When does a social experiment turn into legitimate psychological torture – and lasting damage? Katie Meadows thinks Married at First Sight Australia has gone too far.
Married At First Sight Australia is a horrible show that everyone loves to watch. Before this year, I had never seen it. About a month and a half in to the current season I had to stop, as I was experiencing sincere mental and emotional fatigue from the constant fighting, gaslighting and cheating, all toxic behavior that was enabled by the so-called “relationship experts” in charge of the mental wellbeing of the contestants.
When I was no longer watching Married At First Sight I felt significantly less stressed and my skin cleared up, but I also quit smoking cigarettes at the same time — maybe the two were connected, who’s to say? Last week I heard that the show had come to an end, and that not only was there going to be a reunion dinner party but a sit down where everyone watches all the footage of their countless betrayals. I decided I could not miss the promised fireworks because it would be, I don’t know, “crazy”? Would it be like Flavor of Love, when New York spat on Pumpkin?
Watching the Married At First Sight reunion I felt genuinely nauseous. I truly do not think I have ever seen such a disturbing event designed to break people and succeeding in it, all in the name of network dollars and alleged social currency. It is a show that promises a happily-ever-after ending then gives its participants an absolute zero chance of that happening, conducted with a tyrannical glee as it crushes them wholly as people. It is absolutely fucked.
I messaged a friend while I was watching the reunion, trying to explain the full-on mental breakdown I was experiencing. Their recommendation was, “I don’t think you should watch MAFS, babe”. They are one hundred percent correct. Still, I could not turn away. After thinking about this I have concluded that’s because I was experiencing basic empathy, rather than enjoying a television show. Seeing genuine emotional pain on reality television is like dissociating and time travelling to a really bad argument with your mom where you said stuff that you still regret twenty years later.
If actors exhibited the full range of raw emotion seen in any of this season’s Married At First Sight victims, we would give them an Oscar. If you want to argue with me that my comparison doesn’t make sense “because they’re not acting”, this a) voids the argument used to discredit reality television as “fake” and b) doesn’t count anyway, because people worship method actors, like when Leonardo DiCaprio got Best Actor because he dragged himself through all that ice in The Revenant. Married At First Sight isn’t acting, it’s real life.
Just because you can’t imagine doing all this in front of a camera doesn’t mean it’s not scary. It actually makes it even the more terrifying that this group of people are so desensitized to being so aggressive and/or vulnerable on television. This happens because they’re in an environment that has normalised abuse in even the most abnormal of circumstances. Whatever positive values that Married At First Sight wraps itself in, it actively tries its hardest to encourage the complete opposite. Contestants are validated for toxic behavior and those who refuse to act out become the victims of that toxicity. Couples are trapped in a full-scale battle royale of emotional abuse, while three people who apparently have PhDs maintain that this is a normal part of being in an adult relationship.
The show’s team of experts is made up of John Aiken, Mel Schilling and Trisha Stratford. On their personal websites Aiken and Schilling refer to themselves as psychologists. Stratford identifies herself as a neuropsychotherapist, who additionally has worked as both a war correspondent and hostage negotiator. Until two years ago they called themselves ‘licensed professionals’, but quietly changed their titles to “relationship experts” in 2017 after a former contestant filed a formal complaint with the Psychology Council of New South Wales against John Aiken alleging that contestants on the show were “put in dangerous situations”.
In August of the same year, a ruling was passed by the council preventing Aiken from representing himself as a professional psychologist for the show. “Mr John Aiken is no longer participating on the television program Married At First Sight as a psychologist and… has updated his bio on the ‘9now’ website to reflect this,” the ruling stated. “Please note that Mr Aiken is still able to participate in the show, however, he is no longer able [to] refer to himself as a psychologist or undertake psychological practice [within the show]. This means that so long as all reference to him being a psychologist has been removed from the show, Mr Aiken can continue to work on it.” The email closes with: “The Council acknowledges that this may not be the outcome you had hoped for and understands that you may be upset.” No shit!
Maybe you don’t think a dating show could have a lasting negative effect on contestants, but people are literally killing themselves because of reality television. In 2016 the New York Post reported that 21 people who have taken part in reality television series have died by suicide, including three participants in the Bachelor franchise alone. In the last two years two participants in the UK’s Love Island have also died by suicide. Reality stars are finding the harassment they receive as new public property overwhelming and succumbing to the negativity. Others are unable to deal with not meeting their perceived expectations of how life was going to be after finding this tangential version of ‘fame’. When your downward spiral isn’t getting you attention any more, it’s just a downward spiral – and it’s messing your brain up either way.
Derren Brown is a mentalist and illusionist who stages elaborate scenarios in the name of exploring the vulnerability of the human mind to suggestion. In one of his most recent specials, The Push, he uses psychological techniques to break participants’ logical and ethical standards, culminating in their eventual decision to push someone off a building to their death. Of course, no-one dies and afterwards the distraught participant is told it was all just an experiment to test the boundaries of the psyche.
The Push reiterates to viewers that the people selected were thoroughly examined to make sure they were psychologically sound enough to take part in a potentially traumatising experience. First, I want to call bullshit on this Get-Out-of-Jail-Trauma-Free card, because I refuse to believe a scenario where being made aware of how easy it was for you to literally do a murder leaves you without any pressing existential crisis about what else you are capable of. Second, if I’m viewing Married At First Sight as a similar “social experiment”, then I’m going to expect the same guarantee that the people taking part are also neurotypical and mentally strong, which the majority of the Married At First Sight contestants are most definitely not.
