Seven Year Switch
First published on dailymail.co.uk on 5th March 2018.
Frankly, it sounds like the perfect tonic for many long-suffering couples. Your relationship is in crisis, bogged down by work, kids and wall-to-wall responsibility. Communication has dwindled to the bare minimum. You can’t remember why you married your partner in the first place.
So, what would fix things? A holiday, of course, and a free holiday, to boot, in a luxurious villa in Thailand — with the only stipulation being that the kids must stay at home.
Little wonder that 26-year-old Rachel, the frazzled mum of a two-year-old daughter, readily agreed to sign up to this sort of couples’ counselling project.
‘I sold it to her on the free holiday,’ admits Tom, her partner, with a little laugh. ‘I’m not sure she would have been too ready to agree otherwise.’
Rachel knew from the start that there were catches: the holiday wouldn’t be all sun loungers and cocktails on the beach. She and Tom would have to commit to intensive counselling aimed at saving their relationship from complete collapse. And their experiences in Thailand would be filmed for a TV documentary
What Tom didn’t realise when he broke the news, however, was that even he didn’t have the full story.
Just before they were due to fly out, the production company dropped in another little detail: while they would both be going to Thailand, they would not be holidaying together.
Instead, they’d each be sharing a luxury villa — with only the one bed — with a complete stranger.
It’s fair to say they were both astounded. As were their friends when they still agreed to go.
‘There was a pretty common reaction of “You are doing what?” ’ admits Tom. ‘It’s pretty out there in terms of things you might do to save your relationship.’
It certainly is. This is perhaps the most audacious telly wife swap of all.
Seven Year Switch, which starts on Channel 4 tonight, sees four couples — all of whom admit that their marriages and relationships are in crisis — travel to Thailand to be paired up with other partners.
The rules are simple. For two weeks, they must live as man and wife, but how they interpret this is up to them. They must decide between them whether one person gets the solitary double bed, or whether they share.
Cheeky Channel 4 didn’t actually tell the couples that there was only one bed, leaving them to discover that for themselves on arrival.
Predictably, the news doesn’t go down well. One of the participants blows his top and threatens to leave (‘You might as well stop filming now,’ fumes Tony from Essex. ‘I’ll pay for my own flight home!’).
Another pair have a showdown over how close they should get to their new partners.
‘You can’t be naked around her,’ insists a feisty young lady called Michelle to her husband. ‘And if your hands go on her bottom, you won’t have hands.’
Since this lot all seem to be half way down the route to divorce already, will Channel 4 simply be helping them along?
Certainly, some of the relationships seem at the already-in-ruins stage of collapse. Some (whisper it) barely seem worth saving. Hairdresser Tony, 29, has been with his partner Gemma, 28, for 13 years. They were childhood sweethearts.
They have two children, aged seven and two, and were meant to be getting married this year, until Tony got cold feet.
He’s moved back in with his mum and Gemma is just getting on with looking after the kids until he decides what he wants.
So far, he only knows that this will involve ‘being himself’.
Then there are Nikki and Simon, who live in Bristol and are both 36. Married for five years, they also have young children, aged four and two, and their marriage hasn’t adapted well to parenthood.
Nikki blames the aftermath of her post-natal depression for putting huge strain on their relationship. Simon’s way of dealing with her stressing over everyday decisions is to tell her not to.
The communication between them is worryingly lacking. ‘I worry that we can’t fix this,’ he says, as they pack for their make-or-break trip. The rules for this show are deliberately vague. The couples must all commit to counselling sessions, aimed at finding out exactly what is happening at home and how happy they are. They must have fun with their ‘new partner’, too.
Then, at the end of the two weeks, they must go home and decide if they want to return to their original partners or end the relationship.
We’ve been given access to the first episode of this jaw-dropping series. On paper, it sounds madcap — dangerous, even, like a recipe for instant divorce.
While the format is already a huge hit in Australia and the U.S., understandably there are concerns that it is simply a tawdry vehicle for Big Brother-style voyeurism into people’s troubled marriages.
Yet the team behind the programme insists there is method in the madness; that it is not only a fascinating sociological experiment, but that couples can achieve meaningful results.
‘Yes, we could send couples away together and give them intensive counselling, but what we wanted to do was to take them out of their comfort zone and the destructive cycles they were in,’ explains Lee Valls, the relationship counsellor who got to pack his bags and go to Thailand, too.
‘We were very careful about who we paired each person with. The idea was that it would be someone who was very different from their own partner. There was a bit of compare and contrast going on.’
The team behind the programme, including life coach Vena, insists there is method in the madness; that it is not only a fascinating sociological experiment, but that couples can achieve meaningful results
Rachel and Tom agreed to talk to us about why they signed up and are astonishingly candid about their own relationship woes.
The pair got together just three years ago and, within a few months of dating, discovered they were expecting a baby.
The massive shift in their once-carefree relationship has caused huge problems. Rachel, who was working in retail as a manager and had lofty career ambitions, found herself at home with their daughter, Hattie. Tom, meanwhile, was working behind a bar.
Suddenly, money was tight, their surroundings were unfamiliar (they moved from Leicester to York) and, at the time filming started, the fault-lines in their relationship had become too noticeable to ignore. ‘We definitely knew we were in crisis,’ admits Tom, 30. ‘In fact, we might have split up completely had we not already been signed up for the show. We weren’t communicating.
