The Kiwi relationships expert says MAFS was worse than any war zone.
Dr Trisha Stratford once worked as a war correspondent, so when the Kiwi star
joined Married At First Sight Australia as a relationships expert, she understandably figured she had more than enough guts to deal with the drama of reality TV.
But six years later, after leaving the show for good, she says it was worse than she ever imagined.
"I thought I had very strong resilience after everything I've done in my life, but MAFS took me to another level," says the clinical neuro- psychotherapist, chatting to Woman's Day from a beach house in the Coromandel.
"I run workshops on resilience here and in Australia, talking about things like conflict in war zones. Now I bring MAFS into it because it was a tough gig psychologically."
Last year – after the controversial Three show's seventh season, which featured yet more partner swapping and cheating – the Wellington-born match-maker announced she was leaving.
"By the end, I couldn't compromise my professional and personal standards because there were participants on the show who I felt shouldn't have been there," says Stratford, explaining producers didn't listen to her pre-casting assessments.
"If someone gets through the critical selection process when we say we don't want them on the show because they're quite fragile psychologically, they're not going to do well during or after the show."
Stratford – who lived in Sydney before moving in with Auckland-based businessman Roger after last year's lockdown – says MAFS was originally an observational documentary.
"We had genuine people and we really were testing all those psychological and scientific theories of attraction," she enthuses.
"Then it got supersized, a bit like MasterChef, into what we know as MAFS now. The participants we got in seasons six and seven were so outrageous and outside the norm that it wasn't what I signed up for."
Finding a connection
Stratford believes ratings took over.
"People watch in the millions – it's the highest-rating show in Australia – so it was a big call to leave. But did people watch the last two seasons to learn about relationships or to see people being outrageous? We all like to see people making fools of themselves because we sit there going, 'Well. I'm better than that!' "
MAFS turned into a game of survival, she adds.
"I wanted to help the participants the best I could. Even though they were outrageous, they're still human beings and falling in love is never rational anyway. They're under enormous pressure with their partner, everyone else on the show and the public. It's difficult. Survival mechanisms set in."
For Stratford, who has also appeared on the Kiwi version of MAFS, it was clear the motives of the stars changed radically.
"Big egos became the norm. We got participants who came on the show to boost their Instagram numbers. MAFS gives you permission to act out your shadow side, but there were no boundaries with those participants. At a couple of those dinner parties, I felt sick. I felt in my guts that this wasn't what I'd want to be watching at home on TV."
This year, Stratford – who endured a two-year long-distance romance with Roger before moving back to Aotearoa – is focusing on writing and running her private practice online.
"I loved the opportunity to test all the theories, which was fascinating and a wonderful opportunity," she insists. "But lockdown was a nice time to reflect and it reinforced that I'd made the right choices in my life with leaving MAFS and coming back home. Long-term distance relationships, I believe, don't work. They do for a couple of years, but then you have to make a decision."
Border closures mean Stratford hasn't seen her Sydney-based daughter Gina or granddaughter Lily for almost a year, which has been "really difficult".
She gushes, "I just want to give them a hug! I miss them."
But despite this, Stratford insists she's the happiest she's ever been.
"It's going very well with Roger," she smiles. "He's a lovely man and we have a house in the south of France. I had a cottage there, where I used to do a lot of remote work for MAFS, but when I met Roger, we decided to get a bigger property."
With MAFS back on our screens, Stratford says she hopes the producers have kept their promise that the new season is full of more "genuine, approachable participants", but she has her doubts.
Laughing, she adds, "They did say they would – and I hope so. I genuinely wish them all the best."