Commercial TV is an evil genius. I don’t watch much of it these days, but somehow I got suckered into Married At First Sight. It’s just, y’know, I’m making dinner and my housemate likes to unwind in front of the box. So there I am, innocently frying my fish when she begins hooting with laughter. So I get drawn away from the stove (I am a walking fire hazard) and find it’s that show the boys were talking about the other day. The one I made fun of them about.

When they refer to the battle for the watercooler, this is exactly what they’re on about. Reality TV has perfected the art of balancing the relatable and the ridiculous, the beautiful and the ugly, attraction and revulsion, to create programs like this. Shows you love to hate on and hate yourself for loving. Shows you can’t help but talk about.

Like I’m doing right now, on the night of Valentine’s Day, incidentally.

photo credit: matmatson Love Rings via photopin (license)

In other parts of the world, an arranged marriage is no big deal – but here in Australia, somehow it’s enough of a novelty to warrant its own program. Yet Married At First Sight cheapens the novelty by allowing couples to easily get divorced, as soon as the day after they exchange vows with a stranger. Or perhaps it’s more correct to say that the show highlights that marriage has already been cheapened by the fact that we can easily get divorced, as soon as the day after exchanging vows with a stranger.

Which begs the question: for all the marketing around weddings and Hollywood ideals, does marriage really mean anything anymore? (Or am I the only one who thinks about this when I watch the show?).

It just seems to me that marriage nowadays still carries significant cultural weight and yet the fact that divorce is not only accessible but often accessed is completely contrary to what marriage is supposed to represent: a lifelong commitment to an exclusive relationship. I’m not saying there are never good grounds for divorce; I’m just saying the abundance of grounds undermines the very definition of marriage.

When you listen to the participants and the psychologists on the program, it would seem like they really do believe in this thing – their discussion reveals some not-so-shallow reasons behind why people want to pair up, this common human longing for a life partner.

Still, while making a lifelong commitment to an exclusive relationship is a beautiful thing, what does the state have to do with it? Why should the government reward you for it when your coupling doesn’t necessarily do anything for the good of society?

Historically marriage served as a form of protection for women who could otherwise be vulnerable to destitution and exploitation. Thankfully that particular function is now obsolete, at least in countries like Australia.

Historically, culturally and biblically, marriage was also the foundation for building a family – and I agree our kids are worth protecting with the full force of the law. But if a couple for whatever reason doesn’t have kids, there’s no reason for the law to seal their union.

With apologies to my sister and brother-in-law for using their wedding photos for a post like this!

So whatever artifice there is in the Marriage At First Sight “experiment”, there are some real issues at play here. The couples explore many elements of what makes relationships work, what we really want out of them, the way your partner can and should challenge you in some facets of your life and encourage you in others. How that can be hard and even painful – but productive. Hopefully.

Then again you can’t deny it’s also a seriously tacky show because – if the title and concept didn’t already alert you – each episode is full of dramatic sound effects timed to create suspense. Also, the participants are a good-looking bunch and surely that’s by design.

Watching it makes me wonder if I’d ever go on something like this. It also makes me wonder whether my mixed feelings about the program mirror in some way my mixed feelings about marriage generally in contemporary Western culture.

photo credit: Nick-K (Nikos Koutoulas) Silhouettes via photopin (license)

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