‘There were more negatives than positives in our relationship. It felt like we were hanging on to the cliff by our fingertips. In fact, the last finger was on the edge.’
The crux of the problem? Rachel was at breaking point — feeling that while she had grown up massively since becoming a parent, Tom hadn’t.
His idea of fun was playing with toy soldiers — one of his hobbies — and viewers can see him larking around with the mannequins in Debenhams while on a shopping trip. His immaturity was driving Rachel mad.
She admits, though, that it was one of the things that attracted her to him in the first place. ‘He was so laidback and didn’t take anything too seriously,’ she says.
‘But it’s difficult to be that young and carefree when you have responsibilities, as we now have. When we started this process, I felt I’d moved on, but Tom hadn’t.’ Tom’s perceived lack of ambition was infuriating her, too.
‘I thought he could do better,’ she says candidly of his bar work, which was poorly paid and involved long, anti-social hours.
As she moans in the programme: ‘I’m not asking for the world. I don’t want a Ferrari in the driveway, but a car of any description would be nice.’
Today, she reveals that even Tom learning to drive — as he promised he would when they had their daughter — would be a start.
‘He doesn’t understand how us not having a car impacts on my life,’ she says. ‘I can’t even get to the supermarket easily.
‘We talked about it and he agreed that he would be the one to take lessons first, but he still hasn’t passed his test. I’m now thinking that I might as well do it myself.’
Prior to the show Tony (right) had moved back in with his mum and Gemma was just getting on with looking after the kids until he decides what he wants
When we meet Rachel and Tom in the programme, Tom is sleeping on the sofa on a regular basis.
Rachel now admits that, prior to filming, they had ‘gone some way’ down the route of investigating the practicalities of a separation.
‘We’d started to think about how things like childcare would work. This was very much a last-ditch attempt to make things work.’ But who in their right mind thinks that the way to save a relationship is to go on a luxury holiday with another partner?
And how on earth did Rachel feel knowing that within hours of arriving at his sumptuous villa, he would be leaping into the pool with Michelle, the attractive blonde who had threatened to cut her husband’s hands off if they wandered?
‘I wouldn’t be human if I said I wasn’t concerned about it,’ admits Rachel. ‘I think everyone involved in the programme would have been. But I also knew that we were going into it for the right reasons — we wanted to save our relationship. And I trust Tom. I knew he wasn’t like that.’
The couple Rachel and Tom get to ‘swap’ with are George, 29, and Michelle, 23, who live in Leicester and have a two-year-old son.
Did she find George attractive? Only for as long as it took for him to start going on about how he didn’t do ironing, she says.
‘That was a bit of an eye-opener. He was certainly very different to Tom in that regard.’
George, a car sales executive, is most definitely an alpha male and bursting with career ambition. On paper, he is everything that Tom is not. Meanwhile, Michelle, a cafe manager, is bubbly and opinionated — and heartily sick of her husband.
Like Tom and Rachel, they have been together for three years and married two years ago.
Their biggest problem? George’s chauvinistic attitude. Coming from a background where women are the home-makers, he expects Michelle to stay at home, cleaning the house.
Counsellor Lee says that it was a very deliberate move to pair up the fun-loving (and temper-prone) Michelle with Tom, and also give Rachel the opportunity to see what living with an ambitious man might be like.
So, what were their first impressions of their new partners? Were they ripping off each other’s new swimwear? Viewers will have to watch the series to find out whether there is any illicit hanky panky under the sun, but Tom claims that he wasn’t tempted with Michelle.
‘Yes, she was very attractive,’ says Tom, ‘but I didn’t think of Michelle romantically at all. She was dealing with as many problems in her relationship as I was in mine.
‘I think from the off, we knew that we were there to help each other in that regard. There certainly wasn’t going to be anything else between us.’
Phew! Was he as trusting in terms of Rachel enjoying a dip in her pool with George? ‘Yes. I did trust her and I knew that trust would either be rewarded or broken. Whatever, there was no point in worrying about it.’
In fact, rather than lounging about under a palm tree, the two-week experiment actually sounds like hard work. There are tears galore as the couples all undergo counselling sessions — and Tom admits that the hardest part was hearing what Rachel had said in her meetings.
‘I think that we just hadn’t been able to communicate these things on our own, and they needed to be said,’ he reveals.
It sounds as if both sides gained additional counsellors in the form of their new partners, too. Lee says that, far from being irritated by Tom’s childish ways, Michelle encouraged them. She became quite the cheerleader for him.
‘Tom had a tendency to put himself down and she’ll tell him off for that, saying he shouldn’t sell himself short. But, at the same time, she was able to see why Rachel would have a problem with his attitude, because she has a young child herself and similar responsibilities.’
What is interesting is that both Tom and Rachel say the whole two-week experiment was invaluable.
‘Michelle became a good friend,’ says Tom. ‘We’d talk about our respective relationships in a way that you can’t really do, even with your own friends. She could give me her take on it and vice versa.’
But as for whether Tom and Rachel are still together? The outcome of the series — which relationships survive and which crumble — is being kept tightly under wraps. Tantalisingly, viewers will just have to wait and see.