Home » Relationships expert John Aiken: ‘My own marriage comes first’

Relationships expert John Aiken: ‘My own marriage comes first’


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He’s the voice of reason, an oasis of calm in the emotional rollercoaster of trainwreck telly that is Married at First Sight Australia. One of three marriage experts in the “experiment”, John Aiken is not afraid to call it as he sees it.

Routinely pulling up the Three show’s participants for being less than candid, he fixes them with an icy stare and a quizzical raised eyebrow. “Jack,” he says. “I need to know how you feel about Tori because I’m not buying it.”

MAFS, as fans call it, pulls in huge audience numbers, even outrating the 6pm news on occasion, and yes, it’s my guilty pleasure. There, I confess! And there are clearly many like me – closet reality TV watchers whose hearts broke when hitherto hard man Timothy had an epiphany at a dinner party and broke down as he realised how much of his life he had wasted by being closed off to affection. His bride, the patient Lucinda, was quick to bring comfort.

Those moments are television gold, but they’re also relationship gold – solid life lessons for the rest of us. Why is it so successful? John reckons it’s because it’s based on a fairy tale: Can two strangers fall in love?

It’s also compelling and combative in a way not often seen on screen. “It’s game on,” says John, 53. “The participants come at me and I have to tell them some home truths.”

It appeals to both singles and couples. “They learn what not to do. We’ve set out to show different sorts of relationships – same sex, middle-aged couples… It’s an effective way of demonstrating relationship tools. I love MAFS. It’s a privilege to be at the front of this juggernaut.”

The show, he says, has morphed into a watercooler melodrama that’s real. “It addresses universal issues that people struggle with.” John insists MAFS is unscripted and unpredictable. The couples very quickly forget about the cameras and their true selves come out for all to see. “That’s one of the secret sauces of the show.”

And yes, he and his wife, Kiwi former news presenter Kelly Swanson-Roe, watch it at home. “She gets the girls over and we’ll open a bottle of Champagne. I’m always blown away by the high production quality of it.”

Google “John Aiken” and one of the most frequently asked questions is, “Is John Aiken a real psychologist?” Yes, he is. He graduated from the Victoria University of Wellington with a Bachelor of Arts First Class Honours and a Master’s in Clinical Psychology. He has spent most of his 25 years in practice specialising in relationship counselling.

“I’m intrigued by it,” he says. “I’m really interested in what makes people tick. I really love relationship counselling, especially adults. You can get a lot of change. Two people having conflict is very compelling. It’s about patterns of behaviour. I like the rawness, the honesty and emotion.”

John was born in Sydney, the third in a family of four sports-mad boys, his father a professor of accounting and his mother a speech therapist.

“We moved to Wellington when I was 12,” he tells. “Dad was posted to Victoria University.

“Mum and Dad’s focus for us was to be independent. We were left to our own devices a lot. Education was important to them, and they were always keen for us to follow through on our promises and goals. It was all about family – Friday night fish ’n’ chips, Sunday’s roast dinner, having a tight family unit and rituals of connection. I was a pleaser. I wanted to get along with everyone.”

John is an old boy of the capital’s prestigious Scots College. “I was very sporty – cricket in the summer and rugby in the winter. We’d stay up late watching day/night cricket.”

In fact, John would become a first-class cricketer, playing for Wellington while at university. He originally wanted to be a sports psychologist, but following his parents’ advice to “do something you have a passion for”, that quickly gave way to relationship counselling.

He married former TV3 and Prime newsreader Kelly in 2007. She had been taken to the nation’s hearts after her husband of just three years, Jon Roe, died in a canyoning disaster in Switzerland. There had been a huge outpouring of sympathy.

Married since 2007, devoted John says he and Kelly make each other a priority.

They met when John was presenting at a media conference. She was in the audience. He’d seen her on television, delivering the weather. “I found myself doing a lot of my presenting to the corner she was sitting in,” he laughs. “I sought her out in the coffee break and introduced myself.”

The early days of their romance were challenging. “I’d never been out with a widow before. She’d just been through a huge tragedy and her friends weren’t keen on her dating me. They didn’t want her jumping into anything too soon. And, of course, there were other suitors on the scene.”

John eventually won the day. But he has taken care to keep the memory of Kelly’s first husband alive. “We still remember those anniversaries they had together, his birthday, their wedding day… There are memories of him everywhere. He’s still a part of our relationship.”

As far as his own relationship with Kelly goes, it’s his number-one priority. “It’s very important to check in regularly,” says John. “We’ll chat over a glass of wine on the back deck at the end of the day. We have early-morning coffee together and text each other during the day. At the weekend, we’ll do something together or try to go somewhere new. It doesn’t matter if it’s a disaster – it’s that shared experience that’s important. We make each other a priority.”

