Married at first sight: Worthy social experiment or just plain silly?

On Thursday next week, Channel 4 will be showing the first of a three part series entitled Married at first sight. In what the makers describe as a social experiment, three couples will marry, having met for the first time just a few hours before they walk up the aisle. They will have been matched for compatibility by ‘experts’. Although couples are legally married, they have an opt-out clause after six weeks if things don’t work out.Let me start by wishing each of these couples all the very best. I have no desire whatsoever to see them do anything other than have a wonderful marriage. However couples arrive at being married, they have still got married. Indeed, because the programmes have already been filmed, I imagine they are married today.

The premise of the programme is that couples do well if they are compatible. So let’s go to the top academic journal in this subject, the Journal of Marriage and Family. Google it and type in the word ‘compatibility’ into the search box. What comes up are 83 possible studies, 5% of 1,591 articles in the entire journal database. A quick glance at the top few most relevant studies should tell the average reader that compatibility is not exactly at the top of the list of criteria for a successful relationship.

There are however many studies that look at the sort of factors that predict marital satisfaction (happiness) and marital stability (divorce). Here’s one such list helpfully compiled in a review paper:

  • wives’ employment and income
  • neuroticism and other personality dimensions
  • premarital cohabitation
  • difficulties in the areas of leisure activities and sexual relations
  • physiological arousal prior to problem-solving discussions
  • parental divorce
  • previous divorce of husbands
  • communication positivity/negativity
  • communication withdrawal and invalidation
  • escalation, defensiveness and withdrawal
  • higher ratios of hostility to warmth
  • dissatisfaction with partners’ personality and habits
  • difficulties in communication and problem solving
  • religious dissimilarity
  • maintaining separate finances
  • knowing the partner a short time before marriage
  • marrying young
  • being less conscientious
  • low or differing levels of education
  • having dissimilar attitudes
  • premarital pregnancy
  • remarriage

Some of these factors are static things you can’t do much about: your parents divorced; it’s your second marriage; you have different religious beliefs or levels of education. Perhaps this is what the programme makers mean by compatibility.

Other factors are more dynamic and more open to change, reflecting attitudes to one another and how couples handle their inevitable differences; communication; escalation; hostility rather than warmth; or having different bank accounts.

I imagine what springs to mind most when people think about compatibility is personality. There’s some mention of this in the list above. But to put it into perspective, a German study of newlyweds found that when couples first married, personality played only a small direct role in influencing marital happiness. Five years later, the direct influence of personality had vanished altogether. In it’s place, the way couples deal with conflict had become far more important than personality ever was.

But there’s a bigger flaw in the entire premise. The makers think they are mimicking arranged marriage, quite possibly still the most popular route into marriage in the world today.

Now I am a fan of arranged marriages. Two families, usually of similar backgrounds, match their children together. Provided it’s not forced, marriage then begins with fewer major differences over which to argue and the social affirmation and support of the families and friends.

Whether couples arrive at their wedding day through this kind of arrangement or the western model of romance, all couples know they are making a huge commitment to one another and therefore taking a giant leap of faith. Knowing that family and friends thoroughly approve of what they are doing takes any lingering doubt out of this process. Two studies published in the summer last year – one by psychologists and the other by economists – both showed that the bigger the wedding the happier the couple (referring to the number of people at the wedding and not the cost). This vital public affirmation, that the couple is doing the right thing, is lacking in this TV set-up.

And finally commitment. A key aspect of commitment involves embracing one choice and abandoning other choices. This requires buy-in and is at the root of the sliding/deciding theory of commitment. Making a clear decision about the future is the foundation stone of a successful marriage. Going in with one eye on the exit is a recipe for disaster. Even if couples don’t begin with thoughts of divorce – one of the more robust predictors of actual divorce – having the option of a six week exit route is hardly a whole-hearted unambiguous endorsement of lifetime commitment.

This programme, despite its ‘experts’. shows a remarkable lack of understanding of the nature of commitment and marriage. So I am not surprised to hear that most of the couples in other countries where this programme has run have split and few have thrived. That doesn’t mean the three couples in the UK version will follow in their footsteps. But if they do succeed – and very good luck to them – it will be in spite of this silly programme and not because of it.

In case anyone asks, no, it is not going to undermine or trivialise marriage. Marriage is far too robust. At very worst the programme makers and so-called experts are trying to mislead couples and viewers alike with their pretend science.

I suspect most people will see it for what it is. It’s just a silly TV programme.

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