‘Married At First Sight’ Explains Why Americans Can’t Commit

‘Married At First Sight’ Explains Why Americans Can’t Commit

The millennial reality show participants who agree to arranged marriages are as burned by their parents’ divorces as everyone else.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein
By

Finding love is hard. Making love deepen and last is even harder. If reality TV is any indication, love has gone off the rails in America.

Contrary to so much of what women read about modern romance, the men on FYI’s reality show “Married at First Sight” are eager to commit. It’s the women who are either ambivalent or outright negative. They say they want love and marriage, but it’s not clear they are all relationship-ready. And I suspect feminism is part of the problem.

What Feminism Did To Us

Before feminists complain I’m an ingrate, let’s acknowledge that the organized feminist movement has true accomplishments, like expanding women’s professional opportunities. However, I take issue with the Second Wave’s fight against the institutions of marriage and motherhood.

In writing about “the divorce revolution,” family studies scholar Brad Wilcox noted that “increases in women’s employment as well as feminist consciousness-raising also did their part to drive up the divorce rate, as wives felt freer in the late ‘60s and ‘70s to leave marriages that were abusive or that they found unsatisfying.”

Abuse and constant conflict clearly justify a divorce petition, but does dissatisfaction? For many American women, the answer is yes: “Just 15 percent of U.S. couples headed for divorce could be described as high-conflict, while 66 percent were low-conflict.” Wives initiated 69 percent of those divorces.

Unfortunately, while “the divorce revolution” may have left women feeling liberated, it also opened wounds in many children and families that remain unhealed:

In 1962, half of all adult women believed that parents in bad marriages should stay together for the children’s sake; by 1980, only one in five felt that way. ‘Four-fifths of [those] divorced adults profess to being happier afterward,’ [William Strauss and Neil Howe] write [in “Generations”], ‘but a majority of their children feel otherwise.’

Jann Gumbiner, a licensed psychologist and clinical professor at the University of California, Irvine College of Medicine, watched her own parents divorce when she was young. She wrote on Psychology Today’s blog:

Psychological theory of the 70s was heavily influenced by Maslow and self-actualization theory. People believed that it was OK to get divorced for self-growth. It was OK for parents to leave families to pursue a dream of happiness.This is selfish, plain and simple.

It’s now-grown children like Gumbiner that we see on “Married at First Sight.” These 20- and 30-somethings may be professionally successful, but emotionally speaking, they are the walking wounded.

In recent decades, boys have been told that they must not be overtly masculine, let alone chivalrous, because that would be sexist. American girls, meanwhile, have been taught that they must be strong and assertive, and that they don’t need a man.

Now, a woman doesn’t need a man, but she might want one in her life. While assertiveness can be a net positive, there must be room for compromise, because most of us find long-term happiness in complementary, caring relationships. But when young people enact this guidance, it doesn’t always play out happily.

Maybe Arranged Marriages Will Help

Consider the latest season of “Married at First Sight.” Some may question whether we can draw generally applicable lessons from the few Americans populating reality TV. It’s true that a decade or so ago, we might have written off reality show stars as actors or freaks. However, with millennials’ rise, oversharing has become standard. Whether it’s on Instagram or cable TV, millennials document and broadcast all aspects of their lives. The six current “Married at First Sight” participants — all millennials — were plucked from 2,500 Atlanta-area singles, underscoring the widespread appeal of reality TV participation.

The six current participants were plucked from 2,500 Atlanta-area singles, underscoring the widespread appeal of reality TV participation.

On this show, relationship experts match six singles in arranged marriages that begin with a first meeting at the altar. They then spend six weeks becoming acquainted, before deciding whether to stay married. Participants’ willingness to try arranged marriage — which one participant’s grandparents lived, and has been common in other cultures — is unorthodox, but not entirely surprising.

Gallup found in 2014 that “of Americans age 18 to 34, only about 9 percent have both never been married and say they do not ever want to marry.” For those who want a lasting marriage in a culture where marriage is becoming less common and is haunted by the specter of divorce, arranged marriage may seem like a sensible experiment.

Notably, five of the six singles participating this season saw their parents split by the time they were in high school. Divorce can have a long-lasting impact on children, including on their health.

Dr. Beverly Rodgers, founder of Adult Children of Divorce Parents and counselor for married couples from divorced families, said that many of her clients explain they feel ‘an overwhelming sense of doom’ about their relationships. A major consequence of this, she said, these children often have trouble trusting romantic partners in their adult lives because ‘trust could leave them feeling duped or foolish, in the same way that one or both parents felt in their own divorce.’

Of course, many children of divorce grow up to be emotionally healthy. However, some of the newlyweds here are uneasy with vulnerability and trust. Whether that’s related to the toxicity of their parents’ marriage, fall-out from the divorce, or an X-factor isn’t clarified, but surely that history haunts these new unions.

‘Married at First Sight’ Fits This Pattern

David, the only participant whose parents reportedly had a loving marriage, lost his father at age seven. He commits eagerly, while his wife Ashley is incredibly skittish. Ashley declines physical contact and is an emotional wall. Even friendship is a concession David must extract. It’s painful to watch his puppy dog eagerness meet her wintry chill, which may reflect a fear of vulnerability — the basis of any strong, emotionally close relationship.

Samantha treats Neil as an adversary to conquer, repeatedly criticizing him and complaining he is insufficiently manly.

Neil and Samantha have been even harder to watch. The experts matched the passive Neil with the combative Samantha, and it frequently feels like a rigged fight. Samantha treats Neil as an adversary to conquer, repeatedly criticizing him and complaining he is insufficiently manly.

Between attempting to dominate, she also pines for a more dominant man. When Neil finally asserts himself, Samantha expresses surprise that she’d been hurtful and attacks him for not speaking up sooner. Ominously, this week’s previews show a suspicious Samantha complaining that she prefers off-camera Neil; given that he is patient and kind on-camera, it’s unclear why. This is not a promising start for a marriage.

Vanessa, who hasn’t spoken to her father since her parents divorced during her high school years, worries her new husband, Tres, isn’t committed. Tres, whose own mother abandoned him in toddlerhood, feeds Vanessa’s fears by saying he hadn’t actually been looking for marriage.

It’s only after a revealing chat with the show’s psychologist that the honeymooning Vanessa relaxes and agrees to give Tres another chance. In the most recent episode, they both demonstrate an interest in care-taking. Tres offers to pay the larger portion of rent since he earns more, and Vanessa cooks dinner. This combination of trust and mutual care-taking make Tres and Vanessa the season’s most promising match.

Our Heartbreak Hurts Society

It didn’t used to be this hard. Earlier generations were more likely to grow up surrounded by many couples in long-term marriages, who modeled how to interact, as well as how to resolve conflicts. Fewer Americans now have ready access to those life lessons, and it is more likely to make them fear commitment. That’s heartbreaking for those individuals personally, and it’s not healthy for society, which is only as strong as our nation’s families.

Fewer Americans now have ready access to those life lessons, and it is more likely to make them fear commitment.

There is no one right way to be in a long-term relationship. For example, how strictly the two partners choose to hew to traditional gender roles will vary by couple. However, there are three things that typically help sustain long-term relationships: 1) an ability to be emotionally vulnerable with each other, 2) a willingness to compromise, and 3) emotional generosity.

It’s wonderful to be a strong, independent woman. But at the end of the day, a career is only so fulfilling. Life is much better when you have someone to share it with.

Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former U.S. Department of State speechwriter, is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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