The scene is set: in their powder blue bedroom, Nick and Louisa Tunney have lined up all they need for tonight’s ‘homework’.
They’ve slipped into their dressing gowns to relax on the bed as a playlist of romantic music creates the right ambience. There’s also a nice bottle of wine uncorked and some essential oils at the ready so Nick can give his wife a sensual massage.
This evening has been planned to get their sex life out of a rut — and they film a video diary before the evening gets under way.
Yet next time we see Louisa — in a new video the next morning — her tear-stained face shows things didn’t go too well.
Louisa and Nick Tunny from Amersham in Buckinghamshire had some difficulties with the essential oils
She’d felt ‘tense’ she says. Thankfully she doesn’t give many details, but you get the impression the earth didn’t move for the 30-year-old. It didn’t even rumble.
In a separate video clip, Nick, 34, looks as shame-faced as a naughty schoolboy being ticked off for failing a spelling test. He’s definitely in the dog house, he says. His wife is furious, claiming he didn’t do his homework on how to mix essential oils.
It’s rare we see what really goes on in other people’s relationships. But this intimate glimpse — part of the controversial new BBC1 fly-on-the-wall series Sex On The Couch — allows us, for the first time, a rare and tantalising peek behind the bedroom doors of real married couples with some very real problems they’re all too willing to share.
In each of the six 45-minute episodes, two couples are filmed attending three sessions with a sex therapist in a Manchester clinic called The Annexe.
Although the swish interior-designed therapy rooms were specially created for the series, the problems the couples face are real — along with the counselling sessions they get from the show’s therapists.
All of the couples picked are in their 20s and early 30s, showing sex problems are just as much an issue for Millennial couples as middle-aged ones.
It seems that while this generation has been exposed to more sex online and in the media than ever before, they are struggling to deal with intimacy.
What’s more, it also shows how, in this world of constant self-analysis and information overload, even the bedroom is no longer a sanctuary between man and wife. All of the couples were delighted to share the most intimate details of their relationship in a bid to get their love lives back on track.
At the end of each session, couples get ‘homework’ exercises to do during the week to improve things. After Louisa and Nick’s romantic night ends in failure, they come back for their second session with therapist Lohani Noor to analyse what went wrong.
They said the passion had stopped burning after five years together – but the programme’s therapists reveal the trust died when Nick didn’t tell Louisa he’d been made redundant
As the couple, from Amersham, Bucks, sit on opposite ends of a velvet sofa, it’s clear there’s more than just physical distance between them.
The passion which, in Nick’s words, ‘just burned brighter and brighter’ after they first met as colleagues at a magazine publisher five years ago, and married two years ago, has ebbed away so much that they now describe their sex lives as virtually non-existent.
The cameras in the therapy room are clearly well-hidden because it all comes tumbling out about how Louisa is often too tired for sex because she suffers with ME and chronic pain.
Meanwhile, Nick freely offers that he’s ‘selfish’ because he has no patience for foreplay and wants to get down to business as soon as he feels ‘frisky’ — so it’s clear why Louisa is now complaining about ‘a disconnect’.
Therapist Lohani tells Louisa to pause when she hears herself use her mothering voice — and rather than leave her to handle everything, Nick needs to grow up and take more responsibility
The couple, who volunteered to have therapy on TV after Louisa saw an appeal on a Relate social media page, are now looking for ways to compromise.
But the message of the programme reveals what most of us suspect: that sex problems are caused by tensions in a couple’s relationship, not by what happens between the sheets.
It soon transpires that it’s not libido that’s separating Louisa and Nick, but a lack of trust.
Sensing there’s more at stake, with issues running deeper than not having the right essential oils to hand, therapist Lohani teases out that Louisa lost her trust in Nick when he didn’t tell her he had lost his job as a sports journalist for three months for fear of disappointing her.
By careful probing, it transpires Nick is perpetually cast as a naughty child who can’t be trusted to do anything right, with Louisa falling into the role of scolding mother/teacher.
This is playing out in their sex lives. From Louisa’s rebuking tone, which is met by Nick hanging his head in shame, Lohani surmises that they have adopted roles that don’t make for fireworks in the bedroom. ‘When you are you talking to each other in this way, there’s never going to be any sex,’ she says.
From now on, Lohani say Louisa needs to pause when she hears herself use her mothering voice — and rather than leave her to handle everything, Nick needs to grow up and take more responsibility. Listening to what happens between other couples behind closed doors is fascinating, and it’s dynamics like these that will doubtless enlighten viewers to what is happening in their own relationships.
But as the couples make so many embarrassing confessions along the way — Nick, for example, squirms as he reveals how some of his ‘techniques’ could be better — you can’t help but wonder what drove these couples to allow cameras to film this most private part of their lives.
There is, of course, the fact it’s free — a 50-minute session with one of the counsellors would cost as much as £120.
But while Nick admits he’d rather his parents didn’t see the programme and his mates are likely to tease him, he says he hopes others will appreciate they were brave enough to do all they could to repair their relationship.
Chloe Halvin, 27, with partner Tony Atkinson, 28, pictured at their home in Blackpool, Lancs
Next up are Tony Atkinson, a 28-year-old graphic designer and his fiancee Chloe Havlin, a 27-year-old hotel receptionist, from Blackpool.
