How do you counsel a relationship

"Seeing couples in deep crises often hurts myself": Couple researcher Guy Bodenmann explains how the corona pandemic affects relationships

His research field includes love, sexuality, stress, separation and reconciliation: the Zurich psychology professor Guy Bodenmann explores the secrets of happy couples. He reveals some of them in his new book.

The Parisian psychotherapist Philippe Dayan receives five patients every week in the successful TV series “En thérapie”. Among them are Léonora and Damien. Their relationship has lost the sheen of happy days. They dump their frustration on the therapist's sofa, they quarrel and heap reproaches on each other. The tragedy takes its course week after week.

Resistant couples

The television series seems to portray reality quite well. Guy Bodenmann, professor at the Psychological Institute at the University of Zurich, tells stories similar to those of Léonora and Damien. They are stories of couples who have drifted apart but still want to stay together. Or of couples in whom one of the two has become unfaithful and who now do not know whether there is a future together for them.

Bodenmann has been researching couples and families for 25 years. His focus is on how stress affects couple relationships. In addition to his research and teaching activities, he always kept one foot in the field. Among other things, he developed a scientifically based course program called “Paarlife”, the findings of which flow back into research. With the «Paarlife» courses, couples can learn to become crisis-resistant.

Resistance to crises has been in great demand since the beginning of the corona pandemic: Couples spent much more time together than usual due to the home office obligation, which was terrible for some, but wonderful for others. Guy Bodenmann's team at the Psychological Institute took part in an international study that examined how the stress caused by the Corona crisis affected satisfaction in partnerships.

Breakups with a delay

The results of the study, in which 27 countries participated, are now available. They weren't a big surprise for Bodenmann. “Most of the couples coped with this difficult time well,” he says. “The couples who were already happy stayed or became even happier. The majority of the unhappy couples remained unhappy. However, some came closer again through the crisis. "

The number of separations has not increased significantly so far, as Bodenmann assumes. However, he points out that there could be a delay effect. The financial crisis of 2008 did not immediately lead to an increase in the divorce rate. It was only in 2010 that this peaked in Switzerland. The delay effect would therefore mean: "During the crisis you stick together, and when the recovery is there, the risk of separation increases."

Just talking a lot doesn't help

In order to stay in practice, Guy Bodenmann continues to conduct couples counseling himself. When he begins to talk about this work with patients, you can feel how much they fascinate him.

“It's extremely exciting to see how couples cope with stress together,” he says. Various skills are crucial for coping well with stress. "One of the keys is the ability to listen." Correct listening has to be learned, as Bodenmann explains: “Unhappy couples talk a lot and listen little. The support they offer one another does not fit because they have not properly listened to each other. In the end, both of them are frustrated. "

For example, if the man only replies to the woman's worries with waving off and says that everything is not that bad, the woman does not feel that she is being taken seriously. Bodenmann states: "In this case women tend to confide their grief to their best friend instead of the partner." Communication with the partner comes to a standstill and the basis of the relationship begins to shake.

Setting an «inner anchor»

With love and relationships, Bodenmann devotes himself to popular topics that also take up a lot of space in booklets and talk shows. As a university professor and scientist, has he decided to walk a tightrope? “Yes, without strong scientific publications and solid research funding that would be risky,” he replies. He can afford it; his research work enjoys a high international reputation.

He shows that he thinks it is important not to leave the field to influencers, who often give personal advice. It is important to him to make scientifically sound knowledge widely accessible. He sees his new book, in which he deals with so-called commitment, as an example of this. By commitment he means the full willingness to get involved in the partnership, to cultivate it and to get involved with the other in the long term.

This "inner anchor", as Bodenmann calls it, gives couples the strength to persevere, even if the relationship is put to the test by an illness, financial difficulties or an affair. Concrete examples from his therapy work flow into the book, which show how easily happiness can turn into despair. "Seeing couples in deep crises often hurts me," says Bodenmann.

Happy divorced couples

In his research, he repeatedly comes across new findings that astonish him: "I find the fact that a quarter of the couples who get divorced are actually happy is remarkable." Research had not had this group on the radar for decades. “These couples are mostly middle-aged. You sit in front of me satisfied during therapy, you have nice relationships with each other, and yet you can feel alienation. You ask yourself: Was that it now? "

Sometimes, but not always, external relationships are involved. In any case, says Bodenmann, this is the moment when commitment is called into question. Here it is worthwhile to take a closer look and without time pressure to find out which scenario is better: to invest in the existing relationship and improve it or to split up and look for something new.

Does Guy Bodenmann constantly analyze his own relationship? It would be possible, especially since his wife is also a psychotherapist and lecturer at the University of Zurich. "Perhaps we exchange ideas more than other couples," says the 58-year-old father of three. "We inspire each other through our common area of ​​expertise." Nevertheless, he would not claim that he was completely immune to crises as a result. "But knowledge certainly helps to maneuver less into difficult situations."

Guy Bodenmann: To love with all my heart: Commitment - how your relationship stays happy in the long term. Patmos, 2021. 208 pp., Approx. CHF 29.90.