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My husband and I have recently become addicted to a new TV show, Married at First Sight. For those unfamiliar with the show, the premise is arranged marriage. A panel of four "experts"—a sociologist, "sexologist," psychiatrist, and chaplain—choose six singles out of a bevy of would-be participants to form three marriages. The couples meet at the altar, go on a honeymoon, then come back and try to set up a life together. In six weeks' time, they will decide whether they will stay married or divorce.
At heart, of course, it's an absurd, immoral show. The wedding "vows" say nothing about death doing anyone part, because everyone watching knows that any number of much less serious concerns may part these couples at the end of six weeks. And yet, Married at First Sight is an interesting commentary on the state of marriage in our society, at times exposing and at times reinforcing some of the myths that we have come to accept about marriage:
Myth 1: You have to be "ready" to be married, and age is an important indicator of readiness. The show's participants range from 26 to 31 years of age. They have "sown their wild oats," played the dating game, and now consider themselves ready to tie the knot.
But in reality, age and life experience don't necessarily correspond with higher rates of marital success. The authors of the Knot Yet Report (twentysomethingmarriage.org) have found that up to a point, delayed marriage seems to be associated with less marital disruption and higher economic prosperity. But after about age 30 or so, these benefits actually decline. The report also found promiscuity to be a factor: those who had had more sexual partners before marriage had higher rates of divorce than those who had remained chaste.
Myth 2: Gender roles are fluid, to be worked out in each relationship. Most of the show's couples have a conversation pertaining to what is expected of each partner. Interestingly, most of the women still want their man to be a man—to bear a larger portion of the financial burden, to be somewhat more assertive in the relationship, and so forth. This may come as a surprise to progressives who believe that such notions are outdated and destructive, but a few interesting studies bear the couples' views out.
One study, from 2013, shows that in households in which the man performs more masculine, non-core tasks (taking out the trash, yard work) and the woman performs more core tasks (childcare, food preparation), the couple enjoys sexual intimacy more frequently. And a 2012 Swedish study shows that adolescents whose parents maintain higher levels of gender equality (as measured by parental leave time) have higher levels of mental disturbance than other teens, as indicated by psychotropic drug use.
Myth 3: Divorce is an acceptable outcome. The couples of Married at First Sight buy wholeheartedly into this one. They may verbalize a commitment to making their marriage work, but divorce looms large. At the end of one episode, one of the brides voices her belief that even if she and her husband divorce, they will remain "really good friends." Divorce may be a disappointment, but it will not negate the good she expects to have gained out of the whole experience. This attitude persists in spite of reams of social science data indicating, for example, that divorced persons have worse health and higher rates of depression and suicide than do married persons. "Marriage is not to be entered into lightly," the vows used to say, and for a good reason.
Yet, in spite of its weirdness, the show is perhaps most interesting for what it suggests about the way we date and marry today. For some centuries now, we have assumed that "falling in love" is the only legitimate grounds for marriage. Married at First Sight is based on the opposite premise—that basing marriage upon a fleeting emotion is not a sound approach and has, in fact, failed miserably. So instead, these couples entrust their future to others.
Will we once again see the rise of the professional matchmaker? •
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