I had the pleasure of speaking with my friend and colleague John Aiken, who is a Sydney clinical psychologist. John was recently the co-host of a hit ABC TV reality show called Making Couples Happy. He is also the co-author of the book Making Couples Happy: How science can help get relationships back on track.
I go behind the scenes of the TV show and the writing of the book in this interview to ask John about what it was like to be involved in this project and some of the relationship science behind the show.
Watch the video below of read the transcript underneath the video.
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Clinton Power: Hello, this is Clinton Power from AustraliaCounselling.Com.Au. It’s my great pleasure to be here today with John Aiken, who is a Sydney clinical psychologist and relationship expert with over 18 years experience, giving out practical advice to singles and couples. And I’m here to speak with John today because he was the host of a new ABC show which just finished “Making Couples Happy.” And in this series, he led a team of experts as they worked with four distressed couples and took them through a range of science-based relationship strategies to improve their overall levels of happiness.
So welcome, John. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
John Aiken: Good morning, Clinton, it’s great to be on with you again. You know, we had a great time with the show, you know, it was something that hadn’t been done before getting couples out there and on national TV airing essentially their issues and problems that they had for a long time and then giving them eight weeks trying a whole strategy at them to see if they could turn it around.
Clinton: So tell me, John, why did you want to get involved with this project?
John: Well, I think for me two reasons. The first is I like – I really enjoy doing media so the opportunity to host the show and to essentially get in front of the camera, I enjoy that part of this. But I think the other major reason for me was that I could make relationship therapy, relationship psychology accessible to the masses. So the people could go ways and, you know, we don’t have to have large, grand complicated techniques here to turn a relationship around and stick. You can do little things that in often that can have an impact and then by science, and so it was a good opportunity to put that message out there to the masses.
Clinton:That’s what I just love about this show and I know – so I just want to mention to those that are watching that this is John’s book called “Making Couples Happy” and a fantastic book which is based on the TV series, but what I love about your book, John, is that at the end of every chapter there are so many practical tips that couples can actually sit down together and go through.
John: Yeah. That’s kind of the way that I often write at the end of the day, I am very much about how-tos. You know, what are we going to do differently here to move it forward as opposed to dwelling a lot on the past and getting bogged down in “he said, she said.” And that’s another thing about the show, you really have an opportunity here to get these couples in an intensive program to teach them and obscure them and they sort of try strategies that were very practical.
Clinton: What were your expectations going into the show? Did you have any?
John: Well, I wasn’t sure whether we would get any couples to star us because it’s national TV and you’re not sure whether anyone is going to sign up for, so my expectation was that maybe we wouldn’t have a lot of couples. And also I wasn’t really sure whether they would be open and honest on the show because in front of cameras you tend to reign things in a little bit, so my expectation there was that maybe it would take in a while to warm up. But no, we have plenty of couples signing up for the show and we had a very open and frank and raw exchanges between the couples over the eight weeks which we captured on a whole lot of different cameras that were placed every week.
Clinton: That’s the feedback I’ve had from our people towards the show is they were just amazed of the honesty and the rawness that the couples took with each other, but I think it’s what made the show so compelling.
John: I think that’s what separates it from the other sort of, if you like, formulaic, orchestrated type of reality TV series where you go to beginning, middle and end and a bit of a reveal and some tears whereas what we had here was four couples, they want to turn their relationships around. Didn’t know how to do it. And then we go on board and went on this journey with them, not really sure about where to take us, and as we found out as it went along there were some secrets that came out. Other factors that we didn’t know about early on that started to rear up, and so it’s a very genuine type of documentary series. There’s nothing orchestrated about it and a lot of jeopardy. And so as the team of experts on board, we frankly didn’t know really what was going to happen to them either. Let alone the audience that was watching.
Clinton: So what kind of impact, John, do you think this has had on couples across Australia?
