This year’s series of Married At First Sight UK looks a little different to previous ones. For starters, the couples aren’t actually married. Instead, at the start of the month-long season, the 16 participants took part in a non-legal commitment ceremony. And we’re now watching with fascination as their pairings – some successful, some… less so – play out across several dinner parties.
But wind back 12 months, and an alternative version of Married At First Sight UK was on our screens. Last year it came with a lot less fanfare, featuring just two couples who managed to say ‘I do’ just before the country was forced to lock down due to COVID. Season 5 of MAFS UK might have been small, but actually, it was the most successful yet, having produced the first and only couple ever to stay together in the British version of the show.
18 months on from their wedding day, just as the new series of the programme hit our screens, I caught up with Married At First Sight’s Owen and Michelle over Zoom. They shared what it’s really like to meet your husband/wife for the first time at the altar, what went on behind closed doors during filming, and everything that’s happened in their lives together since.
31-year-old Owen was on a night out in December 2021 when he spotted the advert for Married At First Sight UK. It popped up on his Instagram feed while was waiting for a friend to return from the smoking area, and it was enough to stop him scrolling. Was it a totally ludicrous idea to marry a complete stranger? Or was it actually just the kind of crazy, brave thing he needed to do? Owen had been single for two years, and he was tired of the online dating scene. Whether it was the beer talking or not, he went home that night and applied for the show. Less than four months later, Owen was married.
“You were supposed to submit a video with it, but I didn’t because I was drunk. I wasn’t going to send a video whilst drunk,” Owen admits. To his surprise, producers from the show contacted him the next day, asking him to record a clip of himself talking to camera. What followed were in-depth phone interviews, quizzing him on everything from his relationship history to his sexual preferences, test shoots, personality questionnaires, psychologist interviews, credit rating and criminal record checks, conversations with exes, and a ‘Singles Day’ he thought “was going to be like The X Factor,” (but was actually nothing like).
All the while, Michelle was going through the same process. “When I first applied, the marriage thing wasn’t the bit that I was focused on,” she confesses. “It was more the matchmaking part.” With a track record of “going with what I wanted, more than what I needed from a relationship,” Michelle was excited at the prospect of putting her love life in someone else’s hands. “You think you know yourself best, but actually, sometimes I think you don’t.”
By the time the end of January rolled around, as early news reports about a mysterious virus in Wuhan began to circulate, expert matchmakers Paul C. Brunson (the only one to have stayed on this year) and Gen Gresset, along with clinical psychologist Dr Angela Smith, had paired Owen and Michelle for marriage. The weddings were booked for mid-March, and the countdown was on.
For Owen, the only seed of doubt he ever really entertained struck on a long car journey, as the wedding loomed. “I remember getting in the car and having two hours of every single emotion,” he recalls. “At points I thought, ‘No, I’m not doing this.’ Then I’d think, ‘Oh but it will be amazing.’ I settled on ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’”
Michelle, on the other hand, didn’t waver at all. She breezed through the wedding planning process (“we were both [separately] given a slideshow of different options like flowers and table favours and colour schemes, then we ticked the things we liked and they put the two together”) and before she knew it, the wedding day was upon her.
Arriving in a long-sleeved, ivory lace dress – the first one she’d tried on – Michelle felt a sense of “calm” that lasted right up until the moment she was about to walk down the aisle. “The penny didn’t properly drop until I was standing outside,” she says. “You’re doing all those things that you talk about as a kid – getting wedding dresses and having hen dos – it feels surreal up until that moment. That’s when I thought, ‘This is actually happening.’”
As Michelle and her dad took slow steps down the aisle, Owen nervously turned to look at his bride for the first time. Having stood in the ceremony room with Michelle’s friends and family for 20 minutes beforehand, and having seen the way they happily interacted with his guests, he knew they’d get on. But would he fancy her?
The experts had given a warning to all the Married At First Sight contestants as they’d progressed through the early stages. While they would do their best with the information they had (the experts “stalk your exes, and ask you some very candid questions [about what you find attractive] which you have to be open and honest about,” says Owen) there was never any guarantee they’d get it right with physical attraction.
Luckily, that wasn’t an issue for Owen. “She walked in and she was a worldie, so I gave myself a little fist bump and then just enjoyed the rest of the ceremony,” he recalls. Michelle, meanwhile, wasn’t wearing her glasses – so couldn’t see anything. But she was drawn to her new husband regardless. When they finally stood face to face, and Michelle saw that Owen had “a massive big smile and the most gorgeous face,” she was sold. But more than that, it was his reassuring presence that told her they were a good match.
The rest of the wedding day went by in a blur of photographs, speeches and first dances (they had one each – Meant To Be by Bebe Rexha for Owen, I Wanna Dance With Somebody by Whitney Houston for Michelle). And then it was time for the newlyweds to be alone. Husband and wife – not strangers anymore – but not familiar, either.
