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Televisual therapy ... a new program aims to help couples improve their relationship.

Relationship gurus have long encouraged couples to turn off the television and tune in to each other. But, this week, watching television could be good for your marriage.

Making Couples Happy, which starts on ABC1 on Thursday, is a four-part series, part documentary, part televisual therapy, in which relationships counsellor John Aiken takes four struggling Sydney couples on an intense, eight-week program. The aim is to give them tools to repair their marriages, in the process showing practical ways to improve anyone's relationships.

''What I'm trying to do is demystify it. How do you get a happier relationship? I'm trying to empower couples to do little things, daily and often, to make them happier,'' Aiken says.

Making Couples Happy and its companion book focus on the practices Aiken has used for years in counselling sessions. The book claims to share ''the science of a happy relationship'' and Aiken is keen to show how science often underpins his methods.

For instance, he cites research proving how physical affection from a partner can allow a person to withstand higher levels of physical pain; how a stressful marriage can lead to a low white blood cell count; and the way the tone we use when arguing affects coronary calcium.

"As a psychologist, you're always looking to use strategies that have research behind them," he says. "It gives [couples] some confidence that what they're going to do has been tried and tested, and can work, and is effective."

A relationship counsellor and author, Elly Taylor, believes that learning new ways to relate could benefit many Australians. ''Relationships usually fail not because there's anything wrong with either partner but because they don't have an awareness of how relationships work,'' she says. ''It's not anybody's fault, it's just that we don't learn how to do relationships in any other forum growing up.''

The four couples in the series and book are very different, which allows Aiken to demonstrate different strategies. It also means there is someone in the pack for everyone to identify with, whether it's Laney and Darren, a couple dealing with the stress of owning a plumbing business together; Steve and Paula, British immigrants raising two young children with a limited support network; feisty newlyweds Dom and Carla; or Alison and Paul, who have been married for 28 years without much connection.

Aiken says one of the most difficult parts of making the show was translating his methods for a visual medium. So one couple spars using a Japanese martial art; couples shop for specially labelled paint tins; and husbands are given megaphones to praise their wives in public.

Aiken says: ''The megaphone [activity] was a really extreme way of saying to them, 'Look, your wife has been saying to you that she needs words of appreciation, you're not doing that at all, let's do it in a crowded marketplace; if you can do it there, you can certainly do it at 9 o'clock at night when the kids have gone to bed and you're sitting down over a glass of wine.'''

The president of the Australian Association of Relationships Counsellors, Guy Vicars, praises the show's concept but has some concerns about counselling as reality television. ''We need to be careful that therapy doesn't turn into a caricature and lose its value by being dumbed down for ratings purposes,'' he says. ''Often you're sitting with a couple and there's silence while they're contemplating what's been said. It doesn't look like much is happening and it wouldn't make good television, but that silence is really important.''

Aiken agrees, but hopes that viewers - convinced by the scientific evidence, or simply recalling a teaching example from the show - can be encouraged to reflect on their own situation.

''For me, the best result would be that people who are in relationships don't look at their relationship with a puzzled expression on their face,'' he says. ''They actually realise, here's the problem and I know how to put it right.''

Making Couples Happy, Allen & Unwin, $29.99; series starts on Thursday at 8.30pm on ABC1.