The woman who rang me said she was from a television production company that was creating a programme in which participants get married at first sight. She then explained they needed experts to match the participants, and considering a female psychologist had already signed on, they felt a male therapist would add the needed balance to the show. She wondered if that was something I might be interested in. I remember telling her two things. The first, in a playful tone was that psychotherapists don’t get on very well with psychologists. I realised as soon as I said this that any potential conflict between experts would only ignite the fire of reality television.
I then told her I was an introvert, and suggested while this personality style suited my work as a therapist, I wasn’t sure it would suit television. She ignored me, and said they only wanted to have a conversation with me, and if it felt right we could then record a screen test.
Throughout this brief conversation my reservations left me feeling like I was being ungrateful. The young woman’s voice seemed to mirror something of my resistance. Her sentences became clipped, and the upbeat energy of the first minutes of the call seemed to fade. She suggested that I check out the Australian version of the show online. I said I would give some thought to her offer, and asked if she could send me a link to the show. She agreed to do this. I haven’t heard back from her.
While the narcissistic parts of my personality received a momentary boost, my overwhelming instinct was clear that going on national television was not a smart move. A few days later when I attended a psychotherapy meeting I relayed this story to one of my peers, whose face responded with a look of mild repulsion, like they were witnessing something pristine being soiled. That expression somehow affirmed that I had avoided a humiliating experience. It’s not that psychotherapy is somehow above mainstream television programming, but there were issues that arose in thinking about being a part of a programme like Married at First Sight.
As a psychotherapist I start my work with a new patient by taking a comprehensive history. This process takes at least two or three sessions, and is often revisited as the work develops. This diagnostic process begins to reveal the development of the personality over time, and gives some insight into the adaptive processes the individual uses in relationship to others. So in that sense psychotherapists are well suited to the psychological profiling that is part of Married at First Sight.
The problem then may be one of matching. Matching partners implies that if you have diagnosed two people thoroughly, you have some chance of creating a successful match. But while we know something of the substances of the two individuals, we never know how they will react when mixed. So any sort of prediction appears doomed, and this is how it should be. Why? Because prediction is magical in nature, and indicates that we are looking for a way of bypassing, and short tracking the fear we experience when coming into relationship with someone new.
A part of the work of psychotherapy is learning to tolerate fear, so that its grip is no longer so fierce and debilitating. This process takes time, and this time is a key tension between reality television and psychotherapy. The manic staccato of television requires a narrative certainty even when one does not exist, whereas psychotherapy incorporates periods of uncertainty, and moments where questions are contemplated without immediate answer. While this generates a space in which new awareness can emerge, I imagine the slow pace would make viewers switch off.
The deliberation of psychological experts in reality shows like Married at First Sight is of little consequence to their ratings. My brief look at the history of the Australian version of this programme (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Married_at_First_Sight_(Australian_TV_series)) revealed that over four seasons, out of the 24 couples that participated only two couples have remained together. But this is the point of the programme. The real fascination lies in the fact that it won’t work. Arranged marriages in other cultures are created for a myriad of reasons, one of which is the alleviation of poverty. Financial poverty is not a motivational factor in programmes like Married at First Sight, but instead what this sort of entertainment reflects is an attempt to commodify the psychic poverty that we all share in common with the contestants.