How reality dating shows are hurting our chances of finding true love
Cynics have long said that very little is real when it comes to reality television. Famehungry contestants, contrived situations and smoke-and-mirrors editing are the staples in a genre that has captivated audiences around the world. But when reality television was conceived, the aim was to hold up a mirror to society and reflect our hidden underbelly. It was a way of seeing what people “just like us” would do in a variety of situations, whether it be trying to win a cooking competition or to exist in a house with a random collection of strangers.
And then came dating shows. Suddenly, rather than the shows being influenced by the way romance was being achieved in the real world, albeit in heightened circumstances, these series started dictating the way viewers went about looking for love.
Danni Crews is a Melbourne-based relationship therapist who works with both singles looking to form long-lasting relationships as well as couples looking to improve their bond. And she firmly believes shows such as Channel 10 hit The Bachelor are having an adverse effect on modern-day relationships.
“Reality shows are impacting on us as a society,” Crews says. “It’s all about surface stuff – in shows such as The Bachelor, the bigger the date, the more someone loves you. It promotes ‘winning’ love. Plus, ultimately the Bachelor or Bachelorette, unless they’re very psychologically aware, ends up with the person they find the hottest. It’s all about image.”
We watch avidly as the contestants on The Bachelor are whisked off on lavish dates, wined and dined in exotic locations and given extravagant gifts to show romantic intent.
And slowly but surely, it has changed expectations for us at home as to how we should woo and be wooed in the early stages of a relationship.
Social demographer Mark McCrindle has noted a marked increase in people getting into financial strife in an attempt to win the heart of their loved one. “We’re seeing the rise of ceremony to mark different points of a relationship, and particularly in the early stages of a relationship,” McCrindle says.
“People do go beyond their budget to attempt to recreate what they’ve seen from a budget of a reality TV show and that creates challenges. These programs show you options you hadn’t even thought about. And with that comes a cost.”
It’s a trend author and social researcher Maggie Hamilton has also observed. Having completed a two-year study into the attitudes of boys and men for her latest book, What Men Don’t
Talk About, she says many of the people interviewed for the project were concerned about the cost of modern-day romance.
“We’re living in a performance culture, and reality shows promote performance,” she explains. “When you invest a lot in your appearance, you expect high returns. But transactional relationships allow little room for warmth, kindness and genuine love as everyone’s so caught up in playing the part.”
The idea of dating multiple people may now be more acceptable thanks to popular apps such as Tinder, but reality shows had already blazed the way. How aware were you of swiping left and right before our first Aussie Bachelor, Tim Robards, started handing out roses to ballgown-clad women?
“Even 10 years ago, you would never have dated more than one person at a time, but that’s the reality now,” Crews says.
Rowena Murray educates teens and young women about sex and dating and says younger viewers of reality shows are picking up on the disposable nature of these on-screen relationships. “People are very quick to judge and very quick to say, ‘Nup, you’re not for me,’ or ‘I want this right away’,” she says. “What we’re seeing in reality shows speaks to how people nowadays are being treated as more disposable.”
That ease in dismissing potential partners has a big impact on our long-term happiness, adds Hamilton. “When people become disposable, so does our ability to genuinely connect with others, to find delight in shared conversations, shared goals, shared passions and in our differences, too,” she says. “There’s a high correlation between affluent societies and depression.’’
Experts say it’s not just The Bachelor that is having an unhealthy side effect on how modern-day romance plays out. Channel 9’s successful series Married at First Sight has also come under fire from experts for adding to an upswing in the thought that marriage is as easily entered into as it is thrown away. “It really makes marriage look disposable and it makes a mockery of it,” says Murray says.
Ironically, while many complain that the only thing we’re seeing in reality shows is conflict among contestants, Crews says it’s a lack of conflict that is the most unhelpful message being taken home by viewers.
Conflict in relationships is essential, especially in the early days, she says. Knowing how you can navigate through tough times together is what leads to a lasting, successful romance.
Relationship rescue shows are also a new screen staple, with Seven’s Seven Year Switch and Nine’s The Last Resort recently showcasing couples in crisis looking for a fix to their woes.
And while there can be some good takeaways given by the resident experts that can potentially help us solve problems in our own relationships, at the same time these shows also foster an unhelpful attitude that there’s a “quick fix” on offer. And, more worryingly, they can also lead viewers to think that bad behaviour doesn’t necessarily have to be addressed or owned.
In both of these series, many of the participants are shown to have some serious problems – including infidelity, dishonesty and anger management. But Crews says she’s yet to see any real ownership from the parties involved and that sends a terrible message to viewers at home who may be facing similar relationship hurdles.
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to your favourite TV guilty pleasures. While there definitely can be some negative fallout associated with the drama we see on screens, there are also some good lessons. “It starts conversations and that’s really important,” says Murray. “It can also make people think outside the box when it comes to dating.” The Bachelor Australia screens at 10pm Monday on Channel 10