Hello. My name is Sadie, and I am addicted to TV. If you read my articles, then you are already aware of this, but you may not know that one of my guilty pleasures is Bravo’s The Real Housewives franchise. Although my relationship with the show has been on-again/off-again due to the (almost) unbearable level of cat-fighting, I have probably not missed an episode since the show’s inception in 2006. Over the years, I have followed the “real” lives of women across the nation from New York to Orange County as they publicly aired their dirty laundry. I’ve delighted in their triumphs and sometimes even in their misfortunes. However, enough is enough, and I finally have to speak out. Ladies, if you want your marriages to work then please, please, do not agree to be on The Real Housewives (at least not without reading this article first)!
We all know that divorce is prevalent in the United States. Currently, 40% of first marriages fail to reach “happily ever after” (and the rates are even higher for those who have been married more than once). What you may not know is that the divorce rate for The Real Housewives is double that of the general population.1 To be fair, this elevated rate is not limited to divorces that have occurred since joining the cast, but rather takes into account whether these women have ever been divorced (before or after participating in the show).
Why are these women more prone to relationship dissatisfaction and dissolution?
There are a host of explanations as to why The Real Housewives are more prone to divorce. For instance, there are personality issues, ranging from neuroticism to narcissism, not to mention dysfunctional attachment styles, low self-esteem, and, for some, even addiction. Quite likely, the stress and lack of privacy associated with the show exacerbate all of these pre-existing vulnerabilities. However, I believe there are other issues that are contributing to the high rate of divorce. In particular, by focusing on the women, the show may inadvertently be altering relationship dynamics making them more volatile.
One particularly important factor in determining relationship outcomes is dependence. How dependent an individual is on his/her relationship is believed to be a function of available alternatives.2 When people perceive desirable alternatives to their current relationship (be it another partner or just another way of life) they are less dependent on their relationship. Conversely, when there are few alternatives available, people report greater relationship dependence.
Generally, when the viewing public meets a new Real Housewives cast member, she is a devoted and dependent wife. These women have often chosen to support their husband’s career pursuits and as a result are relatively reliant on their men, financially and otherwise. Then, as the show progresses an interesting thing happens. The women begin to gain a sense of independence. In some cases, this liberation may stem from their own economic prosperity. Other times, the autonomy inherent in a new group of friends (i.e., social support) may form the foundation of their newly found freedom. In either case, they begin to envision a life or a lifestyle that is different from what they currently have and this usually becomes a source of friction.
Let’s take for instance the marriage of Tamra and Simon from the Real Housewives of Orange County. When Tamra joined the show, she was a self-proclaimed trophy wife who proudly accepted the fact that her husband was not only the bread-winner, but also the decision maker, of their relationship. However, over her years, the show appeared to give her options for supporting herself outside of her marriage and viewers watched her embrace her new found freedom. Unfortunately, her autonomy came at a price. It wasn’t long before her changing dependence and shifting priorities created a strain on her marriage, bringing an end to her more than ten year union with Simon.
A related dynamic often altered by the TV show is power. As other articles have described, the Principle of Lesser Interest states that the partner who has the least interest in continuing the relationship has more power.3 And often, it is the person who is the least dependent on the relationship that holds the power position. Before joining the show, the Housewives likely had less power in their relationships, as they often occupied the role of the more dependent partner. However, after becoming Bravo-lebrities (a.k.a., someone who is famous for appearing on a Bravo TV show), they became less dependent and thus, had more power. Although that is not an inherently bad thing, this power shift can be an interesting obstacle to traverse, particularly if it is unanticipated. As a rule, most couples are looking for an equitable distribution of power. In fact, when couples feel that they are relatively egalitarian they show the greatest satisfaction, commitment, and success.4 However, the instant fame associated with being one of Bravo’s Real Housewives necessarily disrupts a couple’s status quo and can leave both partners feeling uncomfortable.
I think the marriage of NeNe and Gregg from The Real Housewives of Atlanta, demonstrates the role that power can play in a relationship. When this couple met in 1996, Gregg was a real estate investor and NeNe was a stripper. Yet over her years on the show NeNe blossomed to become a successful actor, with recurrent roles on shows including, Glee and the New Normal. NeNe’s decreased dependence led to an increase in power. Unfortunately, this contributed to their divorce in 2010. Interestingly, as they stayed connected through their co-parenting and friendship, this couple was able to restore balance and ultimately remarried in 2013.
Aspiring Housewives please take heed of this advice. Quite likely the show will bring you fame (or infamy, depending on your behavior), but you are also likely to stumble upon another consequence: the end of your marriage. Although divorce is not inevitable, let the failed marriages of Taylor, Camille, Adrienne, LuAnn, Bethenny, NeNe, Porsha, Phaedra, Tamra, Vicki, Jeana, Ramona, and Dina be cautionary examples of how difficult the transition from a real life housewife to The Real Housewives can be.
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1North, A. (2013). Real housewives’ divorce rate is double the average. Retrieved from http://www.buzzfeed.com/annanorth/real-housewives-divorce-rate-is-double-the-average
2Thibaut, J. W., & Kelley, H. H. (1959). The social psychology of groups. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
3Waller W. (1937). The rating and dating complex. American Sociological Review, 2, 727-734.
4Sprecher, S., Schmeeckle, M., & Felmlee, D. (2006). The principal of least interest: Inequality in emotional involvement in romantic relationships. Journal of Family Issues, 27, 1255-1280.
Dr. Sadie Leder-Elder – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder-Elder’s research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling.