Monday, March 7, 2016

"Married at First Sight" on A&E - Observations and Insights

Basic Format of the Show: Married at First Sight on A&E

Four professional therapists/relationship counsellors thoroughly interview hopeful participants and match three couples for each series based on multiple areas of presumed compatibility. Each man and woman meet for the very first time on their wedding day, being introduced by the presiding official as the bride reaches the alter where her husband-to-be is waiting for her. Although they may be able to hesitate for a moment or two, being surrounded by family and friends, not to mention a documentary film crew, and having signed a contract with the producers in good faith, the couples proceed to commit themselves to this "social experiment" and to a legally binding union; i.e. they say their "I do's" and get Married at First Sight! Following that they go on a honeymoon for one week and live together for five more weeks. At the end of this period, they have an opportunity to decide if they will stay married or get a divorce.

Needless to say, it makes for good drama! Besides initial interview snippets, we also get to follow the men and women for about a week or so as they prepare for their wedding days. We watch as they discuss their decisions with family and friends, addressing their questions and concerns. When the big day comes, it's not uncommon to see A Lot of anxiety, second guessing, and questions of "What am I getting myself into?"

Nevertheless, motivated by the promise of a loving marriage, putting their faith in the vetting process they've endured with the therapists, (and who knows what other "carrots" and/or "sticks" the producers might have in the contracts), we watch as the men stand patiently at the front of the room, and their bride walks through the door, looking about as beautiful as any woman could given the special care of their hair, make-up, and, of course, the always stunning wedding gown! Where "first impressions" are concerned, and especially for the women, it's definitely one of the advantages of getting "Married at First Sight"!

The men are dressed in their best as well, however, that doesn't always help them as much as they might hope. Maybe "Women Go Crazy for a Sharp Dressed Man," especially when it's a man they're already attracted to? I don't know. All I do know, from the shows I've seen so far, is that it seems the men are inclined to be less selective, or particular about how their bride looks, but not being immediately attracted to their husband is a big stumbling block for the women.

Following the wedding, the couples take a week-long honeymoon and that is their first opportunity to start getting to know each other. As it tends to be for the remainder of the program, the big question is: Will they consummate their marriage? Will there be instant "chemistry", or will it take a little while, or will there never be any "chemistry" at all?

After the honeymoon, the couples are expected to live together for another five weeks.  Maybe one moves into the other's living space, but the usual preference is to find a totally new house or apartment to share. They have to take many practical issues into consideration, like managing their respective work schedules and commutes, sharing and caring for pets, etc. In this regard, it really is not that different from ordinary dating couples who choose to move-in together. The only real difference is the time frame: These couples have to deal with more of the realities of married life, in all of its mundane details, within a mere week of meeting one another!

And to help them with this fast and furious head-on collision with "real life" as husband and wife, the therapists offer their various forms of counseling: emotional, sexual, practical, and spiritual. So although it's a particularly intense process, and includes the persistent "voyeurism" of the cameras and eventually the viewing audience, these couples have resources in the therapists that few other couples ever have or think to take advantage of, certainly not from the very beginning of their relationships.

After the six weeks are up, it's time for the couples to decide if they will stay together or get a divorce. They may have looked like a "perfect match" in the eyes of the therapists, or "on paper," but six weeks of "real life" interaction may have revealed many things the therapists could never have foreseen. And even with the best matches, six weeks is still a fairly short time to build a foundation of trust with another human being. Consequently, old anxieties, feelings of mistrust and self-doubt often come bubbling back to the surface, making that final decision a difficult one. 

Nevertheless, once the decision is made, it will be six more months before we'll see the couples again in the follow-up episode. In the interim, I'm assuming they can continue to receive counseling support as necessary from the therapists. In addition, they will have had the opportunity to watch the program themselves and interact with audience members via social media.

My Observations of "Typical" Relationships vs. the "Arranged" Marriages of "Married at First Sight"

First of all, I give the producers, therapists, and couples credit for daring to conduct this "social experiment" at all. I think there is much for the individuals and couples to learn from the process, and the viewing audience as well. Though it is seen as rather archaic in a modern, western society, "matchmaking" used to be considered a valuable and sought after skill. With the advance of services like "e-Harmony" as well as "Reality TV", I guess it was just a matter of time for a program like "Married at First Sight" to emerge.

So what's the biggest difference between meeting a potentially compatible partner at the alter and meeting one at work, or a bar, or some other social function? I'll answer that in one word: "Chemistry". And I'll emphasize this by writing it again without the quotes: Chemistry.

