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The loneliness of wedding reality shows

Married at First SightLove is Blind and Indian Matchmaking react against modern dating by reinventing arranged marriage. But are these shows really about love?

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Over 7,000 people applied to star in the fifth series of Married at First Sight – an astonishingly high number given the limited appeal of having your heart broken live on national television. And the chance of heartbreak is high. The British version of the international reality TV series has never successfully matched a couple. As a result they have this year recruited “a brand-new team of elite matchmakers”, who have found four unlucky-in-love singletons desperate enough to marry a stranger, who they will meet for the first time on their wedding day.

Married at First Sight is one of several exploitative, completely addictive reality TV dating shows that tries to remedy its participants’ dissatisfaction with modern dating culture by reinventing arranged marriage. Most young people in the West enjoy historically unprecedented freedom and choice over who to marry, or whether to marry at all. But the couples matched on shows such as Married at First Sight and Love is Blind say they feel overwhelmed by the choice, and the responsibility of choosing. They are all almost pathologically committed to finding “The One” but have lost all hope of doing so. They blame online dating and hook-up culture. They say they cannot forge a “deep connection” with anyone when everyone suspects there’s someone even better out there, just a Tinder swipe away.

This year on Married at First Sight we meet David, a 56-year-old father-of-two and a prepper (he prefers to think of himself as a “boy scout”) who describes his participation on the show as the “one shot to find the person I’ve been looking for really for my whole life”. He’s matched with Shareen, a 47-year-old mother-of-three and events organiser who bemoans that marriage is the one thing she’s been “unable to attain”, as though it’s some kind of advanced diploma. The other couple are 25-year-old school teacher Michelle, who doesn’t understand why her mother isn’t more supportive of her televised quest to settle down with The One, and Owen, a very straight-laced 31-year-old IT manager who says he’s “shocking” in front of girls he fancies.

The producers ensure that they all enjoy a recreation of a classic English wedding that is so convincing it verges on the parodic. First there are hen dos with high teas and plastic veils, and stags drinking yards of ale in the pub. On the big day itself, there are frosty mothers-of-the-bride and guests in big colourful hats dabbing away streaming mascara and clumsy, heartfelt father-of-the-bride speeches – “although you have these flaws, you are my diamond” – and goofy dancing under disco lights. For a few hours, at least, the contestants are treated to the wedding of their least-wild dreams, and they seem overjoyed. They have everything they ever wanted. But we at home already know it will all go wrong, of course it will, and that’s what makes it so cruel and so watchable.

Sometimes it feels like these reality TV romantics wants so little – to be loved, to be understood – and sometimes it seems they want it all. They want the convenience of an arranged marriage – the fully vetted partner who “ticks all the right boxes” and is “ready to commit” – but they also want the “spark” and “chemistry” of new love. They sense a void in their life and conclude it can only be filled by a soulmate. They seem sure that if only they can find the right person, the two of them will slot together like puzzle pieces and their life will feel complete.

In Labor of Love, a history of dating, the writer Moira Weigel notes a tension between how we talk about love – as something that defies logic, a matter of heart and gut and instinct – and the economic logic we apply to dating. The newly single person is “back on the market” and must be willing to “invest” in a new relationship. Some flaws are “deal-breakers”, a term favoured by reality TV contestants, others involve difficult “trade-offs”. Weigel observes that dating customs reflect underlying economic structures – for instance, people only started dating in the early 20th century, when young single people moved away from their families and into the cities in search of work. In a similar way, the precarity of dating in the Tinder-era reflects the economic precarity of modern gig work, Weigel argues. “If marriage is the long-term contract that many daters hope to land, dating itself feels like the worst, most precarious form of labour: an unpaid internship,” she writes. No wonder some people are casting around for alternatives.

The hit Netflix show Indian Matchmaking hints that arranged marriage might be the solution for discontented daters in the West, though viewers might reach a different conclusion. The star matchmaker, Sima Taparia (“Sima from Mumbai” as she prefers to introduce herself) has been married for 37 years to a man she met only once before they agreed to the engagement, and the show is interspersed with clips of other real-life couples talking about how they made their arranged marriage work. Taparia tries to find matches for wealthy families living in India and for Indian-Americans who have decided, or been encouraged by their parents, to opt out of US dating culture. While her clients in the US are looking for “sparks”, her clients in conservative Indian families seem to, by necessity, have lower expectations.

The seemingly hapless Ashkay is bullied into getting married by his overbearing mother, who blames his indecision for her soaring blood pressure and threatens to choose a wife for him if he won’t commit to accepting one of the dozens of women Taparia has found for him. He looks shell-shocked during his pre-engagement ceremony, and while his fiancée Radhika seems more composed, I worried more for her. We do not know, after all, how much freedom she had to turn down this awkward, reluctant groom, or what her expectations are for marriage. Even as it bills itself as an advert for arranged marriage, Indian Matchmaking serves as a reminder that arranged marriages are often inherently conservative. Romantic love is subversive and socially disruptive, it can transcend race and class and tradition, while arranged marriage – which pairs people according to criteria such as education, profession, religion, attractiveness and, perhaps most controversially, skin colour, is designed to uphold the status quo. Even “modern” arrangements under which the bride and groom can technically refuse a match can in practice be quite coercive.

Many of Taparia’s clients are under immense familial and social pressure to get married, but many young people in Britain or the US are not. The reality TV wedding trend has coincided with a decline in the marriage rate in the UK: in April 2020 it was reported that the number of opposite-sex marriages taking place in the UK had declined to the lowest on record (the statistics date to before the pandemic). Since the 1970s the average age at marriage has increased precipitously, so that now it is 35 for women and 38 for men. That might mean that many viewers can relate to the occasional horrors and frequent disappointments of dating, but it also underlines that marriage isn’t as important as it used to be – for most people in the UK, unlike in many parts of the world, marriage is not a prerequisite to moving out of your parents’ house, to having serious romantic relationships, to having a sex life or to having children. Taparia observes in Indian Matchmaking that marriages in India are “breaking like biscuits” but rising divorce rates can be considered a positive development, an indication that people feel free and able to leave unhappy relationships and to lead rich and fulfilling lives while divorced or single.

It finally hit me, while binge-watching Love is Blind that none of these shows are about marriage or even about love at all. They are about loneliness. In this show – so nakedly exploitative that one writer memorably wrote in GQ that he “felt dirty watching it. Like a serf in the Middle Ages watching local witches dunked in the river to see if they’ll float or drown” – the contestants decide whether to get married to one another after ten days of speed dating conducted in “pods” that mean they can hear but cannot see one another. The show presents itself as an experiment to determine whether “love really is blind”: whether appearances are secondary to meaningful connection (though, of course, everyone on the show is relatively attractive). What it really seems to demonstrate is how hungry people are for a feeling of personal connection and intimacy; how little it seems to take for the contestants to finally feel like someone understands them.

At one point in the series, when the unhappy newlyweds Jessica and Mark are struggling to talk to one another, they realise they can communicate better when they do so through a wall. In this way, they can recreate conditions in the pod, when the other person was a disembodied voice, an abstraction, someone onto which they could pin all their hopes and desires – not so much another person as a being created solely to service their need to feel heard. Their tragic mistake is believing that marriage is the ultimate cure for loneliness. They are hardly the first people to make it.

Sophie McBain is a special correspondent at the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor.