Amanda Cox, therapist on Couples Therapy NZ, talks to Alex Casey about helping New Zealand couples through their private issues on the most public platform of all.
Parrish looks exhausted. Reflecting on living with chronic pain, depression and anxiety, he puts both hands behind his head in a moment of literal and metaphorical surrender. “Everything you’ve worked for has been taken away, and you don’t have the energy to get it back, and everyone is waiting on you to help” he says, wiping a tear from his cheek.
Across the cosy peach-toned room, psychotherapist Amanda Cox softly responds. “You felt like you were letting everyone down?” Parrish nods through tears. “What a horrible place to be.”
Write down any interaction from Couples Therapy NZ and almost all of them will leave you collapsing in a puddle. Three’s latest reality offering is a fly-on-the-wall docuseries following a number of real New Zealand couples as they undergo work through their real, everyday issues with real, everyday psychotherapist Amanda Cox. These are romantic relationships like reality television has never seen before – no comedy pairings, no wry voiceover, no degrading challenges, no manipulative music, no “frankenbiting” – just… real.
For Cox, it was the opportunity to show authenticity and plain old ordinariness that drew her to first be involved in the project. She admits she’s had “sprinkles” of media offers in the past (Married at First Sight NZ being one of them) but has never entertained any of them before Couples Therapy came alone. “This felt different, and I thought it was a real privilege to be involved because of the value that it could bring,” she explains over Zoom. “There is so much that we have in common as couples, and yet nobody talks about it.”
But, despite having over two decades of professional experience in psychotherapy, Cox had never had to work in a therapy room quite like this before. “It was a new way of doing it,” she laughs. “The camera operators were on dollies behind the wall of the set and would have to run up and down filming us.” But within the walls of Cox’s “office”, she says it was barely different to any other therapy session. Participants would be mic’d up before the session and, once they got started, there was no stopping or interruption for the full hour.
“I only heard the odd squeak or cough outside. But other than that, nothing else,” says Cox.
Even within the first episode, the issues explored in Couples Therapy are hugely varied. There’s the tension around domestic labour, waning sex lives, religious differences and porn addiction. There’s historic trauma, chronic illness, communication issues and mental health struggles. Compared to the likes of Married at First Sight, where a couple who met just three weeks ago will have a screaming match about an open cupboard door, these conversations feel much more nuanced, gentle and measured, even though the stakes are so much higher.
“It’s not about ‘here’s the baddie, here’s the goodie’,” says Cox. “It’s about exploring the issue rather than judging it.” Compared to other representations of therapy on television, she says Couples Therapy is about as realistic as it gets (she does mention In Treatment as the most accurate fictionalised version). “The reality of therapy is that there’s a lot of not getting it right,” she explains. “There’s more of a negotiation at play, rather than those amazing lightbulb moment interpretations in the first session. It’s very rarely like that.”
Each couple in the series met Cox on the first day of filming, and would go on to have 10 sessions with her on camera. She wasn’t directly involved in the casting or planning the duty of care with production, but would advise when she thought participants were in need of further counselling. Vicki Keogh, Senior Director of Production at Warner Bros. Discovery ANZ, told The Spinoff that the network was “acutely aware” of the sensitive issues covered and that “duty of care to our couples before, during and after the production of Couples Therapy New Zealand has always been our top priority.”
Given the groundbreaking nature of the show, Keogh says that the sensitivity of the subject matter and the welfare of participants was considered at all times. This included the employment of independent mental health practitioners to work with participants throughout the production process until the series has been broadcast (and beyond, as needed). Where advised, discussions were had with certain participants about the content that might appear in the series, and Cox viewed all the episodes in advance to confirm their accuracy.
Watching the series back, Cox says she was both “relieved and excited” to see the amount of care contained within the show. “So many people have put so much work into it, and there’s a real culture of respect and honesty, which is something that’s lacking out there,” she says. “If I can take myself out of it, I love watching it. It’s really tender, and it’s really moving.” Her hope is that New Zealanders watching at home may realise that our private lives might have more in common than we think, and that “everyone has their struggles.”
And while the high fees and long waitlists keep therapy out of reach for many, Cox believes the series provides a useful starting point. “Knowing yourself, knowing what you are like and knowing the impact that you have on your partner is the goal here,” she says. “There’s various tools in there that I hope people can listen out for, and maybe even try out themselves.” Above all else, she hopes Couples Therapy fosters a little bit more honesty and understanding, and reminds people that sometimes the best thing to do is “shut up and listen”.
“That’s the gift that these couples are giving everybody, I hope.”
Couples Therapy NZ airs tonight on Three at 8.30pm with the full series available to watch on ThreeNow.