To look at just a few of this year’s crop: 28-year-old Nic has survived testicular cancer twice, recently revealing his cancer returned during filming and that he postponed chemotherapy to be on the show. His on-screen match Cyrell has been cheated on by a long-term partner, leaving her unable to open up and trust others. She now finds herself on a show that encourages cheating for more airtime. On one of their first dates, Heidi opened up to Mike about her difficult childhood, where she struggled to be placed in foster care and grew up alone in government housing, to which Mike responded, “I’m not your therapist” because he is absolute dogshit. Socially anxious 29-year-old virgin Matthew has been convinced by someone in his life (from whom he should definitely stop seeking advice) that he should lose his virginity on reality television.
The coupling of Bronson and Ines is inexplicable if you’re someone who wants people to be happy, but makes perfect sense if you’re a producer wanting to profit off a nightmare. In their wedding episode, Bronson revealed the loss of his mother and two brothers earlier in his life. Tabloids were quick to report further details: in 2003, his brother Sasha was murdered by a biker gang after stealing drugs. Five months later, his mother Sancha died on the operating table after developing a bowel obstruction that was misdiagnosed as kidney stone, and in 2010 his brother Brodie died suddenly with a post-mortem unable to determine a cause of death.
Ines grew up in war-torn Bosnia and was granted refugee status, along with her family, in Australia after her sister was born in an Australian refugee camp. She has commented in interviews how difficult it was growing up with parents who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and how that trauma affected her and her ability to trust others.
Are these people mentally stable enough to be exploited emotionally for international entertainment? Of course not. Married At First Sight frames trauma as normal hurdles that people just need to get over to become stronger. They are expected to do this via a breakneck-speed crash-course in the one true monogamous fantasy: falling in love with someone you mutually trust and respect, forever.
I’m not judging anyone for watching Married At First Sight. I watched at least half this season and I did exactly what it wanted me to do. I called Ines a sociopath. I screamed at Sam. I told Mike to suck my dick and I cheered when Cyrell fed Nic a raw duck egg. But placing all these tanned, hairless rats with huge tribal tattoos in a maze with only two options — find forever love or cause drama — and then electrocuting them either way doesn’t give anyone a chance at winning (whatever that means). For all their “experimentation”, there’s no evidence that the Married At First Sight experiment even works.
In the history of Married At First Sight Australia, only three couples in the six season run remain together at the time of writing. Still the rats run the maze again and again. Cam and Jules announced they have recently become engaged again “for real”, even though they just saw all their peers barely make it out of marriage alive. Before the reunion aired, John Aiken appeared on Australia’s Today show to amp up punters for the reunion showdown — because who doesn’t want to watch a psychologist bait his patients to emotionally destroy each other for strangers’ entertainment?
Just because Married At First Sight is over for now doesn’t mean the rats are free. Several of the contestants have had to go into hiding to escape Australia’s wrath. Heidi has been so completely mentally broken that I fear her ability to ever properly know her own worth; a fucking television show invalidated her feelings just because it would be boring if they allowed her to grow as a person.
During the reunion Heidi and Mike, who at this point are no longer a couple, were subjected to a filmed montage of themselves falling in love. This is something that everyone mentally tortures themselves with post-breakup, without having to watch actual camera footage while sitting next to your ex who gaslit you to hell. When Heidi finally sticks up for herself and defends her separation from Mike, the experts probe her to see if there’s still a chance for her to get back together with the guy who literally just said he thinks men are biologically superior to women. A team of — please don’t forget, despite a change in title — licensed psychologists trying to convince a woman to re-enter a clearly toxic relationship is the big cliffhanger for the series. Watching, I felt like part of me has died.
It’s not that I haven’t seen things on reality television before that are messed up. I’m 27, I love reality television, and I’ve been pretty thoroughly desensitised to the hell these shows can put contestants through. I’ve seen a group of D-List British celebrities on Celebrity Big Brother push their way through a choreographed dance routine to Fatman Scoop’s ‘Be Faithful’ covered in fish guts and vomiting on themselves. I’ve seen Bear Grylls skin and gut a dead camel and use it as a tent. I’ve seen Geordie Shore. Did you know that Fear Factor got cancelled because they made people drink litres of donkey semen while Joe Rogan cheered them on? I’ve seen that too. Drinking donkey semen is so beyond, but trauma from psychological abuse is forever. We are laughing to keep from crying and we are through the looking glass, people!
Married At First Sight is one of those shows that is so deeply depraved that eventually we and the networks that broadcast it will try to scrub it from our collective consciousness, like the original version of Extreme Makeover where several normal woman were all made to look like the same ideal woman. Or The Swan, which went a step further and entered all the new ‘ideal’ women into a beauty pageant to remind them they ultimately have no self-worth.
I haven’t forgotten The Swan, and anybody who has seen me in the last week knows I definitely haven’t forgotten the Married At First Sight reunion. This show should be cancelled because it exploits vulnerable people, encourages toxic behavior and normalizes emotional abuse, but I know it won’t be, because it makes money. And I got paid to write this, so fuck me too, I guess.
The 2019 season of Married At First Sight has been more controversial than ever before, so much so that even Australians, who are more than happy to yell abuse at each other and let their country burn, are petitioning to get it cancelled. I don’t know if change.org can actually change anything, but as far as television goes we can simply stop watching it and participating in this grand media circus of psychological torture.
If I’m pushed to think of one positive thing that has come out of watching this show, it is that I now more than ever value and strive towards open communication with the people I care about. I never want to be one of those maze rats, electrocuted over and over because “that’s how life is”. If you see any similarities between your own interpersonal relationships and those of the couples seen on Married At First Sight, please seek immediate therapy and/or counselling, and for God’s sake, put down the red wine.
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