The pair have two children, Aston, 14, and Piper, 12. “Their upbringing has been quite different to mine,” says John. “They’re not into sport. We want them to do things they’re curious about and to listen to their intuition. We’re exploring different things with them. We travel as a family, and take them skiing and snowboarding or to exhibitions. They love art and are very creative – they get that from Kelly.

John and wife Kelly’s goal is for Aston and Piper to be kind, affectionate and “to take an interest in other people”.

“We’re encouraging them to be sociable, to ask questions and to take an interest in other people. That’s very important. Kindness is very important too. I’m around a lot of situations where people are not that kind. I want my kids to be affectionate.”

Kelly has been a great sounding board for John. “She’s experienced in the media and she’s good at grounding me.” Of course, with MAFS rating its socks off in its 11th season and screening in 120 countries, he’s recognised wherever he goes.

“You lose your anonymity,” he says rather ruefully. “It surprises me the situations I find myself in at airports, malls and restaurants. I’m hit by the popularity of the show. When I’m working out at the gym, people will be watching me, then they’ll come over and want to chat.”

The attention can be overwhelming, but it also brings opportunities.

“Someone actually painted me for the Archibald Prize,” says a clearly chuffed John, referring to Australia’s prestigious annual portrait competition. He has also had the chance to give a talk to the Black Caps, ahead of a test match, about the lessons he’s learnt in life.

“I told them it was important to lead rather than follow,” he says. “As a youngster, I would look to others for advice, but since becoming involved in reality TV, I’ve decided to take the lead – I’m going to be the person who does it from the front. I also told them not to take things personally.”

On social media, everyone has an opinion and they’re not afraid to voice it. Often the most hurtful comments are anonymous, says John.

“I’ve developed a thick skin. People will stop me in the street and have a go at me. You have to have a disciplined approach to trolls.”

His advice? Don’t respond. “People target my kids, my wife and me. None of us are ready for the extent of it. It’s so hard for kids at school these days. It’s just piled on 24/7.”

One wonders whether the contestants on MAFS have any idea what they’re letting themselves in for.

“It’s the journey of a reality TV participant,” tells John. “The spotlight is intense. People get to know you and then, overnight, it stops. You may have been a tradie, then you’re a household name, then it’s over. What do you do? Do you go back to being a tradie? It’s very difficult for them.”

There are, of course, dividends to be had for enduring the sort of exposure that MAFS brings. John says the transition from being awkward and insecure at the beginning of a series to being more self-confident is one of the bonuses.

“They come out of it so different. They have power and influence, and people want to hear what they have to say on podcasts. They’re also often asked to promote products. Those who do make it are the ones who are most raw, vulnerable and real. Some may want to be famous, but they all are keen to find love.”

The show’s producers process up to 12,000 applications ahead of each season, before the experts whittle down a shortlist to figure out who might be paired with whom.

On the couch with fellow experts Alessandra Rampolla (left) and Mel Schilling.

“The participants go through a thorough assessment for a couple of months before the shoot starts. We meet face to face and find out about their backstories. The final group all have social media training before the show and receive counselling from psychologists – other than us experts – before, during and after the show has gone to air. Our duty of care is extremely important and taken very seriously. We’ll always check in. We’re dealing with matters of the heart here.”

By the time this story hits shelves, this explosive season of Married at First Sight Australia will have wound up on Kiwi screens, but buckle up – a rebooted version of MAFS NZ is on its way and John will be one of two experts on board. We’re not allowed to say who the other one is quite yet.

What John can tell us is, “There’ll be the same relationship issues that the Australians had. I’ve had to call out a number of people, but this group is more down-to-earth than the Aussies. They liked one another as a group and wanted everyone’s relationship to work.”

There will be just four couples in the New Zealand version, but it’s more diverse. There are different ages, different ethnicities and lots of different backstories. They all have high hopes of finding “the one”. And no doubt we viewers will learn something from them and from John’s wisdom as they navigate the experiment.

I am constantly reminded that couples, even older ones, can turn their relationships around if they choose to. Here’s how…

Re-establish time for togetherness and for being apart. This is especially useful for those couples who are new to retirement!
Have daily rituals, like coffee or a glass of wine, for a chance to chat and catch up. At the same time, find new things to do together. Shake it up a bit!
Re-establish shared goals. A lot of couples coast along. Find a shared vision for friendships, health and fitness, holidays, grandkids, finances…
There will be arguments, but argue in a soft way versus the sledgehammer approach. Instead of saying, “You always…” or, “You never…” try something like, “I’d love it if…”
Repair quickly as a couple. Apologise and acknowledge your faults.
Make bids for connection. Ask, “How was your day?” then listen to the reply.
Always answer your partner when they ask a question – and don’t do it while you’re looking at the TV or your phone!

Married at First Sight NZ is coming in May on Three and ThreeNow.

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