opportunities, and a downside to that is that everything’s so accessible.”
While Barnes continues to study, she’s charging a discounted rate and gaining clients largely through social media. Those social-media pages include a video series that typically posts on Tuesdays with Barnes often dressed like a professor. I ask if the glasses are just for the look, but she insists they’re real, though admitting, “I did buy the white lab coat for fun. It’s a fun look.” She’s split her Instagram accounts in two, one for her sex and relationship therapy business, and another for running and run coaching. “I lost a lot of followers [before the split],” she concedes. “Some things I’ve posted were just too much for some people, or they just weren’t comfortable with it. That’s okay, but sad and part of why this work is important. People reach out and say ‘thanks for doing this’ or come to me with some problem they’ve never talked about, and that feels good. It really is two different audiences and I find that fascinating. Just because you run doesn’t mean you can’t have sex.”
Both Barnes and her husband, Norwegian ultrarunner Sondre Amdahl, are on their second marriage and I ask if that experience is part of what makes her successful as a relationship therapist. She answers, “Personally, I think this is a profession where it helps to have a lot of life experience. I couldn’t possibly have done this in my twenties.” I don’t say it, but immediately think, I couldn’t have done this interview in my twenties either. Barnes explains more, “It’s all well and good having the tools and therapy techniques, but you need to be mature as a person, open-minded, and non-judgmental. The more life experience, the better.”
“We both had marriages end in divorce and so we’re really committed to making it work,” she said of herself and her husband. “We’re very good at communicating and investing time and energy into the relationship. So many are in relationships, maybe because of kids, or the marriage has become a business and they want to keep it going, but [a bad relationship] is not good for anyone. Maybe they don’t know what they could have, or change is very frightening, or their lives are so interwined. I think when a couple goes to therapy, the relationship has already been bad for six or seven years. Individuals change over time, and as we grow our sexuality changes. There are new preferences, new fantasies.”
Barnes follows a plant-based diet and says that she feels it helps sex. I ask how and she generalizes, “There’s more specific research needed, but it’s quite straightforward I think. We know that being plant-based is much more healthy for our hearts. Blood can circulate better. Having a healthy heart is important for sexual health. A plant-based diet is good for blood pressure. Sex is a physical activity, you put two and two together and it’s a conclusion. Anything that keeps you healthy is good for sexual health,” she explains.
Elisabet Barnes has a lot of great advice for this weekend and later, but if your Valentine’s Day doesn’t go well, she can help with that too.