What I mean is that the body chemistry of the people Marrying at First Sight is going to be very different from people who, say, "fall in love at first sight" (and, yes, there are the quotes again). In fact, it seems this lack of immediately felt "chemistry" ends up being a big sticking point for many of the couples. Furthermore, from what I've observed, it is usually the women who struggle with that the most, at least at first.

Let's be honest. For most modern couples, "chemistry" is what draws them together in the first place. I'm using quotes again because this kind of "chemistry" is not easy to define, or succumbs to definition only on an individual basis. We might also use words like "fascination," or "sexual magnetism" and they'd all mean about the same thing. (I'd even throw in the concept of "Dynamic Quality", but that's for another discussion.)

What I will offer is this: From my current point of view, all of that kind of "chemistry" - is the limbic brain signaling "Optimal GENETIC Compatibility" - And Not Much Else! When it comes to reproducing the species, the limbic brain doesn't really care how much money he or she makes, whether they're Christian or Muslim or Atheist, Republican or Democrat, Big House or Tiny House, cat or dog lover. Without much consciousness on your part, the limbic brain recognizes a lot about Genetic Compatibility from things like a person's facial features and pheremones. The signalling can be instantaneous and powerful, and if reproducing the species is All you Consciously care about, then you'll be fine following the limbic brain's lead. However, if you actually want to share a Mutually Satisfying Life with your partner - you might just want to take a few of those other things (and a lot more) into consideration.

And that is where the therapists of "Married at First Sight" come into the picture. From my point of view, they use their interview and analysis tools to effectively bypass or short-circuit the species-reproduction-only focus of the limbic brain. They provide each individual the opportunity to interact with the other as a Complex Whole Person - with weaknesses and strengths, values and preferences, long-term hopes and dreams, which may include, but also go beyond mere biological urges to reproduce. So rather than the dramatic rush of the "falling in love" neurotransmitters - dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin, our couples have to develop a flow of the more steady state bonding and trust-based neurotransmitters - oxytocin and vasopressin.

Although I cannot offer research to back up my theory, I have begun to suspect that the additional "rush" and/or intensity of the "falling in love at first sight" experience comes from the presence of adrenaline - a stress related neurotransmitter, in addition to dopamine, which is most often associated with pleasure and/or the anticipation of pleasure.

Think about it, on the one hand your limbic brain is signaling genetic compatibility, but it happens to be drawing you towards someone who is otherwise a total stranger, and as a stranger, potentially dangerous. Mixed with the dopamine of anticipated pleasure, you get adrenaline preparing you to respond to a threat. Who's to say which of these neurotransmitters will win out in the end, or in any particular case. However, it makes sense that, in order for the species to survive as a whole, the biological drive to reproduce, and the pleasure of sex would have to be stronger than a fear of being harmed. I suspect some of you who are reading this can recall a time when you chose to pursue sexual pleasure with a relative stranger, in spite of your fears and maybe lived to regret it later. In that case, you can chalk it up as a "win" for dopamine and your limbic brain!

This is all going to be very different for couples in an arranged marriage, in part because they simply are not entering into their association with the other person based merely on "genetic compatibility 
signaling" from the limbic brain. No dopamine. No obvious and/or immediate anticipation of pleasure, means it's actually going to be harder for them stay motivated to work through the challenges they will inevitably face. Nevertheless, the program has within it some other motivators, both contractural and social, and, so far anyway, those have at least helped to keep the couples on course for the initial six weeks.

Maybe the therapists should do some form of genetic compatibility testing? (Or are they already? I have no idea). I don't know if the science is advanced enough at this time to make a selection on that basis, that would be any more accurate or "healthier" than what the limbic brain comes up with on its own. But, again, should genetic compatibility be the Most important factor to consider when choosing a Life Partner? I would say, "No." There are many, many other factors to consider more seriously if having a Life Partner is your goal, and in that case, a good "matchmaker," or a select group of psychotherapists might come in handy!

Who's Responsible for Your Chosing to Love or to Be Vulnerable, Trusting, or Happy?

One of the recurring themes in participant commentaries is the following: "I want to find the right person who will make me want to let down my walls, someone with whom I will feel comfortable letting go, someone who I can trust," etc., etc.