“That first night, we stayed up until about four in the morning, just talking about everything we could think about,” remembers Owen. After being in the dark for so long about the other person, neither could wait to devour every morsel there was to know about the other person. On the five hour train to Edinburgh for their honeymoon the following morning, the conversations continued: Past relationships, motivations for signing up to the show, financial situations, whether they wanted children. It was deep, but it came “seamlessly,” says Michelle. “When you’re genuinely invested in a person, you want to know all that stuff straight away.”
Although their time together had been short by that point, its intensity meant that intimacy came quickly. “If you cram that [time] into dates, that’s 10, 20, 30 dates. It just became quite natural.” The new couple were given a suite on their wedding night, but opted to share a bed. On their honeymoon, a second room had been booked in case either found they needed some respite, but that was never used either. “We never really struggled with intimacy,” shares Owen.
The more Owen and Michelle talked, the more they discovered they had in common, including some obscure connections they felt were like “fate”. The newlyweds quickly worked out that Owen’s mum had gone to the same school as Michelle’s dad, and later spotted them standing close together in a school photograph from years gone by. Owen’s sister also lived in the exact same town as the rest of Michelle’s family. The timing of it all was particularly fortuitous, too. By the time their wedding arrived, coronavirus was spreading fast across Europe, and the UK was edging ever closer to lockdown. “It could have so easily not happened,” Michelle reflects, pointing to other couples who were matched in the same series but had their weddings cancelled due to the pandemic.
It just so happened that Owen and Michelle moved into their shared accommodation – a flat in Brighton – the day before Boris Johnson announced the country was going into lockdown. And so began several weeks of getting to know one another on a more intimate level than either could ever have predicted.
“We just got left. We didn’t see anybody for weeks,” says Owen. The couple were given handheld cameras and asked to film themselves in lieu of a production team, and in the slowness of the passing time, Owen and Michelle formed a bond that was far deeper than any they’d imagined. “We just got into that old, married couple routine really quickly,” says Owen. “I guess you see all the different sides to a person when you’re in that very intense situation,” adds Michelle. “And so we got to know each other really, really quickly. The good, the bad and the ugly.”
There were “tests, trials and worries” that came with living in an isolated “bubble” of newlywed bliss for so long – fears about how external influences might impact the relationship. But on reflection, they feel this uninterrupted time together was most valuable in establishing the foundations of their relationship. “It was really important, because it meant we were judging the full, not just the little bit that someone wants you to see.”
Their experience may also have influenced the way the new series of Married At First Sight UK, currently on our screens, looks. “I think the producers probably learned a bit from [us]. From what I understand, this series, they’ve insisted that people take six to eight weeks off work post-weddings so that they can have that intense time together.”
During their time in lockdown together, Owen and Michelle decisively decided they wanted to continue their marriage after the cameras stopped rolling. They agreed that Michelle – who was ready to move on from Hastings, where she’d been living prior to the experiment – would move up to Sheffield where Owen was based, and they went on to buy a house there together. In the background of our Zoom call, I catch a glimpse of the loving touches they have added together; a photo frame containing a Monopoly house with the words “Our Home” proudly displayed above it.
As the months progressed, externally, things continued smoothly and happily between the couple. But inside, Michelle secretly ruminated on a fear she’d carried since the start. “I knew 100% that I wanted to be with Owen, but my biggest challenge was accepting that he wanted to be with me,” she says. “Because he is a bit of a people pleaser, I was worried that he was just being kind, that he didn’t want to hurt my feelings so therefore he was going along with it.” One night after a few glasses of wine, Michelle opened up about the way she felt. “’I don’t know if I feel chosen by you,” she told Owen.
On the one year anniversary of their marriage, that changed. Delivering her breakfast in bed, Owen also presented Michelle with a diary he’d been keeping since the early stages of the experiment – his ‘paper’ gift to signify one year of marriage. Inscribed in it were the words “I choose you.”
Afterwards, he got down on one knee and offered her a ring. “I just cried. It meant so much,” shares Michelle. “I’d said the whole way through that I was never bothered about the concept of an engagement ring, but it’s more what the ring represents that means a lot to me. You miss that proposal; you miss that whole act of ‘we are choosing this together’. To have that moment meant a lot.”
The couple don’t plan to have another wedding – they say they wouldn’t want to “cheapen” the one they had, which was perfect. But in the years to come, they do plan to have a big party to celebrate the success of their pairing and the happiness of their lives together. And Michelle’s gran has already had the wedding dress dry cleaned ready to be worn again for the occasion.
As the only couple in Married At First Sight UK history (so far) to have stayed together, their advice is to be highly regarded. “Owen and I were both very open-minded coming into the experiment. If you’ve got a list of 100 things you don’t find attractive in someone, you are more likely to be disappointed,” says Michelle.
“I always say communication and compromise,” adds Owen. “It’s making sure you are willing and ready to make a change. It’s not just telling someone about your feelings, it’s making sure that they’re ready to hear it. I think both of us are very good at that.”
The experts saw something in Owen and Michelle that would bind them together, and they were right. But what do the couple think it was? “I think we’re very different in a lot of ways,” says Michelle, pointing to Owen’s logic and her own extreme empathy. But the fundamentals are the same, thinks Owen. “Our values match,” he tells me sagely. “We find joy in making the other person happy.”