Does Reality TV Set Your Marriage Up For Failure?

I have a confession: I’m a sucker for trashy reality television.

After a long day of lawyering, I sometimes need to escape the busyness of the day with some brain candy. 90 Day Fiancé? Check. Married at First Sight? Yep. Real Housewives? Sign me up!

Does reality TV set your marriage up for failure?

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Especially now, with our lives turned upside down by COVID-19, it’s nice to have a “brain not required” distraction where we can let go of the heaviness of the world, even if it’s only for an hour.

For better or worse, I’m in good company. According to Bloomberg, in early 2020, when ratings were dropping across the traditional television landscape, 90 Day Fiancé was pulling in three million views an episode. The Bachelor, which is now in season 24, had its highest viewership ever this year with 6.4 million viewers. It seems we can’t get enough of reality TV as a means of taking a break from real life.

But is it good for your marriage?

Clearly, the producers of these shows are in the business of making compelling television. But I don’t think we should view them as the template for what constitutes a healthy romantic relationship.

For one thing, they set up an unrealistic expectation that couples will fall in love and live happily ever after — even though they’ve only known each other a few weeks. That’s a sure-fire recipe for divorce.

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Often what people feel in the early phase of a relationship is actually lust, not love, relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein tells Bustle.

"In my estimation, it takes longer (to fall in love) than a lot of people think that it does,” she says. “We can have lust and passion at first sight, but it takes longer than that to really get to know someone and figure out who they are and how the two of you connect. Love is definitely something longer term."

Certainly, cultural influences have played a role in developing unrealistic ideas about what it takes to make a long-term relationship work. If you get married in your 20s and expect to stay together for the long haul, it’s going to take a lot of patience, flexibility and compromise.

Intimacy is another key to successful unions, both emotional and physical. It’s also important to have a shared system of values around things like money management and how you will parent your children. But let’s be real: at a certain point, every long-term relationship will take some hard work. There will always be times when you don’t feel in sync with your partner or look at them as the twin flame you saw in the early days of romance.

Throw a global pandemic into the mix, and there’s bound to be an impact.

Four reasons couples call it quits

The combination of quarantine life, unemployment, illness and precarious finances have taken a toll on many couples since the lockdown began in March. In the U.S., there’s been a 34 per cent increase in sales for divorce agreements, according to a recent survey by Legal Templates. Almost one-third of couples south of the border said that quarantine caused irreparable damage to their relationship, according to one poll.

Here in Canada, my family law practice has never been busier – with new filings for divorce, and changes to separation or divorce orders. In general, I think there’s just much more conflict happening.

When I reflect on the reasons for most marriage breakdowns, I see four main contributing factors: disagreements over money, infidelity, couples growing apart as time goes on, and differences in parenting philosophies that can’t be resolved.

Bonding over The Bachelor

During his recent Drive Thru show on NewsTalk 610 radio, Tim Dennis suggested that shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette set couples up for failure with their unrealistic portrayals of marriage.

“If that’s all you're watching in pandemic lockdown, good luck having a good idea about what marriage really is,” he says, adding that such shows play into the archaic stereotype of a wife as property, not a partner.

On the other hand, I think there’s something positive we can take from these TV shows: the importance of romance and courtship in keeping the spark alive in a relationship. That seems to have gone out the window in our modern world, where the trajectory of a relationship is to meet for a coffee, then maybe dinner, and it’s Netflix and chill for the duration.

Watching The Bachelor can be a way to connect with your partner, either by reflecting on your relationship or by poking fun “at the moronic behaviour of the show’s contestants,” writes Dan Hyman in a column for Fatherly.com.

“For my wife and I, these back-and-forths drum up memories of some of our earliest dates, that bygone time when our lives were far simpler, and our near-entire focus was on each other,” says Hyman, who’s been getting his guilty pleasure fix alongside his wife for nine years now.

Guilty pleasures

Admittedly, the depiction of love and romance through the lens of reality television probably isn’t the best prescription for an enduring marriage. But for me and many others, it’s a brief respite from the madness of the world, and maybe just what the doctor ordered.

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