There’s been a lot of things said about A&E/FYI’s reality series Married at First Sight. Ok, mainly two things – that its an insult to anyone who believes in the value of marriage, and hurtful to those who don’t have the luxury to marry the person they love, let alone a stranger. The latter point is thankfully no longer relevant here in the United States (yay equality), and honestly if you watch just twenty minutes of MAFS you’ll see why the former isn’t either.
Married at First Sight is not a show that features people who take marriage lightly. I can’t speak for the show’s creators or producers, but it’s experts that match the couples and participants who sign up to marry total strangers, are all people who believe deeply in love and marriage, and want to create the optimal situation for two people to fall happily in love. Within the constraints of a reality tv show gimmick, of course.
However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t fundamentally flawed.
There’s a phrase often heard in the first episode of each season of MAFS. “It’s not traditional.” A terribly ironic phrase when it comes to the Western notion of marriage. There is, in fact, nothing traditional about the long, romantic courtships that we enjoy in our modern age. Marriage was done for legal and financial purposes for centuries, to ensure inheritance, bond families and communities, and share wealth. It had little to do with love.
But even today, when many cultures around the world enjoy romantic love in marriages, arranged marriages still exist. Not all lead to happy relationships, but they still serve a purpose for cultures and for families.
Which brings us to the couples on Married at First Sight. Unlike many modern arranged marriages, these couples are not matched by their families, but rather a group of relationship experts who specialize in psychology, sexuality, and spirituality. After a battery of personality quizzes and interviews, the experts widdle down the entrants to a small group of people who they believe are best suited for the “experiment” (I’m assuming they’re considering not just people who are ready to be married, but those who can withstand the high stress of the experience, and aren’t there for ulterior motives), who are then matched if there is someone in the group the experts feel is right for them.
Once the couples are matched, they go through a crash course of a marriage, wedding immediately in front of friends and family, going on a honeymoon, moving in together, overall merging their lives while getting to know each other and determining whether the match will be a lasting one. It’s all very precise, and very strenuous, on both the experts and the couples. It’s a shame that it’s all utterly pointless.
To be fair, two couples from the first season are still happily married. Second season was an utter disaster, resulting in three divorces and one restraining order. Third season is airing now, and while its hard to tell where things will go, it doesn’t look promising. Two couples get along, but have virtually no romantic or sexual chemistry. The third pair appreciates each other in every respect, but they’re both young and there’s worry that there weren’t really prepared for commitment.
The problem is not with the matching process, or with the premise of the insta-marriages. The problem is that this show hinges itself on the idea that marriage is necessary and fundamental to a person’s life. When it isn’t. The words are never said out loud, however there’s no reason to go through as an intense of an experience as this unless you hold the belief that one must get married. Unlike typically arranged marriages that are created by families, the couples of MAFS have no obligation to anyone. They are there to benefit their own lives and futures, and when the majority of them realize, inevitably, that marriage is not worth the amount stress that the experiment puts them through, they unsurprisingly decide to end it.
Relationship problems, of course, get most of the blame, such as issues of communication and emotional support, and as an outside observer, the process of blending each other’s lives seems to create the vast majority of the strain. There’s a reason why shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette create situations where love and chemistry blooms between multiple pairings – they spend the entire time in a vacation spot, with no real world responsibilities. MAFS is grounded in reality, casting people who don’t look like movie stars with real world problems and stories, and that’s why its so important for this show to consider the reality of what marriage really means in a modern world.
Not everyone gets married. None of us have to. The way our culture is shaped, it can be a hard concept for some of us to wrap our heads around. Romantic relationships are held at such high esteem in our culture that we frequently forget the significance of platonic bonds, of personal individual growth, and how an individual can contribute to a community even without a romantic partner.
As someone who has struggled with dating, I understand the appeal of MAFS. The idea of being able to skip over dating, and have someone else carefully and analytically find me a partner, sounds wonderful. But then I consider – is it worth it? Is it worth being thrown into an intimate and legal partnership with someone I may not be attracted to or interested in? Is it worth simultaneously learning about and learning how to love my partner, while figuring out how to merge our lives? For what? The ability to hold my hand up and point to the ring? For being able to say to people “This is my husband”? (I would include “wife” in that statement, but MAFS has never had a queer couple, and I would be very curious as to what would happen if they did). What is anybody really getting out of this?
I do believe in the passion behind this show. It seeks to get people to look beyond their typical dating habits, and open their minds and hearts to people who could potentially be wonderful for them and lead to fulfilling lives and relationships. Not to mention, real life love stories are always a joy to watch. But watching young newlyweds desperately try to generate chemistry with someone they don’t trust or understand yet is honestly painful. I’m rooting for them, I really am, but I’m plagued by the fact that this whole song and dance is utterly unnecessary.