Many, many years ago, when I was in the Navy, interacting with men who were often younger than me by 10 or 15 years (I entered the Navy at 34), I found myself counseling them as follows: "If a woman does not already know How to Be Happy (on her own), then there is nothing you will ever be able to do to Make Her Happy." I would say the same would be true for trust, vulnerability, and love.

All too often I hear participants Relinquishing their Locus of Control. Rather than doing what I would call their "home work", the work they do on themselves, on their own, to become more self-aware, loving, vulnerable, happy, caring, emotionally communicative, etc., they are stuck waiting - waiting for that "other" person to come along who is somehow, magically going to inspire or provoke all of that in them.

I have found this to be a very dysfunctional path to follow, and over and over again, it seems to be a huge contributing factor to the marriages that fail on "Married at First Sight."

It happens with both the men and the women. Sometimes they alternate, becoming more or less vulnerable in this weird reciprocal dance. For example, as I suggested above, it is usually the women who are not that attracted to the men at first. So, they protect themselves with more of a masculine or Tom-boyish, Devil-May-Care, attitude, even to the point of rudeness, and/or emasculation of their partners. Somehow, their partners persevere through all of this, maybe repressing their hurt feelings. Then there comes a turning point for the women, where they open up, start to have "warm, fuzzy" vulnerable feelings around and about their partners, only to have their partners then erect walls, and pull away, or worse, ignore or be oblivious to those changes in their partners and the emotional implications of those changes. This response from the men only proves to the women that they were right not to be vulnerable in the first place, and they then close back up, and we're all back to where we started.

I won't deny it. Vulnerability is tough. Developing a Rational Basis of Trust in a relationship with another human being is far more difficult, and involves far more energy investment than most people are willing to make. It's much easier to simply swing back and forth on a pendulum - being totally trusting or totally mistrusting, without any real, consciously observed, rational basis for either.

However, there are some wonderful, and fairly recently available resources to help navigate this major challenge of relationships, for instance, the work of BrenĂ© Brown. This includes her TED talks on Vulnerability and Shame, books like Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection, and Rising Strong. She also has seminar style educational programs such as "The Power of Vulnerability" offered through Personally, I think every person who is a participant on "Married at First Sight" should have to take "The Power of Vulnerability" course in one form or another. Not only does she address the "middle ground" of being vulnerable, while still having boundaries with the people who cannot respect, appreciate, and honor your vulnerability; she also addresses the importance of building trust not as a "grand gesture," but as an ever-growing "marble collection."

Finally, either each of us, as individuals, makes a deliberate choice, a Commitment to Love, or we don't. It's not about making a commitment to another person, to love them, or waiting for them to make or prove such a commitment to us before we, in turn, choose to love them. It's about making a commitment to Being a Loving Person in ALL of our relationships, period. And, for me, that means, making a commitment to learning what makes the other person Feel Loved and doing whatever those things are. I've dedicated a whole blog to this topic here.

Once again, from my point of view, this is one of the key stumbling blocks in the thinking of many of the participants in this program; i.e. that it is going to be The Other Person - Mr. or Ms. Right - who is going to somehow "magically" provoke them or motivate them to become a more trusting, vulnerable, loving, and/or happy person. I will offer that the key to a truly successful relationship is the capacity that each person brings to the table to already be vulnerable, to already be capable of trust, to already be capable of loving, to already be happy, because they have already done their homework, they've already "graduated" from that "course" in their life as individuals and they're ready for the new "course work" of bringing all of these capacities to bear in a long-term, intimate relationship with another person.

That's all I have to say about that for now. The final "follow-up" episode for the current season will air tomorrow night, March 8th at 9:00 pm on A&E. I plan to be watching, although I won't be able to follow chatter on Twitter for lack of Internet access at home.

There are at least three other related topics I would like to cover in one or more future posts: 1) Better understanding the importance of masculine and feminine "polarity" in relationships (with references to the work of David Deida and possibly Louann Brizendine), 2) Understanding the special relationship challenges for introverts in an extrovert-centric world (with references to the work of Laurie Helgoe and the exploration of masculine and feminine archetypes by Tad and Noreen Guzie), and 3) Understanding the mechanism of the "Drawing of the Bow" as it relates to our feelings of withdrawal and/or depression when we are facing major life decisions. 

I can't say for sure when I'll be able to get on-line to follow up with these posts, but I will certainly follow-up as soon as I possibly can. Feel free to contact or follow me via Twitter @llbell100 (LLBELL One Hundred) or by leaving a comment on this blog.  I welcome your feedback.
#MarriedatFirstSight, #MAFS