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For better or worse—the reality of marriage

Getting married
Posted February 9, 2020

As Married at First Sight (MAFS) enters its seventh Australian season, it remains one of the most polarising television shows.

Can science find your soulmate? is the show’s tagline, and this may appear exploitative and voyeuristic, but Wellington Registered Psychologist Susan Wall suggests the series gives valuable insights into the dynamics of committed relationships.

MAFS calls on relationship experts to match applicants to potential life partners. But in MAFS New Zealand’s three series, only two couples out of 18 stayed together.

Susan, a psychologist for thirty years, perhaps surprisingly, enjoys watching the series and says—with a few tweaks—the show could offer participants and audience information and tools to help make life-changing habits to their relationships.

‘There is not enough real support for the couples and the therapists are not undertaking therapeutic work with participants that could help these relationships have a better chance of surviving.’

Susan suspects couples may be matched more on their drama potential than on the chance of a strong and functional relationship being formed.

The series does have positives. For one, it shows all relationships face challenges. ‘Even if some expert puts you together with someone who they think is perfect for you, there will be challenges. And challenges are survivable.’

A common misconception on MAFS is, if people are struggling in relationships it must be down to a mismatch between the couple—that the partner is not the right choice.

‘Often problems in relationships, are not down to our partner, but to our own history—which keeps getting in the way of our relationships working,’ Susan says.

‘A lot comes down to attachment history. If our past experiences were that we felt loved and cared for consistently, showing us we are worthy, and others are reliable and trustworthy; then we will feel secure, and able to navigate our way through tough spots in relationships. If, however, our experience was in any way less than this, our chances to work through difficulties will be compromised.’

The Imago school of psychology, to which Susan subscribes, theorises that people are attracted to partners who have the best and worst attributes of people from their past.

‘We are initially attracted to people because of the presence of those positives attributes; but, eventually, as the relationship develops, the negative attributes will be sure to surface. The relationship can give us the chance to resolve hurts from our past relationships, but without the right knowledge or skills this is unlikely to happen,’ Susan says.

‘There are lessons to be learned from MAFS’ couples who make it, as well as from those who don’t, but these lessons need to be made clearer.’

One lesson that shines through all MAFS is that you can’t change other people.

Another downfall, Susan says, is its huge emphasis on the sexual component of relationships. ‘Many participants are cross-examined if they haven’t been sexual in the first three weeks of the experiment, somehow suggesting that there is a significant problem. The show does not seem to respect the participants’ different values or sense of pace around being sexual.’

Infidelity has been touched on in several MAFS episodes and, Susan says, the show again misses the opportunity to make these occurrences valuable learning opportunities. A couple can recover from an affair, and it would be good if MAFS’ participants were given the right support to address the cause of the affair, and the means to move past it.

‘There is a lot of potential for what MAFS could be,’ says Susan, ‘it just falls so short.’