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What I Learned About Love From Reality TV

'Married at First Sight' taught me to take a second look at relationships

Dr. Joseph Cilona, Dr. Pepper Schwartz, Greg Epstein and Dr. Logan Levkoff; experts of A&E's

Courtesy of A&E

Dr. Joseph Cilona, Dr. Pepper Schwartz, Greg Epstein and Dr. Logan Levkoff; experts of A&E's "Married at First Sight."

If you scoff at the idea of a reality show where people get married literally the first time they lay eyes on each other, hear me out.

Laughter was my own first reaction when a producer for the A&E network's reality TV show Married at First Sight called me about two years ago to ask if I'd like to be one of four relationship experts on the show.

Who would ever agree to such an idea, I wondered, either as an expert or as a guest? This is the United States, a land where arranged marriages are hardly a cottage industry.

But then I sat down to watch the original series. Created in Denmark (where it went by the same English title it has now), Married at First Sight used behavioral and clinical science to help match total strangers — and keep them together.

An outrageous premise, for sure.

But as the episodes unspooled, I realized the setup might actually hand a chance at finding lifelong love to people who hadn't been able to find it on their own.

So I said yes.

Davina Kullar and Sean Varricchio of A&E's

Courtesy of A&E

Davina Kullar and Sean Varricchio of A&E's "Married at First Sight."

What I couldn't have predicted was how much I myself would learn about marriage in the course of serving as an expert on the subject. I've been researching and teaching the sociology of intimate relationships for 40 years, but watching these couples meet at the altar, then struggle to make their engineered unions both satisfying and durable, has been a revelation for me. Let me tell you about four of my assumptions that got smashed:

1) Thinking that younger couples would be too immature to handle the pressure of getting to know an "instant spouse," I thought we should not match couples in their early 20s. Boy, was I wrong!

In the show's first season, for example, I hesitated to pair 20-somethings Jason and Courtney because I was aware of sociological research showing that younger couples tend to be more unstable. ("Increases in age at marriage are associated with greater marital stability," is how pioneering sociologist Gary Becker put it in 1977.)

But my three fellow panelists on Married at First Sight were adamant — and they were correct. Jason and Courtney proved to be highly resilient: He was understanding, patient and communicative, while she displayed a surprisingly seasoned blend of caring, accommodation, support and honesty. Savvy and kindness, I had to conclude, can always trump age — or the lack of it.

2) Laboring under the misconception that they would be burned out and thus harder to match, I thought we should steer clear of singles in their 30s. Wrong again, Pepper!

New research by Evelyn Lehrer, an economics professor at the University of Illinois, confirms that this demographic slice has every right to anticipate marital success. "For women who enter their first marriage at a later age," writes Lehrer, "the stabilizing effects associated with older age at marriage and higher levels of educational attainment far outweigh the risk factors. Marriage delay poses real challenges for a couple, yet the unions they form tend to be stable because the partners tend to have relatively high levels of human capital and maturity."

Sure enough, Lehrer's findings were borne out in the actions of Doug and Jamie, a pair of 30-somethings who proved my misgivings baseless. Even though Jamie brought a grab bag of family dysfunction to their union, the couple's innate maturity enabled them to work through their personal issues. (And how's this for professional success? By the end of Season 1, Jamie and Doug had landed their own spinoff show.)

3) Would Married at First Sight participants take the institution of marriage seriously? Aware of a Pew Research Center Trends Report showing that 44 percent of those 18 to 29 see marriage as obsolete, I worried they would not. Once again — cue penalty-buzzer sound effects — my bad.

Many of the couples who agreed to appear on the show revealed they never would have gotten past the first date if the only thing at stake had been a second date. Now that they were legally married, however, they tried commensurately harder to make the relationship work. They respected the institution of marriage; they did not want a divorce; they hung in there and worked hard at it.

Take the time Doug lied to Jamie about having quit smoking. When she found out about his lapse — and the whopper he had fabricated to try concealing it — Jamie was enraged. "I'd always thought that not telling the truth was one of my deal-breakers," she reflected. "If we'd only been dating, I'd have been so out of there!" But they were newlyweds, so she stuck around and they worked it out.

4) I thought it would be difficult to find people willing to appear on the show. Wrong — so, so wrong.

Dating for people in their 20s and 30s is more of a challenge than I ever knew. By the time the third season of Married at First Sight started shooting in July 2015, we had more than 20,000 new applicants. Discouraged by the modern dating scene, they were desperately reaching out to the MAFS panel — a sociologist, a psychologist, a chaplain and a sexologist — for expert help.

Both during the show's filming and afterward, many of these young (and older) adults rely on our support and counseling. They open their hearts to us. And though I treat that as an awesome responsibility, I also wish that every couple could afford the privilege of putting a team of experts to work on their relationship.

Perhaps that's the most useful thing reality TV has taught me about making a marriage work: Whenever you encounter difficulty of any kind — whether it's the mechanics of intimacy or just an amorphous feeling that the two of you aren't quite as in sync as you once were — don't refrain from asking the nearest expert for help. With any luck, the skills you pick up will last not just a season but a lifetime.

As AARP's love and relationships ambassador, Pepper Schwartz writes about sex for aarp.org.

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