John: Well, it’s got them talking certainly and I’ve heard a lot of feedback from couples and I’ve been approached by various people. I was having a coffee the other day with my wife in a cafe and a stranger came to me and said, “You know what, I love the show. It’s got me talking about things, but I really didn’t want that couple such and such.” So it really opened up some of the communication lines between couples which are light, and I’m hoping that it made relationship psychology a little bit more accessible to people. A lot of the time, and I’m sure you find this as well, when you say to someone I work in the field of relationships they think, touchy-feely, light and fluffy, no real sort of hands-on and structure or anything like that. And I sort of cringe whereas what the show hopefully does for them is to say, “You know what, this is a good way of getting a hand along relationship issues in a very practical way.” And we can do it pretty much straight away by putting in place different types of tasks or different strategies. And so it sort of demystified it and that I was really happy about.
Clinton: Yeah, I think that I agree with you, John. That’s just a great outcome that if we can’t do anything towards lessening the stigma for couples that want to reach out and get help, I think that is a very positive thing. And I think that is slowly changing in the culture of Australia. Perhaps we’re not quite where North America is, or some of the other Western countries are, but I think the show is really helping that along.
John: Yeah, and a lot of people do go and get them – if they got money problems, they see their accountant and they got weight problems they see a nutritionist, but I just don’t generally think I’m going to see if I can work my relationship out by going and seeing someone who specializes in that area. They sort of think I don’t want to go there, whereas I think it really is very important. Particularly if you’ve been in a rut for a while with your partner, it’s very important avenue to consider because when you’re in it, trying to work through it yourselves is very difficult to do, you go and see someone who’s objective trained specializing the area, it really can bring about some large scale changes.
Clinton: So let’s talk a little bit about the book because I’m curious to know how did you decide which – what science to use? I mean, there’s so much research out there, there is so much science, how did you kind of make the decision about, okay, this is what we’re going to use with the couples?
John: Well, I’ve worked closely with a woman called Alison Leigh, who was the researcher involved in the book. Because we had a very tight timeline, a turnaround about a month to write the book following the show, and so she essentially and I worked together to try and figure out what research to put in there. And as you say, there’s lots of it which is a great thing. That’s another thing that couples do not realize is that they’ve been researching this area for a long time, and so there are things that are affected. So we thought, well, let’s look at research that will basically turn people onto the benefits of it, first and foremost, so the health benefits and what it can do for you as a couple and your well-being. And then through there, move it towards some of the more specific relationship techniques that had been proved to work whether it’s how you start up a conversation softly versus with the harsh tone or sometimes listening exercises, reminiscing. There’s all sorts of different research that you can tap into, so start it generally with the benefits of it all to the overall relationship, and then we go to research that was specific to particular parts of a relationship if you like. And for those that haven’t read the book, the book is broken up into four main areas talking, supporting, connecting and dreaming, and dreaming is all about creating a shared vision. And so we try to work the research in around those magic areas.
Clinton: Was it any particular intervention or kind of the science that you use that you still had more impact on the couples than perhaps others?
John: Wow, good question. I was amazed time and time again with how the research would play out with the couples. So, for instance, because you and I we work in private practice, we’re seeing couples all the time, but we don’t get to, if you like, put together a movie montage of their life over 20 years, surprise them in mini-theatre, play that, and also get feedback from their friends that would splice into that montage for 5 minutes and then watch them as they reminisce and tears start flowing down their face and they turn to each other and say, “You know, we’ve got something amazing here, we got to work on this, this is great.”
So what we’re able to do is we took this research and we really sort of elaborated on it in a TV-friendly way. And so I would say all the research, Clinton, really was able to show the benefits. One didn’t seem to stand out more than the other, it was that all of it when you put it into practice in a very TV-friendly way it really shone out. And that surprised me because you’re not just reminiscing a little bit, you’re doing it this way and watching the impact of it. So all the research, I think, and the strategies we used, it just amazed me because I’ve never done this before in this way. It’s just been me in an office working with couples.
Clinton: Yes, absolutely. And I think there’s so much creativity with what you could do, I mean, we can go through many of the interventions you use but a lot of them couldn’t do it in office but that has been amazing experience for you?
John: There was one way we had them on a trapeze to get them to experience that idea of new and exciting things together and how it can impact on you physiologically as well as in terms of your connection with your partner. We got them out shooting bow and arrows in the archery field. One group I criticized quite heavily than the other group, but I reinforced heavily and watched the difference between them and how they felt about each other. So this was one of the great things about the show is that you caught them, you can take it way out of the office into a really sort of exciting visual sorts of settings, to see how it impacts and it really does. These couples improved quite dramatically in terms of levels of happiness.
