TV

What Seven Year Switch can teach us about our relationships

They're everyday couples facing everyday issues, says show psychologist Jo Lamble.

Jo working with Kaitlyn and Michael.

If you’re like us and can’t get enough of reality TV shows about relationships then sit tight because hot on the heels of recently-wrapped Married At First Sight NZ comes Seven Year Switch, which starts tonight at 7.30pm on TVNZ 2.

Seven Year Switch takes four unhappy Australian couples and swaps the partners to match like-with-like personalities. The newly-paired couples are dispatched to one-bed apartments to live with one another for three weeks, in the hope that their new partner will mirror their behaviour back to them so they can see how their behaviour affects their actual relationship. The couples are supported by psychologists Jo Lamble and Peter Charleston, who provide counselling both on and off-air.

This is the show's second season and it's been widely criticised for exploiting unhappy couples. But that didn’t stop 500 couples from applying.

Jo Lamble, who admits she wouldn't do this if her relationship was in trouble - more on that later - believes that because millennials [people in their 20s and 30s] have grown up with reality TV this age group may be more comfortable with the idea of taking part in a relationship show like this, and making the most of the opportunities to receive counselling.

We talk to Lamble about what we can take from this season’s drama:

*Seven Year Switch* psychologist Jo Lamble
Seven Year Switch psychologist Jo Lamble

What is the reasoning behind the show's format - how does it help couples?

It’s very common for couples to have completely different personalities so when arguments start [occuring] people think ‘you should be more like me, why aren’t you more like me because I’m right and you’re wrong.’

The premise behind this is if you're put with someone who is more like you, it’s like looking in a mirror and seeing ‘actually what I do is quite annoying. I can now see what my partner’s talking about’. So that’s the idea, to try and hold up a mirror to some of your own behaviour, because often we can’t hear what our partner’s saying until we actually experience it.

*Seven Year Switch* psychologists Jo Lamble and Peter Charleston
Seven Year Switch psychologists Jo Lamble and Peter Charleston

What chance is there of the re-matched couples getting together?

I never thought that was going to be an issue and it hasn’t been because they find it really good at first - one of them even said 'you’re just me in a dress' - but because opposites attract, after a while they just feel like brother and sister or really good friends.

The one-bedroom situation is a challenge and a very hard one that I think at times distracts from what is really going on, which is trying to learn some strategies [to use in your relationship].

Jo working with Felicity (who's real-life partner is Michael) and Mark (who's real-life partner is Kaitlyn).
Jo working with Felicity (who's real-life partner is Michael) and Mark (who's real-life partner is Kaitlyn).

What do you expect the couples to learn from this social experiment?

With the two couples I worked with, I was teaching them how to have empathy and understand the other person’s point of view.

If you’re busy trying to get your point across instead of stopping to see how you can learn to understand where your partner’s coming from... as soon as they learn that skill it’s just magic.

Do the show's couples represent everyday couples and the types of issues we all face?

Yes, very much so. The main reason I did this show was to have the opportunity to address common issues which are:

  • a lack of empathy
  • not being able to communicate
  • not being able to listen
  • issues of control
  • issues of commitment and trust
  • financial issues
  • one being more serious and the other just wanting to have fun
  • extrovert and introvert (it's very rare to get two extroverts or two introverts and it's good to have that difference, you just need to learn how to manage it.)

Yet in everyday life, most of us wouldn't partner-swap to solve our issues...

Yes, stay in the same house - that’s what you should do. My advice is to see the change [in these couples] and there’s a couple of really clear examples in this series where you see the penny dropping and each going 'okay now I can really see my partner'.

I see it every day in my office, it's everywhere... everybody is busy banging on about their own side of the argument. It’s like staying in your own corner of the ring and never crossing over.

So just watch these couples and learn - there are some really powerful lessons.

Peter and Jo working with Kaitlyn and Mark.
Peter and Jo working with Kaitlyn and Mark.

What are the ingredients for a successful relationship?

You need chemistry and attraction and love, but the really important ones are having similar mindsets - sharing the same outlooks on life - and do you bring out the best in each other?

I don’t believe it’s two halves of one whole when you’re in a relationship - you’re two wholes - but you do want to be a better version of yourself. If you’re in a relationship that’s making you jealous or really lacking in confidence or more controlling or a nag, you need to look at this relationship.

And if you have the right ingredients, what do you need to do to keep your connection strong?

That’s where communication is so important. The trouble is most people think communication is just being able to talk, but some of the things you talk about can be very cruel and damaging.

It’s not just about talking - it's about having the skills to communicate, and communicating in non-verbal ways too. If you've got kids and if the kids are giving one parent a hard time it’s going and standing beside your partner and saying 'are you okay?' There’s lots of stuff that doesn’t involve words. You want to be each other’s number one fan.

What do couples most often fall out over?

Money is often a big issue but if you really understand where the other person is coming from together you can create a really healthy attitude towards money. The spender can be really helped by the saver and the spender can help the saver learn to loosen the purse strings a little bit.

Parenting is a huge one and it’s not parenting style, it’s the fact that parenting just puts so much stress on the relationship. When you have young kids this is a very common time for couples to break up because they’ve got no time for each other, they're just exhausted. So they’re not supporting each other and they start fighting or they avoid each other.

Parenting is wonderful obviously but its tough in those early years when you don’t have the resources to put into a relationship that does take work.

If you have one person who is not close to their family and the other is very family-oriented then hopefully that can work and the person who doesn’t have a close family is drawn to being part of their partner's family. But sometimes they don't feel this way.

It’s not about matching perfectly or having no differences - it's about how you handle those differences.

Would you do this if your relationship was in trouble?

I’m saying no because this is my gig - I am a psychologist who specialises in relationships and I always try to practise what I preach. When I’ve had hard times I’ve put the strategies I know in place.

The couples in this show are desperately wanting strategies and I think they’re incredibly brave to put themselves out there.