Shortly after marrying a complete stranger in a small hotel conference room, Jamie Otis excused herself, walked to an empty hallway, and slid down the wall. She pulled her wedding veil across her face and cried, still holding a bouquet of yellow and white flowers. As tears streamed down her face, friends tried to console her by telling her that her reaction was normal, even as cameras hovered above her, filming every moment for a broadcast to a national cable television audience. As Otis explained later in a filmed interview, she was not at all attracted to Doug Hehner, the man she just legally married. Nevertheless, she had agreed to star in the first season of an FYI Network reality show called Married at First Sight, which wed two strangers by episode three. She went through with it, even if she wasn't happy about it.
The moments before Otis' march to the altar might sound like the start of another failed reality-show relationship. And yet, after 18 months of marriage, Otis is no longer unhappy with her decision to marry a stranger on live TV; her union to Hehner has survived, despite the fact that the couple has spent the majority of their married life with camera crews in their homes and lives. And Otis isn’t the only former Married at First Sight contestant to stay hitched either: Cortney Hendrix is still married to Jason Carrion, the stranger she wed on season one in 2014, bringing the tally of successful arranged marriages in the show that season to two out of three. In its initial season alone, Married at First Sight didn't just indicate that reality show relationships aren't always doomed to failure; it indicated that, under certain conditions, they might lead to successful ones.
Married at First Sight's formula for romance isn't perfect. While two of the three couples from the first season are still married, all three of the second season's relationships ended disastrously—in one case, a former contestant filed an order of protection against her husband. Nevertheless, the successes of Married at First Sight speak to a broader, largely overlooked dimension to reality TV. The genre's production process offers some surprisingly ideal conditions for successful relationships; and relationship psychology points to the idea that elements of reality series might be beneficial to couples seeking to make their relationships last. Which raises some fascinating questions: What if strategies for a successful marriage were here, in a reality TV series, of all places? Has reality TV been demonstrating some healthy relationship strategies, along with its pulpy pleasures, all along?
It's important to note that Married at First Sight is something of an aberration among reality shows. In the romance sub-genre, shows tend to focus primarily on dating, rather than married, life. That's fueled by the enduring popularity of The Bachelor, whose 20-season run has spawned an array of copycats that riff on its core structure—one person, often a suitor who is emotionally fragile or hyper-competitive, choosing from a pool of potential mates. Some, like Flavor of Love and its spin-offs I Love New York and Rock of Love add additional layers of comedy, while others layer on artifice (such as Fox's Mr. Personality, on which contestants wore masks, or ABC's self-explanatory Dating in the Dark). With its dedication to encouraging lifelong commitment between partners, FYI's show has been exceptional since season one.
Nevertheless, Married at First Sight shares some core characteristics with other relationship reality shows—starting, importantly, with the stars it casts. Those of us in non-televised relationships might have a hard time understanding the kind of people who try to fall in love on national TV. On Married at First Sight, for instance, participants agree to marry and move in with a complete stranger in front of nearly a million viewers, according to season one finale ratings. But maybe reality-show contestants have something figured out the rest of us don't. Experts say that, in agreeing to take part, cast members demonstrate conscious decision-making—the kind of decision-making that is missing from the relationships of many of us who don't spend our love lives followed by a camera.
"I really didn't think that I was that rude to Doug on our wedding day. I was just really scared."
Dr. Galena Rhoades, a research associate professor in the psychology department at the University of Denver, has found that couples who move in together before committing to getting married—these days, half of all couples—are at a higher risk for problems in their relationships. The reason, she says, is that couples don't give a lot of thought to the decision to live together, or to the decisions that follow. "People don't think of it as a decision that they're making. It just sort of happens," Rhoades says. That decision, then, ends up being "less about the quality of the relationship and the partners' sense of the future and more about external factors." Marriage has the potential to fall apart, she says, when it's just "the next obvious step in front of a couple [and] not an active choice that they're making." Reality stars who are thrust into marriages or relationships by a show's production team can't keep being so casual about their love lives, of course; contestants like Otis are forced to take moving in very seriously.
Reality TV provides contestants with a pretty optimal setting for navigating early relationship troubles too. On Married at First Sight, couples are paired by the show's matchmaking experts—which include a clinical psychologist, a sociologist, and a sexologist—who are then on-call for the rest of the filming, which covers the first six weeks of marriage. Compare that with regular couples who seek help for their disputes: Without producers or a reality show's narrative conventions, most wait six years to seek any kind of professional help for problems in their relationship. That's even if they are on the verge of splitting: Only 37 percent of divorced couples actually went to therapy first, according to a 2001 State of Oklahoma study.