So it doesn’t mean that you’re going to do that to have success with couples because you can do things in an office around these various things so you can get to do homework that will allow them to experience these things. But in the show we’re able to do this on camera which was fantastic, in extreme settings.
Clinton: Yeah, and the thing I noticed, John, is that this seemed to be a common nominated amongst or the couples and there was that the more time they spent together the more fun they had. The more conversation or communication there was, there was this correlation with almost all of them improving throughout the series. How important do you see that is for couples to work on?
John: Well, look, I mean that’s – I think that’s number one. I find the couple sitting in front of me that say we really want to work on this, we want to save this relationship, turn it around, but we’re really only seeing each other for half an hour in the weekend, Saturday and Sunday. This is not going to work because they can’t practice anything that you’re teaching them like how you connect or talk or anything like that. So I think it begins with time together, and then from there the way they talk to each other is very interesting. And then from there, as they do that differently building in appreciation and getting them to work differently, say around the house and in different supported ways. They can build all in but I think that time together as you say is sort of what – that’s the cornerstone there. And all the couples in the show really didn’t spend any time together. And so they drifted apart and they had these different symptoms that were there for everyone to see. But as they started to prioritize each other, they really started to turn things around.
In saying that when they didn’t spend time together or they had a week or ten days where they really going off-track and this cools, their happiness scores would reflect that, they gone down dramatically. So it was interesting to see that clear connection between time together and talking and being supportive and how happy they were.
Clinton: And it seems to be like a modern disease that couples and individuals are so busy with their lives that it’s very common that couples drift apart, but even simple things like spending – I think in the book you’re talking about, just spending 30 minutes a day having quality conversation with your partner. I have to think some days that this doesn’t happen, and I think that’s the case for many.
John: Oh, yes. Yeah, that’s so true and I was always even talking to my wife about it the other – last night it was. And yeah, because often you came home from work and you want to just decompress, sit in front of the TV or hit the computer or go have a shower or whatever but you’re not having that 30-minute connection time. And it really means then you stop taking an interest in your partner, you don’t know what’s going on in the world, and you end up basically defining all about things from other people about your partner which is not a good thing. Or you just stop talking essentially and you end up sitting at opposite ends of the couch and just existing.
And one of the things we have in the show, we got them to do this pop quiz, we took them to a pub, divided them out, and said we’re going to ask you questions about your partner that you should know. Based along the lines of Gottman’s Love Maps. You know, what I’d asked them in, “Can you tell me what’s your wife’s favourite food?” They would confidently write down what it was and then hold up to sign and then you go to the partners and say what’s your favourite food and then they write it down, hold out the sign, it was different! And then it became quite clear that with the busy lives that we lead that we can lose that connection, stop that understanding of your partners inner world and when that happens, you start to lose your happiness and that connection.
Clinton: For me, I think that the most moving part of the series is certainly that the final episode and the rating of – I think you called them love letters to each other but they are really –
John: Love letters, yeah.
Clinton: The love letters, yeah. But that was certainly, I guess, not just speaking about love but also talking about the tough times and what they had been through and almost every couple had certainly experienced some kind of adversity or really difficult times and it starts to come out the other way. And there’s something about that just acknowledging your partner but also I thought in the way you did it was also in front of others a very much sensitive being witnessed in front of others that I wonder how powerful, do you think we made it as opposed to just if they have done that on their own?
John:I mean that was a very, very powerful part of the show because they’ve been some through so much together and now writing love letters, as you say, not only about how they want to go forward and how excited they are about the future but remembering old times reminiscing, and some of those times are very, very difficult. You know, one of the couples had nearly lost a child and died in childbirth, and so there are a lot of tears and a lot of real raw emotion. And doing it in front of everybody, it really – I mean, to me it’s sort of symbolic of how honest the whole show was and how honest these couples were going through the whole process because they became very close with each other. Because they came in with problems that are all working hard try and overcome them and to then do these love letters, if you like, in front of each other it really created a bond and a firm commitment. And when I was talking to one of the couples about, you know, why did you want to do the show and I said, “Well, I knew that we’re going on national TV, I was really committed to doing it. I wasn’t going to just lose interest and let it go”, and I think these love letters and reading them in front of everybody is a further commitment, publicly that I’m following here and actually doing some differently with my partner from here on in. So I think it had a great impact on more.
