Reality TV is often known for layers of veneer, drama and shock value. So, it's somewhat unsurprising that Marryam Chehelnabi didn't immediately sign up for Couples Therapy Australia — a docu-series style reality show following three couples and their weekly therapy sessions.
The Sydney-based registered clinical psychotherapist says she "took a few months" to consider whether she'd agree to be on the program based on the US version of the same name. She'd be required to work with each couple to help develop their communication skills, better understand their dynamics and identify the strengths and weekness that exist within their relationships.
As rewarding as the work is, she admits that she initially "had misconceptions" about the show's true intentions. How do you ensure that the portrayal of people's intimate relationship issues will be authentic, respectful and not merely a ratings ploy?
"When Warner Bros. first approached me, it took a few months to explore the layers of ethical and professional complexity with the production team before I was confident that we could establish the necessary elements required for a safe, therapeutic frame," she tells Refinery29 Australia.
After in-depth conversations with producers and watching relationship expert Dr Orna Guralnik's approach in the American series, she agreed to join the show not to only help these everyday Aussies, but to educate the masses about the importance of speaking up when you need help.
"Being part of a wider conversation about reducing the stigma associated with Australians seeking professional help is aligned with my own purpose and values," she explains, adding that a big takeaway for audiences will be realising that if they hit a wall in their relationship, chances are someone else has been in their shoes.
"You're not alone in your challenges and struggles," she says. "We all have them; relationships can be tricky and getting help is OK."
Filmed in an office that was custom built for the production, Couples Therapy strives to provide a therapeutic space for the couples that's as realistic as possible. Production elements are invisible so they can dive into deep conversations.
But it's understandable for us as viewers to watch TV shows like this with a lens of scepticism, especially after many shows about dating and relationships focus on helicopter dates, handing out roses, or strangers acting on their raging hormones in a beachside villa (yes, I'm looking at you Love Island).
But Chehelnabi wants audiences to harness empathy rather than judgement. We'll see couples navigating resentment, conflict and a lack of trust that may have built up over the years. There could be a breakthrough, or they could face the hard prospect of being told by a third party that they need to end things.
"I was so impressed with each couple's bravery and vulnerability. It takes enormous courage to come to couples therapy at all, let alone have a go in a documentary," she says.
"Their willingness to share themselves in this way to help other couples who may be experiencing similar issues is admirable – but suspending judgement can be tricky, especially when we see someone on TV!
"Although I think viewers will see the couples engaged in real therapy and will respect that, perspective-taking is one way we can move toward genuine empathy."
"You're not alone in your challenges and struggles. We all have them; relationships can be tricky and getting help is OK."
PSYCHOTHERAPIST Marryam Chehelnabi
Over her 15-year career, Chehelnabi has worked with individuals, couples and groups and says that there are often some common themes she sees while in session with couples.
"I’ve found that there are common challenges within all relationships relating to sex, parenting, connection, money, trust, commitment, extended family dynamics, dreams, and life goals. In my experience, the common thread is how these issues are dealt with (the process) — and not necessarily what happened (the content)," she says.
"Couples get stuck in arguing about content — the details and facts relating to what happened versus expressing feelings and needs. Underneath the details, the need to be 'right' or win an argument is a deeper reality: relationships tend to break down because we feel alone in our experience and there’s been no repair."
Chehelnabi explains we all feel an inherent need to be understood, we yearn for someone who truly "gets us". Couples therapy aims to explore the system and not the individual.
"This 'system' is alive, and we call it a relationship — each person is continually co-creating the relationship and is affected by the 'otherness' (our differences) in an interpersonal dance. If we each take care to contribute well and move with the other, we can dance in step together in a cohesive and harmonious connection," says Chehelnabi.
"In therapy, we begin to explore whether we are conscious of our personal 'dance steps' (contributions and relational dynamics), or project unconscious material onto our partner.
"It depends on whether we nurture a culture of mutual respect, even when we’re angry and hurt, or whether we’re willing to damage our relationship when we feel strong emotions.
"Whether we tend to flood during difficult conversations, coding the interaction as a threat, and fall into maladaptive coping strategies like criticism, contempt, blame or withdrawal, or find adaptive ways to cope — down-regulate, self-soothe, use a soft tone, de-escalate, attune, validate, empathise, take responsibility, and express needs and feelings."
It's the management of relationship challenges and conflicts, along with building upon their strengths, that forms a "big ask and usually the primary focus" of the therapy, though Chehelnabi says "sometimes there are past betrayals to process first."
We'll see varied experiences and issues brought to the forefront as three couples from very different walks of life step into Chehelnabi's office. It's an opportunity for viewers to listen, learn and feel less alone.
"The show gives a lovely cross-section of the type of issues we all face in relationships so hopefully, Aussies will relate, empathise, and find the series helpful in some small way."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Couples Therapy Australia is now available to stream on Paramount+.