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What Married at First Sight gets wrong about relationships

A new season of Married at First Sight began on Tuesday night featured on A&E Network. The premise of this show is a social experiment for a group of experts combining their experience and research to match six strangers into couples for marriage

The track record of this reality TV show proves, however, to be rocky. According to New York Post in an online article by Andrea Morabito on Nov. 30, “After all three couples from Season 2 of Married at First Sight decided to get divorced after the cameras stopped rolling, the new season is under pressure to make matches that will last. So the series has moved from the New York metro area to Atlanta, where singles would be geographically compatible — since they all live in the same city — and has expanded the casting search to 2,500 potential singles.”

The show fared better in the first season with two couples remaining married out of the three. Upon watching the show as it premiered, I wondered to myself what elements really go into creation of a successful and happy couple? As a relationship/marriage therapist by trade, I started to examine my experience in the field comparing my own thoughts on healthy relationships to the premise of this reality TV show and the process of matchmaking as seen by these experts on TV.

As I am watching the program, I am learning about the process the experts use to put the matches together. “The experts report that they are able to put together the singles into three couples after analyzing the data they receive (some examples being psychological assessment, personality traits, visiting singles in their homes, sexual, social and spiritual inventories as well) and meeting with the singles for a few weeks. Each of the experts interview each person and appear to meet together to discuss the matches based off their analysis and decide on the final matches.”

Now let’s be mindful that this is still a reality TV show and for entertainment. But, I find it interesting that this genre puts the idea of marriage on a pedestal with the assumption “a legal binding agreement” will produce more successful unions based on the importance of the institution. Can this type of process create relationships? I think for the most part no, and why? Relationships are more art than science. Matchmaking might be successful with a bit of science, but art and magic are necessary.

“Love is not a perfect science,” Dr. Joseph Cilona is found quoting as the show begins.

I could not agree more.

My own work in marriage and couples counseling has always proven to me over and over that love and relationships just might be more art than science, and predicting or matching singles based off clinical research instead of art might be the error of this program. While I believe that there is a science behind what makes a couple healthy and able to stay together over time — similar characteristics can create a glue that binds a relationship, backgrounds and shared values/goals — what is also important is the unspoken chemistry that occurs between attraction and developmental process of a relationship from beginning to middle to marriage.

I think one error of the show is that the theory does not allow for the progression of relationship in the development process to occur as it speeds up the couple from stranger to married — the process part of development is lost and only found after the couple marries and lives together. Eliminating the courtship process seems counterproductive as this would allow for the getting to know each other stage, which allows for relationship development.

Instead, the TV show erases courtship and moves to legal marriage. I believe most of the magic of love comes from being able to move through a development process in creating a relationship before commitment.

Married at First Sight takes a list/research and creates supposed compatibility and tells us that being legally bound in marriage will increase the success of the union due to the seriousness of the commitment, thus eliminating the unspoken variables that might just create love: magic, differences, timing and process.

I find that this show might not have the secret to matchmaking, but upon reading some research on stable couples from the Gottman Institute, “Dr. John Gottman could predict whether or not their stable couples would be happy or unhappy using measures of positive affect during conflict, which Jim Coan and Dr. John Gottman discovered was used not randomly but to physiologically soothe the partner. Dr. John Gottman also discovered that men accepting influence from women was predictive of happy and stable marriages. Bob Levenson also discovered that humor was physiologically soothing, that empathy had a physiological substrate (with Anna Ruef) using the rating dial.”

What does this tell us about relationships? Well, from the above research about couple stability, it sheds light into the matchmaking process. If you read closely, humor, empathy, balance and ability to resolve conflict in healthy ways produce happy couples over time. This makes me believe that the partner-seeking process tells us to seek out these qualities in people comparative to psychological assessments and tests to attempt to match singles by other qualities assuming these are more important.

Love is something that couples with differences can overcome if the important elements are present — connection develops through much more than lists and tests. This teaches us that love might not be so easy to create and matchmaking is quite a challenging field, where even so-called experts might forget about the magic, chemistry and an unspoken process of love and relationship that cannot be measured.

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