Clinton: And that would have been an amazing project to be involved and imagining how the whole crew associated with the project where they’re really excited and moved by the TV that you produced?
John: Yeah, it was certainly – you know, I’ve done some TV in the past but never anything so… I think it was intense, it was very raw and human. And the other thing that I really enjoyed about was that as a psychologist, I had a lot of input into how it was going to run. I worked closely with the director, Colita who was really very open to ideas because essentially they know how to do a TV show, but I know how to work with couples.
And so coming up with these ideas on how to show this technique in this sitting, we had to really work closely together and there were times when I said, no I think our couples should be doing that, we don’t want to be doing those sorts of things, and they were very good at listening in and adjusting and adapting which make then at the end of it all you’d become much closer than I think any normal TV show, crew would because you work so closely with them throughout. And so it was said to say goodbye to everyone at the end of it.
Clinton: I can imagine. And I think what I also appreciate about it, John, we just respect that he did show the couples, it would have been easy to become a sensationalist piece, so and they kind of really look for and create drama, but it’s sort of like the whole show was very respectful of the couples, of what they’ve been through. There was nothing sensationalist about it, and I can imagine that it’s been a life-changing experience would have been involved in that.
John: Yeah. I look and I appreciate that. I think one of the things when if you go on TV you sort of always in the front of your mind, you’re thinking I need to put out a credible, sensible message and not to exploit people. And I think being in an ABC show doing a documentary series rather than a reality show, and the two producers involved, re-write from the word go said we’re going to be very careful to make sure the integrity is there on the show. It meant that the couples were in safe hands and they didn’t do anything that they didn’t want to do. When the show was finished then we’re going to promote the show, they were very happy to get on board and do that. So and the book, that they’re very happy to be in the book so there’s a whole lot of, I think, good results from us, in terms of these couples and just feeling that they were heard that if you use the techniques and now they’re moving forward with them.
Clinton: Do you have any plans to stay in touch with the couples, going to check and see how they’re going in the coming months?
John: Well, look, I’ve seen one couple – because it was actually filmed a year ago so that’s – over that time we’ve caught up with them several times to make sure with follow up that they’re doing well. And that’s again a really strong indication of the production house and how seriously that they took it. They didn’t just put them on TV and then let them drift. So we’ve seen them maybe three or four times of the year. And just recently during the promotion work for the show and the book I caught with Laney and Darren, one of the couples on the show. They were really so much happier, they were loving it, and very, very – just very, very big advocates of the show and doing things differently and they were absolutely behind the idea of couple therapy. And the amazing thing is that they are pretty – he’s pretty old school, he’s a plumber, running a plumbing business, and then he’s the last person you think would be really on board with all this but he loved it.
Clinton: Right, well, that’s good to hear. Well, look, I certainly highly recommend John’s book, bright yellow cover you cannot miss it, “Making Couples Happy,” his co-writer is Alison Leigh. Where is it available, John?
John: I think you’ll find it in all the stores at the moment and –
Clinton: Through your website?
John: This has been going on, yeah, you can buy on the website too, www.JohnAiken.com.au. It certainly got plenty of exposure with the show and he’s hoping that as a result of this that more shows will be done with couples and more – it would be further pursued in the way that makes it less something that people cringe at and more people say that’s good for us, we would be going to an accountant with money problems. We need to sort our relationship out. And hopefully, there would be a real flow-on effect from this.
Clinton: I have to say, too, and you know for these couples they really have enjoyed the show and perhaps you want to do some of the work from the show and you’d like to check out John’s book because as I said there are lots of fantastic practical tips at the end of every chapter, exercises to do, and it’s going to really help to get relationship back on track.
So thank you for speaking with me today, John. I really appreciate you giving of your time.
John: My pleasure, Clinton, and I appreciate you’re getting on board behind both the book and the show because I think we do a very similar job, you and I, and it’s great to have that support from people out there in the field doing bright work like yourself, so thank you so much!
Clinton: My pleasure. Bye for now!
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