Reality shows that don't provide access to health professionals like Married at First Sight, meanwhile, emulate couples' therapy in other ways. Many borrow heavily from the format of 1993's The Real World, which sat its cast members down for regular on-camera interviews with producers to recount and re-visit moments in their lives. These interviews, which The Real World called the "confessional," could be an excellent tool for more couples, according to Rhoades. It's not a pause "that people are provided with, really, in any other situation," she says.
Nevertheless, the research is clear: Talking out problems works, especially when couples participate together. Some form of counseling "is significantly more effective than no treatment," according to one 2005 analysis of 30 studies. Effective relationship counseling encourages people to stop avoiding their conflicts and helps them communicate constructively, University of California–Los Angeles researchers found in 2012, in a study that established five "common principles of couple therapy," including "increasing constructive communication" and "eliciting emotion-based, avoided, private behavior." Increasing amounts of talk about "emotion-based" and "private behavior"? That's reality TV.
There were well over 700 reality shows on cable TV alone last year, and though they share common elements, how they are actually produced behind the scenes varies as much as the individual people working on each show. Crew members help shape the narrative of the shows as much as the cast members do, and, on Married at First Sight, those people—camera operators, audio engineers, producers—constantly accompany newly married couples in their homes.
Though crew members having full access to a couple's intimate moments seems like another bizarre reality-show condition that wouldn't result in a healthy relationship, both Otis and Hendrix say the crew's presence was welcome. "We really are a family with our production crew.... They see everything; they're here for so so much. We really are sharing our heart and soul with these people," Hendrix says. Otis was a tad more equivocal. "There's definitely stress involved with people following you around, but there are pros and cons to everything," she says. Nevertheless, Otis points to moments when she unknowingly hurt her husband's feelings and producers held her accountable for it. They might pull her aside, she says, and say something like, "What are you going to do to show him you're sorry?" which caused her to acknowledge harmful behavior.
Reality TV provides contestants with a pretty optimal setting for navigating early relationship troubles.
The presence of a third party observing a relationship can be beneficial to couples, whether they're on a TV show or not, according to Rhoades. She says involved outsiders aways impact a relationship—often, in positive ways. "It acts as a governor for the [couple]," she says. "Of course, if that person is inserting some other negative dynamics, it could make things harder for the couple as well." Married at First Sight season three cast member David Norton would agree: he told the New York Post that having cameras and crew around was "a weird dynamic in the marriage."
Another weird reality-show convention is watching your marriage play out—both its high and low points—on TV. Here again, there's a surprising benefit: Recording and watching interaction in a relationship is a technique recommended by therapists. The authors of The Marriage Test: Our Forty Dates Before 'I Do', a relationship book penned by a married couple embarking on 40 "challenges" to strengthen their relationship, recommend the practice. Experts also say re-visiting important moments in a relationship can improve the management of future ups and downs. Watching a conversation or argument is "a great strategy," according to Rhodes, who is also a clinical psychologist. It's one "those of us who are therapists or practitioners would really like to get couples to use more often," she added, because couples who observe their own behavior can reflect on how to improve their interaction.
Watching her own life on TV, Hendrix says, allowed her to "really self-reflect and get to a place where I like me again." Otis says the footage forced her to reflect on less-flattering moments of her married life. "I really didn't think that I was that rude to Doug on our wedding day. I was just really scared," she says. "If I didn't have the opportunity to watch it back, I would have never known that I came off as such a snot."
Of course, on reality TV, others are watching too. Otis' and Hendrix's intimate relationships were consumed by millions of people who watched—and also judged. Negative feedback that surfaces online can be damaging for participants, judging by the research on cyberbullying; The Journal of Depression and Anxiety, for instance, found an association between "depression, anxiety, and self-esteem/self-concept and the presence of cyberbullying." And yet there is something good that comes from negative discussion online too—a benefit that we might all be sharing in.
Quite simply, Rhoades says, reality shows get us talking about relationship dynamics. "I think it's a good for a society that these shows help us have all these great dialogues about how to form relationships and how to maintain a good marriage—it seems like a positive thing," she says. Even those of us who don't feel like we share much in common with reality stars, or can't emulate the show's production conditions, then, can take away something important from shows like Married at First Sight. If conversation alone about what we see on TV can improve real-world relationships, then some reality TV has more to offer all of us than just silly entertainment.