Relationships and Reality TV

I have a not-so-secret guilty pleasure to disclose. I really, really love television. In all its glory. And what that boils down too, is whilst I will honestly argue that ‘The Wire’ is by far the greatest television show ever produced, I am more than happy to watch things that are less critically acclaimed. For example, reality TV. I get quite into MKR and during a season of Master Chef I will start narrating my own voice-over while I am prepping the zucchini at dinner time. I find Gogglebox hilarious and fascinating - to the shock of my friends - and since acquiring my current housemates I have even become interested in the process of Selling Houses in Australia. Despite being a self-proclaimed feminist, I haven’t yet missed a season of The Bachelor. So, there you have it. I have a thing for reality TV.

Over recent years we’ve seen a rise in the number of reality TV shows exploring couple relationships through the process of “social experiments”.

Last year we saw the first season of Married at First Sight. Explained to us viewers as an ‘experiment’ where “relationship experts” partnered off individuals who had never met in the hope that their scientific approach to partner matching would result in relationship bliss and longevity. This made for pretty fascinating viewing and you could see what the ‘experts’ were trying to achieve here. In some cases it worked, with couples remaining together at the end of the show and others not. One couple appears to still be together now. It’s possible that some people viewing this show may have been watching and listening and reflecting on their own relationship in a different way, however this may be too big of a leap. Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed it and I stuck the season out.

And so for similar reasons I thought I would give Seven Year Switch a go this year. This program takes four heterosexual couples who all report to be in relationship turmoil and then engages them in a partner swap where they live with a like-minded individual in the hope that it will save the relationship.

From what I have seen (1.5 episodes) this show is disturbingly horrendous. I feel really dirty watching it – it’s dirtier than Sarah Beaumont returning unexpectedly to Ramsay Street.

And this is after I accepted that I was about to be viewing people that all look the same. Again. All white. All heterosexual. All in their 30s. Sleeve tattoos. Really difficult to tell apart on television.

With this show, despite the addition of two “relationship experts” being involved in the process, I can not for the life of me see what this process has to do with scientific evidence or preliminary research of any kind relating to intimate relationships. That is, with this one I have absolutely no idea what the hypothesis is behind this experiment.

According to some of the promotions for the show, an aim of the show is for the couples to discover that the grass isn’t always greener. From a psychological research perspective this hypothesis is ridiculous. There is no basis for this cliché as a therapeutic technique for relationships in distress.

If the show is relying on clichés for hypotheses, I then thought that perhaps the aim was to see if ‘absence makes the heart grow stronger’. Again, this would be bollocks.

Here we have four couples, eight individuals who are in an incredibly vulnerable place. They feel they’re relationships are failing. And instead of relying on research and evidence, they’ve been talked into going through with an untried intervention. And filming (and editing) the whole thing for the Australian public.

There are some relationships that unfortunately for a variety of reasons are unhealthy and unsustainable. For example, relationships that involve any form of physical violence is a serious criminal offence and is never acceptable. Any form of family violence (physical, sexual, verbal or emotional) is a sign that the relationship is in crisis. It should be taken seriously and assistance should be sought.

However, years of research shows that for most couples, commitment is one of the most important factors in the success of that relationship. It requires people to make investments in their own relationship and to consider viable alternatives as unworthy pursuits. But Seven Year Itch is telling us that if we hit troubled waters – which all relationships do – probably the best thing to do is find someone just like you and move in with them for a while. Maybe even form a pleasant attachment with them.  It doesn’t make any sense.

Research further suggests that we feel the greatest sense of validation when our partners sensitively and responsively attend to our needs. Again, this would be hard to be achieved when one is separated and being comforted by someone else’s partner.

So, I’m afraid I just can’t see the scientific link here Channel 7.

In the real world when we conduct “experiments” with humans we have to go through a massive process of ethics applications that address issues of risks and benefits for the participants involved. Also, we need to show that the experiment we are conducting is ground in pre-existing theory and research. Not purely made up. Always, we want to do now harm. I would really like to know if either Channel 7 or 9 have a Human Research Ethics Committee signing off on these things.

But all I see in this show is harm to vulnerable people. And it makes me really sad.

Relationships are tough. Hopefully not all the time, but they have their tough times. And we know that there are evidence-based, supportive and empathic responses and strategies that can be used to help couples through these times. None of them involve testing to see if the ‘grass is greener’ or if ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ somewhere else and with someone else.

What they actually involve is watering our own grass. That’s what makes it green.

Things like nurturing the relationship through spending time alone together, developing common interests, actively listening to each other, developing appropriate communication techniques, respecting and acception each other’s differences and similarities  and expressing affection for each other.

One of the biggest things you can do to improve your relationship? Be there for each other – in the good and the challenging times. And if this is tough, then call in the REAL experts to help. Because they can.

The basis of this experiment appears ultimately false, but more importantly cruel and risky. Healthy couple relationships are one of the most wonderful and important aspects of our lives. Putting these in jeopardy at their most vulnerable point through an ‘experiment’ that has no basis in reality. That’s way too horrific to watch. Even for me.

I’m going back to watching Gogglebox now.



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