Hotwiring Romance

How a generation's reverence of pragmatism and expertise is changing the way it falls in love
by Suzannah Showler

IN JANUARY, A New York Times essay about engineered love went viral. “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” tells the story of a first date spent replicating a lab experiment designed to forge a bond between strangers quickly and methodically.  

In the original, late-90s study, researchers paired unacquainted students across gender lines, gave them a set of thirty-six questions that demanded increasingly revealing answers, and capped off the exercise with a four-minute-long eye-lock. Though the experiment was aimed to create a feeling of temporary closeness, not lasting romance, one randomly-matched pair was nonetheless married shortly thereafter.

In the New York Times essay, Mandy Len Catron and her date, too, fall in love. “What I like about this study is how it assumes that love is an action,” Catron writes. “You can’t create romantic feelings based on convenience alone . . . But despite all this, I’ve begun to think love is a more pliable thing than we make it out to be.”

The essay was read 8 million times in a month, at least half-a-dozen 36-question apps cropped up, and for a moment this winter, it seemed as though every OKCupid date in North America was foregoing small talk in favour of whipping out a smart phone and asking questions—the right questions, scientifically proven to generate intimacy. (Ok, by “every OKCupid date” I mean two friends have told me they did this, but I’ll bet two of your friends did, too.)  

The intersection of methodology and romance seems to have particular traction at the moment. Take Married at First Sight (A&E, Tuesdays, 9 ET), which is, to my mind, runner-up for best reality TV marriage plot currently airing, second only to The Bachelor/Bachelorette, an unparalleled, vintage spectacle-specimen. The premise of Married at First Sight is that a team of “experts”—a sociologist, psychologist, sexologist, and spiritual advisor—matches three heterosexual couples (reality TV does not have a great track record for diversity) for sight-unseen marriage: no photos, no communication, no names. These couples literally introduce themselves to one another at the courthouse altar, in front of the New York City official about to confirm their legal union. It’s about two beats from “nice to meet you,” to “I do.”

The couples go on a honeymoon, move in together, and spend several weeks as newlyweds before returning to their matchmakers to declare whether they will stay married or get a divorce. Last year’s inaugural season nailed a pretty stellar, so-far-so-good batting record: one pair called it quits at their one-month check-in, but the other two couples are still married a year later.

Married at First Sight bills itself as a “daring social experiment,” but allowing someone else to choose your spouse and arrange your union is hardly a new idea. In fact, it is a very, very old one. What is different is not the matchmaking function itself, but its context and its aim. Arranged marriage traditionally serves the function of preserving and enforcing boundaries of culture, religion, and class. It has a communal element, directly taking into account needs or desires of groups of people beyond the two parties being wed. Married at First Sight appropriates arranged marriage for an end it has not, traditionally, been designed to meet: the pursuit of individual happiness. It’s an old way (surrendering to authority) to a very new end (rom-com era romance).

It’s about two beats from ‘nice to meet you,’ to ‘I do.’

I can’t help but feel that the appeal of a show like Married at First Sight—for participants and viewers alike—comes back, as things have a way of doing, to free market capitalism. (Bear with me.) Late capitalist life gives off confusing messages about what it means to make choices. On the one hand, we are consistently reminded that the primary source of our political, economic, and personal autonomy is our purchase power, our status as consumers. Surrounded by seemingly infinite products and resources, what matters is less who we are and more what we choose to buy.

But on the other hand, our consumption takes place in a kind of slow, bleak storm of uninterrupted sameness. Nothing changes, and in a stew of infinite choice, there are also infinite ways to be dissatisfied. In making consumer selections, we both assert our individual freedom, but also put an end to it, admit to having not chosen every other thing. What we are left with is less the result and more the great, deadening performance of the action. It doesn’t matter what you choose, but it seems important, somehow, to choose something. With the fruitless habit of choice, we keep grasping at something like identity.

I don’t think we ditch these feelings when we move from direct forms of consumption and into the social realm. Hence our heads, hence our FOMO. What is daring, even radical, about Married at First Sight is the thorough abdication of choice as a way to achieve, not give up, personal freedom.

This brings me back to the idea of methodology. Crucial to the show’s logic is the idea that the expert matchmakers are disinterested academic parties. They are not experts in marriage, per se, but professionals—doctors—of the conditions under which marriages flourish. “The experts paired us for a reason,” the Married at First Sight couples incant to the camera again and again, whenever they feel uncertain, whenever the incredibly awkward and difficult social task they are faced with seems insurmountable.

Whither, then, romance? If Married at First Sight, the 36 questions, and other recent cultural depictions of love are anything to go on, romance isn’t dead; it’s just been relocated. The 90s-era rom-com, meet-cute model—a trust fall into the clutches of serendipity—has been replaced by the romanticization of pragmatism. “Finding the one” is slowly being swallowed, it seems, by “working at it.” In its way, it’s no less idealistic, no less romanticized—the fantasy has just hopped from fate and onto labour.

Married at First Sight is only in its second season. The current batch of couples’ decision day was broadcast last week (so far: one divorce), and the Six Months Later two-part episode will commence tonight (prediction: split number two is imminent). In its second season, the show is finding its way towards recurring tropes: the couple who sleeps together on their wedding night, and quickly comes to hate each other; the bride who is initially turned off by her husband but comes around. Both seasons, the latter has proved to be the most interesting, most watchable couple, and a good deal of the show’s drama comes by way of a very simple narrative: watching someone change her mind.

That change of mind itself reflects this new age of romantic pragmatics. At these blind date weddings, Married at First Sight cast members can, it seems, be haunted by the ghosts of romantic ideals past, holding onto an older, more impractical model that just does not square away with the “social experiment” they’ve embarked on.

The 90s-era rom-com, meet-cute model—a trust fall into the clutches of serendipity—has been replaced by the romanticization of pragmatism.

“There is just something about his face that is not what I pictured,” this season’s Jaclyn Methuen says of her new husband, Ryan Ranellone. In his own private interview, Ranellone is unflappable, having already arrived at the place of pragmatism the show is meant to lead to: “In a cookie-cutter world, I wouldn’t be getting married at first sight.”

When both Jaclyn and her season one counterpart, Jamie, have an at-the-altar repulsion meltdown (to her credit, Jaclyn does a slightly better job of keeping her initial disgust at bay than Jamie does), vestiges of rom-com fantasies are flaring up, like grumblings from a love-at-first-sight appendix. Over the course of the season, those fantasies are euthanized and replaced by something new: a fantasy of romantic labour.

The thing we’ve all always known about the meet-cute rom-com is that it ends at precisely the moment work begins. You watch someone struggle to get something, never to keep it. It’s a fetishization of a labour-free society. Married at First Sight offers a fairly extreme narrative inversion: the plot begins with marriage, and the show’s arc follows its protagonists as they struggle to catch up to their own ending. It’s methodical, pragmatic, and guided-by-experts. It’s super romantic.

SUZANNAH SHOWLER is the author of Failure to Thrive (2014). Her nonfiction has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Maisonneuve, Hazlitt and The Walrus.