They have sex at least once a week, with Tony sometimes texting his partner of three years ‘to book himself in’.
But due to the fact they’ve got a two-year-old daughter, plus girls aged five and eight from Chloe’s previous relationship, most encounters are ‘quickies’ which leave both unsatisfied. ‘Foreplay is like a treat for us…it’s like once a month.’
Homework from therapist Kate Moyle, who diagnoses they need to prioritise more time for themselves, is a rule that there must be at least five minutes of kissing before intercourse.
They must also set aside a bowl for written ideas about what they’d like to do to each other. Back at home, Chloe films herself using a fluffy pen to scribble down as many ideas as she can to put in a Pyrex dish she keeps on the kitchen counter — including role-play games, blindfolds and different positions.
After having better sex the couple don’t bicker as much, the experts discover
When the couple come back to the clinic, grinning from ear to ear, it’s clear that making time for each other with some early nights and some fresh inspiration has had benefits for the rest of their relationship, too. They gleefully report to having ‘proper’ sex up to three times a week and it turns out the rosy glow is no longer confined to the bedroom.
Chloe announces they are more in love than ever while Tony observes they have stopped bickering and he doesn’t get as uptight as he used to about when the washing-up isn’t done.
Next on the couch is hairdresser Dana Pearsall, 21, and 26-year-old partner James Williams, an automotive engineer, who live together in Walsall. A disparity in their sex drives, after two years together, has left them both miserable. He complains she is always pestering him for sex, while she calls him a ‘once a week’ boy.
But according to therapist Roberta Babb, different sex drives aren’t the problem — it’s how couples communicate their different needs. She said: ‘It’s about taking away that responsibility and that feeling of pressure and just thinking: ‘Let’s have some fun.’
To that end, Dana and James are sent off with a sex ban for a week to build the tension and a questionnaire to help them talk about each other’s fantasies, as they’ve never really discussed what they would like to do to each other.
Here, too, there is another underlying reason for the rising tensions. This time, it is down to the fact that James’s previous girlfriend cheated on him nine months before he met Dana, making him insecure and fearful she would do the same.
However by giving them some exercises, the spark is back. Dana says: ‘We didn’t realise what we’d lost. I want to keep hugging him and telling him I love him.’
There’s another happy outcome which is, thanks to the sex the couple had during the filming, they are now expecting their first child in August.
Dana Pearsall, 21, and James Williams, 26, who live together in Walsall, are sent away with a sex ban to build the tension back up in their relationship
The pair seem much closer after being given ‘homework’ to share their fantasies with each other, having never thought to do so before
Indeed, since finishing the programme last year, all three couples claim the sessions have improved their relationships for the better.
However, therapy can also be the deciding factor that ends a relationship. Joanne, 20, and Craig, 28, from Newcastle, have only been together for 18 months but have already married and had a baby.
They no longer have sex — partly because Joanne admits she even has trouble saying the word, referring to it obliquely as ‘Smex’.
Therapy is clearly hard for her as she says she was raised to believe that ‘what goes on in the bedroom, stays in the bedroom’.
However, it seems love-making is the least of their difficulties. Raising their son has built up a catalogue of resentment. Slowly we see the couple’s relationship unravel.
They agree when their therapist Silva Neves tells them: ‘What I’m hearing is that you want to regain what you had. In your history, you have not had a long time in sexual discovery. You’ve moved very quickly. You became parents before you finished being lovers.’
But when the couple try to do the homework to bring them closer — to have a minute-long full body hug twice a day for a week — they only do it twice and row the rest of time.
Veteran psychotherapist Phillip Hodson believes the programmes could show first-hand how well therapy can help couples listen to each other’s points of view, often for the first time
The death knell comes when, back in therapy, they answer a questionnaire about why they are staying in the relationship — and find that both rate the fear of being alone higher than enjoying being with each other. When Craig reaches out to comfort her, Joanne pushes him away.
The couple take the final two sessions separately — and the closing credits reveal they have since decided to separate.
Veteran psychotherapist Phillip Hodson, who helped pioneer relationship and sex counselling in the UK, said it would be better to call the programme ‘Couples On The Couch’ rather than ‘Sex On The Couch’ because sex issues are nearly always inseparable from relationship difficulties.
He believes the programmes could show first-hand how well therapy can help couples listen to each other’s points of view, often for the first time.
Difficult conversations, he says, do not always need to descend into rows. ‘There is a tension between good TV and good therapy, however. Good TV would often mean the therapy has been difficult or disastrous. People love to see things go wrong.
‘However, if handled well, this series could provide a useful way for viewers to think more realistically about their own relationships. It could give them more choices of how to react in their own conflicts and provide insight.
‘It will also give people an understanding that they are almost never the only one with this sort of problem: in fact it’s perfectly normal to feel as upset they do.’
Indeed, the programme makes it plain that good sex starts long before you get to the bedroom.
As Lohani sends Nick and Louisa off to put what they’ve learned into practice, Louisa observes: ‘It’s amazing how just focusing on sex has got our whole relationship back on track.
‘If you can’t trust someone in a relationship, you certainly can’t trust them when you’re vulnerable and naked.’
Sex On The Couch is on BBC1 at 11.25pm tonight.