I hate television. Unless I’m learning how to make a soufflé or watching Starks get slaughtered on Game of Thrones (whoops…spoiler alert), I’m generally pretty content to keep my eyes off the screen and my nose in a book. But when I stumbled across Married at First Sight, my curiosity got the best of me, and I had to check it out.
Married at First Sight is a new reality show (or “social experiment,” as marketers like to describe it, despite it not actually being an experiment) on the FYI network. Four experts—a sexologist, a sociologist, a spiritualist, and a clinical psychologist—worked together to select a small group of individuals whom they could pair up to create what the experts believe would be successful relationships. Out of the initial pool of 50 people, the expert panel identified three “matches,” based largely on the partners’ demographic characteristics, beliefs about relationships, desire for children, religious preferences, and family histories. Here’s the kicker: These individuals agreed to enter into a legally binding marriage with one another for a minimum of one month—knowing they would meet their partner for the first time at the altar. After 30 days of living as husband and wife, the couples will decide whether or not they want to remain married. Brings a whole new meaning to the term “trial marriage,” huh?
The show revolves around two major themes: (1) people suffer from a paradox of choice when it comes to finding romantic partners, and (2) arranged marriages tend to have a higher rate of success than “traditional” love-based marriages.
A “paradox of choice” is simply a fancy way of saying that, when confronted with too many options, people have trouble deciding what they want.1 Have you ever found yourself in the grocery store staring at 20 boxes of cereal, all of which are essentially Cheerios? One box may advertise its high fiber, another its heart-healthiness, and another its low sugar content, and you can’t help but scratch your head over which is more appealing.
Partner choice functions in much the same way. You’re scrolling through Match.com and notice an attractive guy who professes his love for his family and his desire for children, but then you stumble across another guy who shares your passion for Wes Anderson films and stand-up comedy. Who do you message (or hope messages you)? When presented with a multitude of attractive alternatives, it’s hard to make a decision. And then, provided you make one, it’s hard to trust that you’ve made the right decision—especially when you consider that our standards for relationships have become increasingly unobtainable over the years.2 We want our partners to be our best friends, our therapists, our jogging partners, and rock stars in the sack. When they fall short on any of these criteria, we’re often inclined to look for someone else whom we hope can meet them—which helps to explain why Americans tend to enter into and exit out of relationships more quickly than anyone else on earth.3
The experts on Married at First Sight hope to address these trends by removing the choice component from the partnering process. Having entered into arranged marriages, individuals on the show will have difficulty entertaining the notion of finding better partners, because they are legally (and, for many, morally) obligated to specific strangers (who just so happen to be their spouses).
The experts also hope that these couples will be able to reap the other “benefits” arranged marriage may offer—specifically, increases in love and satisfaction as spouses get to know one another better. Indeed, individuals in arranged marriages tend to enjoy love and satisfaction levels that are comparable to those in love-based marriages.4,5 Considering that marital quality typically declines over time in love-based marriages6 and that individuals generally report low levels of love during the early stages of arranged marriages,7 it seems that those in arranged marriages often learn to cherish their partners over time.
But just because these couples have entered into arranged marriages, it doesn’t mean that these partnerships are anything like arranged marriages in the traditional sense. Far from it.
First, traditional arranged marriages are typically set up by the couples’ family members,8 who have both a vested interest in the couple’s happiness and the benefit of knowing the partners for years prior to the marriage. In contrast, the show’s experts matched people based on personality assessments, face-to-face interviews, and basic demographic characteristics. Although they may have approached the matchmaking process objectively, they lacked a deep and nuanced understanding of how the partners matured as individuals over the years—which is unfortunate, considering identity development proves to be an important precursor for marital success.9
Second, in traditional arranged marriages, the partners generally have some degree of say in the matchmaking process.8 Partners often meet one another prior to getting married, and, in more recent years, both partners usually have the ability to terminate the impending union in advance of the wedding.8 Married at First Sight eliminated almost every element of choice from the partnering process; couples had the ability to say “I don’t” instead of “I do,” but that’s about it.
Finally, one cannot underestimate the cultural context in which traditional arranged marriages occur. Couples who enter into an arranged marriage usually have the blessing of their friends and families (after all, they’re usually the ones setting it up!), but that’s not the case for the couples on the show. What’s more, traditional arranged marriages usually occur in a society where such unions are common and where the beliefs that sustain arranged marriages are prevalent (e.g., romantic love is unstable and can undermine the family unit, loyalty is a virtue, etc.).7 American society, on the other hand, celebrates love and considers it an indispensible prerequisite for marriage. Those who marry for reasons other than love are considered a little cray-cray by your average American citizen.
Suffice it to say, I think that the experts’ confidence in the matches that they have created is a little misplaced. But that’s not going to stop me from watching. Everyone loves a good train wreck.
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1 Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
2Coontz, S. (2006). Marriage, a history: How love conquered marriage. New York, NY: Viking.
3Cherlin, A. (2009). The marriage-go-round: The state of marriage and the family in America today. New York, NY: Random House.
4Myers, J. E., Madathil, J., & Tingle, L. R. (2005). Marriage satisfaction and wellness in India and the United States: A preliminary comparison of arranged marriages and marriages of choice.
Journal of Counseling & Development, 83, 183-190.
5Regan, P. C., Lakhanpal, S., & Anguiano, C. (2012). Relationship outcomes in Indian-American love-based and arranged marriages. Psychological Reports, 110, 915–924.
6Kurdek, L. A. (1999). The nature and predictors of the trajectory of change in marital quality for husbands and wives over the first 10 years of marriage. Developmental Psychology, 35, 1283–1296.
7Gupta, G. R. (1976). Love, arranged marriage, and the Indian social structure. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 7, 75–85.
8Batabyal, A. A. (2001). On the likelihood of finding the right partner in an arranged marriage. Journal of Socio-Economics, 33, 273–280.
9Beyers, W., & Seiffge-Krenke, I. (2010). Does identity precede intimacy? Testing Erikson’s theory on romantic development in emerging adults of the 21st century. Journal of Adolescent Research, 25, 387–415.
Elizabeth A. Schoenfeld – Science of Relationships articles
Liz’s research focuses on love, particularly its development over time and its expression in day-to-day life. She also studies the impact of romantic relationships on physical health, as well as how individuals’ sexual relationships are tied to their personal attributes and broader relationship dynamics.