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Husband-and-Wife Podcasters Offer 'Couples Therapy in Seven Words'

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Bruce Chalmer and Judy Alexander - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Bruce Chalmer and Judy Alexander

I was having an upbeat day overall, happy with the state of romance in the world, when Bob Epstein lowered the boom. "If you look at relationships, very, very few of them, percentage-wise, work over a long period of time," the retired teacher and certified life coach told me over the phone. "We always hear that number tossed out: 50 percent of marriages end in failure," he continued. "Yeah, well, out of the other 50 percent, how many of those are actually happy marriages?"

While the sound that came out of my mouth was something akin to "Hmm, interesting," what actually ran through my brain was: All love fades, and we're all going to die alone.

Before I could reach for the whiskey and put on a Leonard Cohen record, Epstein clarified that he wasn't trying to bring me down. Rather, he wanted to highlight the importance of resources such as the "Couples Therapy in Seven Words" podcast, on which he and his wife were guests in 2020.

Hosted by South Burlington couple Bruce Chalmer and Judy Alexander, the podcast grapples with some of the thorniest issues facing people in the eternal quest to find and maintain love. Whether Chalmer and Alexander are talking with Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine and his wife about love in the time of COVID-19 or quizzing a psychologist and fourth-degree karate black belt on using self-defense to combat trauma, they bring everything back to their "seven words": Be kind, don't panic and have faith.

A couples therapist for almost 30 years, Chalmer, 70, had a book published in 2020 called Reigniting the Spark: Why Stable Relationships Lose Intimacy and How to Get It Back. That became the seed of the podcast.

"I had been doing some videos by myself, just stuff to promote the ideas I was getting ready to put out in my book," Chalmer explained, seated beside Alexander, 64, on their couch. "And I thought about how good she is at being on camera and how she has this voice that I fell in love with."

Alexander is an educator and former director of education at Temple Sinai in South Burlington. Chalmer hoped that her experience, coupled with their natural chemistry from 18 years of marriage, would help balance out his more clinical nature. They gave the podcast a go.

Alexander smiled at her husband as he praised her voice. Their casual affection is evident in the video versions of the podcasts, posted to their website.

"The podcast reflects our relationship in some ways," Alexander said. "And, you know, we're not world-renowned or famous people."

Their listener count has been increasing, though, she said, "and I think that's both because of Bruce's expertise and because I've had so much experience with relationships, especially those involving children and family dynamics."

The podcast's early episodes focused on chapters of Chalmer's book. Topics included balancing stability with intimacy and navigating political divides in a marriage. For the fifth episode, Chalmer and Alexander brought on their first guest, self-described "Orthodox sex guru" Bat Sheva Marcus, and the podcast found its final form.

"That's definitely one of our most downloaded episodes," Chalmer said, grinning beneath a snow-white goatee.

"Well, sex always grabs the attention," Alexander added with a smirk. "But I also think people liked hearing us interact with other experts."

Indeed, Chalmer and Alexander thrive when paired with friends, with fellow clinicians and experts, and even with strangers. The couple uses a service called PodMatch to connect them with ideal guests.

They didn't need any help booking Bob and Susan Epstein, both retired teachers and certified life coaches, for episode 11. Susan grew up with Alexander and stayed close to her over the years; the couples often have dinner together.

Nonetheless, Susan admitted, when her old friends asked her and her husband to come on the podcast, she was nervous. "You don't want to say something weird or sound silly," she recalled by phone.

"But they make you feel so comfortable," she continued. "They don't go over what they're going to talk about at all. They just start talking to you — which is great, because everything is spontaneous."

The expertise Chalmer and Alexander bring to their podcast is undeniable, Susan said, but she believes that their chemistry is what makes it great listening.

"There's a Jewish word called bashert, which means 'meant to be,'" she said. "And that's them. They have such a wonderful marriage, but they also have experience and wisdom. They're not kids talking about relationships; they're people who work in the field but are open to new things and perspectives."

Recalling Bob's statistics on divorce, I asked the Epsteins whether a podcast such as "Couples Therapy in Seven Words" could help restore faith in romance.

Perhaps sensing my need for hope in the face of modern love's travails, Bob laughed. "I don't think that's necessarily what Bruce and Judy are trying to do," he said. "They want to get couples talking — being proactive rather than reactive."

To illustrate those proactive tactics, Susan recalled a segment that she asked Chalmer to edit out of her and Bob's episode. Bob had revealed that, at the height of the pandemic, he and Susan sometimes tried to keep things exciting on the home front by spending a night in another room of their house. They called it "going to the hotel room."

"When he said that, I went, 'Oh, God, Bob! My mother is going to hear this!'" Susan said.

Embarrassed, she pleaded with Chalmer to cut the exchange. Chalmer politely pushed back, saying it was his favorite part of the interview.

"He loved that it showed us as an older couple still having an active sex life," she said. "And he was right!"

I asked Chalmer whether he thought the podcast could help a couple reignite their relationship.

Chalmer said it's about more than that. In his private therapy practice, he never defines success simply as a couple staying together. Instead, he tries to help them absorb those seven words from his book and podcast — especially the part about having faith.

The faith component has confused some would-be listeners. Some mistake it for a religious declaration, Chalmer explained, but his intent with the word is more nuanced.

"I'm not a theologian," he said. "But I define having faith as when you accept that reality is right to be what it is. It's not the same as saying everything happens for a reason, which is a statement that tends to make me nauseated ... This God has a plan thing. [That's] very simplistic, and we're not trying to be simplistic."

For Chalmer, faith doesn't necessarily involve a higher power; it's the belief that lovers need to have in each other, even when times are tough.

He suggests that couples approach their problems "from the orientation that the universe is fundamentally good. If a partner hurts the other, they have to acknowledge that and discover the things that lead to that pain. That's having faith in each other. And you acquire it by practicing it with each other."

Alexander patted her husband's arm, a knowing gleam in her eye. Chalmer grinned and shook his head.

"See?" he said. "This is why she's the perfect cohost: She knows when I'm on a rant."

"It's about checking each other," Alexander replied diplomatically. "That's why I said the podcast reflects us rather than affects us."

The two exchanged meaningful glances, appearing momentarily to forget about the nosy reporter and indulge in the silent communication that longtime lovers develop.

Thinking about those divorce rates again, I recalled an episode of "Couples Therapy" in which Chalmer and Alexander role-played. To illustrate the concept of being honest with your partner, they playacted the biblical couple Abraham and Sarah, depicting them as older but still sexually active.

Something tells me these kids are going to make it. With the help of their podcast and those seven words, maybe a few more of us will, too.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Power of Two"