Modeled after a Danish reality television series, television program Married at First Sight (MAFS) portrays itself as a social experiment -- 6 individuals agree to marry a stranger selected for them by four experts.
"Married at First Sight” is an extreme social experiment that follows six brave singles yearning for a life-long partnership as they agree to a provocative proposal: getting legally married to a complete stranger the moment they first meet. Four specialists – sexologist, Dr. Logan Levkoff; psychologist, Dr. Joseph Cilona; sociologist, Dr. Pepper Schwartz; and spiritual advisor, Greg Epstein – create what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle and see each other face-to-face, for the first time, at the altar. Over the course of several weeks, episodes capture each couple’s journey as they go from wedding, to honeymoon, to early nesting, to the daily struggle of working on their marriage. After several weeks together, each couple must make a decision: do they remain together or decide to divorce?"
I was excited to tune into this show for many reasons, one of which being the appearance of sociologist Pepper Schwartz as one of the four experts. Schwartz is a public sociologist who focuses on intimacy and relationships -- topics that interest me both as a former couples' therapist and now as a junior sociologist. It's also not every day that a sociologist can leverage their expertise to influence the public, and Schwartz has been quite successful in this endeavor.
Merits of the show
Throughout the episodes of MAFS, the experts offered helpful advice, useful to the "couples" as well as the audience tuning in to watch the show. They informed viewers of some social science research findings, such as explaining the "paradox of choice": that people are less likely to be satisfied in their relationships when they perceive many alternative partners. The show was at its best when they explained how they matched people and why it mattered.
“One of the things you didn't see was I also asked questions about their values regarding reproductive justice, things like abortion, things like gay marriage, things like condoms and contraception,” Levkoff said. “Because as we know in real life, we all have certain deal-breakers and those certain political values can be very big deal-breakers for people in their relationships.” -- Dr. Logan Levkoff
Levkoff and spiritual advisor Greg Epstein were also active on social media, providing useful relationship advice to viewers engaging with the show. #MarriedatFirstSight was trending nationally on Twitter during the finale of Season 2, demonstrating the show has a large platform on which to provide educational messages that can strengthen relationships.
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail
Although MAFS undoubtedly has some benefits, I was troubled by the indiscriminate advice offered by the experts. The most glaring omission was the complete absence of a couple and family therapist! This oversight left the other experts to act as the couples' therapist in a field in which they do not have expertise. While some of their interventions with the couples were helpful, there were times the experts' actions were misguided, harmful, and at worst, dangerous.
A day before the series finale aired, it was reported that the woman in one of the couples, Jessica, had filed for a protection order against her new husband, Ryan. I don't think it's a case of "hindsight is 20-20" when I state that most domestic violence victim advocates (a job I've previously held) would have been able to tell you that Ryan was displaying signs of abusive behavior within the first couple of episodes. While well-meaning, the strategies used by the experts to intervene were harmful and dangerous. Throughout the season, the experts cast Jessica's "lack of speaking up for herself" as her part of the problem in making their marriage work. This wrongly suggests that Jessica has some part to play in Ryan's choices to be abusive. They should have validated her instincts that it was not safe to speak up, investigated why she felt that way, and held Ryan accountable for actions that further limited Jessica's agency. I applaud efforts to increase women's self-determination, but it is harmful to present Jessica's hesitation to speak up as part of generalized "communication problems." Many of the experts' interventions were perfectly appropriate prompts that could help many couples -- but completely ineffective and harmful for couples when one partner is abusive.
Without any specialist on staff, a psychologist and sociologist were expected to step up and deal with Ryan's increasingly abusive behavior. The show featured a tense video chat with Schwartz to calm the situation. When Schwartz later visits their home to check in with the couple, she admits she is dreading the encounter. I'm not surprised -- working with a person who is abusive to their partner is intimidating and difficult for people with the training to do so. I have no reason to believe Schwartz, or anyone else on the show for that matter, had any domestic violence or family therapy training.
A (good) family therapist would have known to interview and speak separately with each individual. How can a victim possibly speak openly and honestly when her abusive partner is present and can (and will) use what she says against her later? One of the most egregious errors was when host Kevin Frazier asked Ryan and Jessica to just shake hands and hug to bring an amicable end to their relationship. Would we ask any other victim of a crime to hug their perpetrator? There were brief moments of trying to hold Ryan accountable for his actions, but they were few and far between and often in situations that made it more, not less, dangerous to Jessica.
Beyond the unexpected (but not uncommon) domestic violence depicted on the show, there were so many missed opportunities to use teachable moments to educate the audience about having healthy and respectable relationships. A couple and family therapist could have provided information about how to fight fairly, the importance of building a friendship, why the way you start an argument matters for how you end it, and so many other skills for communicating. Instead, viewers were left with vague calls for "communicating" better and really "working hard." What does that even mean?! A trained therapist wouldn't have attempted to talk two people into trying to save their marriage as a last-ditch effort -- they could have curiously and purposefully helped the individuals figure out what they wanted from each other and from themselves and assisted with devising a plan to achieve those goals.
Can this work?
The American version of this show has now completed two seasons. Two of the three couples from Season 1 are still married, while none of the three couples from Season 2 decided to stay married. The premise of the show received a lot of backlash, with some asserting it trivializes the sanctity of marriage. Many responded by pointing to research that demonstrates arranged marriages are less likely to end in divorce than love marriages. This is a false equivalence. Involving extended family in the route to marriage is not comparable to outsourcing your matchmaking process to supposedly objective strangers. To begin with, arranged marriages have the support of extended family, whereas many of these couples do not. There is also no question that the types of people who opt for an arranged marriage based on cultural tradition are quantifiably different than the types of people who agree to go on national television and marry a stranger selected for them by four other strangers.
If the show really is a social experiment, and not just dramatized reality television (I guess at best it might be both), the experts are going to need to re-examine their approach. For instance, on the Season 2 finale, viewers watched the experts lecture ex-couple Sean and Davina about taking responsibility instead of blaming others, but wedidn't get any accountability from the experts themselves. Repeatedly, the experts asserted that they could only do the matching but the individuals had to do the work. No doubt the couples have to work at building a relationship, but the failure of a lasting partnership was certainly not all on them. The experts reacted defensively to the failed relationships, expressing surprise that two total strangers matched perfectly on paper turned out to be full of contradictory and complicated beliefs and emotions, and in end, human. More concerning are the accusations that the experts were negligent in their matching (casting?) process, failing to adequately hold up their end of the bargain by conducting comprehensive background checks and personality assessments.
Could this show have merit? Sure. I'm still intrigued by the idea that science could successfully match people with compatible and loving partners.
In the end, I think MAFS could be educational as well as entertaining. The layer of domestic violence dynamics from Season 2 is certainly a useful teaching tool. More in-depth responses to the domestic violence portrayal will come in another blog post, there's just so much there.
Note: While I viewed many episodes of MAFS Season 1, most of my analysis for this piece is based on Season 2.