Article By Jennifer Gerson
~ May, 2021 ~ Amber Bowles’ relationship on Season 9 of Married at First Sight contained a lot of firsts. Not only did her husband Matt Gwynne repeatedly go AWOL once the sun would set, but Bowles’ storyline also featured the first time a friend of one of the participants sat down and told a cast member that they knew firsthand that their spouse was cheating. But perhaps the most notable first of all was when Dr. Viviana Coles, one of the show’s three “experts,” who holds a doctorate in marriage and family therapy — one of the people responsible for finding strangers’ “perfect match,” convincing them to get married without ever meeting, and subsequently checking in with them throughout the eight weeks of filming — explicitly told Bowles that her relationship wasn’t healthy and she needed to get out of it. Bowles asked for a divorce.
“In the scheme of things, looking back, the only bad part of the experience [of being on the show] was Matt,” Bowles tells me on a recent afternoon during a break between classes for her non-TV job teaching middle school English. Despite the fact that Bowles’ marriage was inarguably a disaster — it took two years for her divorce from Gwynne to be finalized — she doesn’t blame the show or the experts who deemed Gwynne her perfect match. In fact, Bowles has adopted an attitude that’s the exact opposite of what one might expect after seeing the emotional flame-out of her season. “I learned a lot about myself and what I wanted, and it was largely because of the experts’ assignments,” Bowles says. “The experience was super valuable.”
Bowles credits Coles especially for helping her to understand “that I deserve more and I deserve better.” That critical conversation with Coles, she says, was what helped her realize that not only was she “taking the bare minimum in this relationship,” but had adopted that approach throughout her dating history. When Bowles went on to have her first relationship after the show, she eventually ended it after realizing she had fallen back into a similar pattern. “I never really worked that [issue] out with Matt, but when I dated someone and realized it wasn’t serving me, I ended it.” It was Married at First Sight, she says, that taught her that she needs “to stay true to my values and my boundaries” in any romantic coupling.
Not too bad for having been legally married to a questionably emotionally abusive philanderer she’d never met on national television.
Unlike the Bachelor franchise, which seems to short-circuit at the very idea of anything but a happily ever after (despite its less-than-stellar success rate), Married at First Sight is much more comfortable with outcomes for its participants that don’t involve bold declarations of eternal love and devotion. Not only does the show allow its participants to opt out of the idea of a happy ending, but it’s willing to help them if not thrive, then at least feel narratively comfortable in that choice.
Abigail Ocobock, PhD, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame whose research focuses on how social institutions like arranged marriage impact marital relationships, suggests that the structure of the show itself and the relationship dynamics it inherently sets up are what leads to the show’s 30% success rate. “The marriages on Married at First Sight are not typical arranged marriages in any way,” she says, pointing to the fact that, especially in the United States, those in arranged marriages have typically had the opportunity to meet their future partner several times before the wedding, as have both parties’ respective families. “The idea that you would only meet someone on your wedding day and that a group of experts would have the ultimate control of who you would marry — that is so rare.”
While the marriages on Married at First Sight are far from traditional arranged marriages, Ocobock explains that a more traditional arranged marriage inherently has a different set of dynamics at play than a so-called “love marriage.” The latter can also be described as an “individualized marriage,” because people often enter into a marriage and stay in it for only as long as it is individually fulfilling to them. Arranged marriages, she says, are about anything but the individual — they’re typically about family, religion, and culture. In other words, these marriages tend to have “some kind of higher purpose other than simply making individuals happy.”
Married at First Sight by its very nature, then, might be causing its marriages to fail. “For couples on the show, they’re in an arranged marriage, but it’s still all about them. So what’s the higher purpose?” Ocobock says. “You can’t think about the work of marriage in the same way in that framework. They’re not part of a community where arranged marriage is the norm. There are no cultural or religious doctrines supporting their marriage.”
Mythic love, or the idea that there is “one unique other soul mate for us” isn’t what keeps marriages together, Ocobock says. Rather, that comes from an understanding of marriage that “isn’t about that feeling, but about compatibility and working on it — lots of hard work, compromise, and change.”
Couples on the show might also be overly invested in the idea of the hard work, in turn “disregarding what seems obvious — which is that you do need some feelings.” Without a shared history and “reservoir of happy memories” together, committing to the work is often futile.
Ironically, a belief in mythic love can also lock participants into a marriage longer than they might have engaged otherwise. Though Coles stresses that the show’s experts — who meet in some capacity with the participants five out of the eight weeks the show films — do not provide any form of counseling or psychotherapy to the newlyweds, they are there to “check in” and help however they can. This most commonly comes in the form of sharing “what healthy expectations are for change while letting people know what’s possible and what doesn’t seem probable” to expect in their relationship moving forward. For some, this can mean feeling confident in discovering that their relationship is not a healthy one.
But getting participants to holistically reach that conclusion is one of the show’s biggest challenges. “I have totally told people, ‘This is not a good marriage’ — because they don’t know,” Coles says. “Sometimes they’re like, ‘Is this what marriage is supposed to be?’ or people say, ‘Well, marriage is hard work,’ and then there’s some borderline abusive behavior happening. They are relying on us as the people there to guide them. They are relying on us to say, ‘Is this ok?’”
Mindy Shiben, who appeared on Married at First Sight Season 10 in Washington, D.C., very much looked to the experts help her to understand her own tumultuous relationship on the show. Almost immediately after their wedding, Shiben’s new husband Zach Justice did not hold back in articulating to Shiben that he was not attracted to her and was not sure if the relationship would work as a result. When the couple traveled back to D.C. from their honeymoon, Justice flew separately and Shiben was picked up at the airport by her best friend, who spent Shiben’s first night in her new apartment with her instead. Justice never so much as moved in to their apartment, though he agreed to occasional meetups with Shiben, who spent a solid month trying to make the relationship work before eventually calling it quits early — after learning that Justice had struck up a digital relationship with one of Shiben’s best friends, a woman who had been a bridesmaid in their televised wedding.
Mindy Shiben and Zach Justice on Married at First Sight Season 10.Lifetime
Yet despite how extreme the situation seemed to friends outside of the MAFS “experiment” and even the experts checking in on the couples, the figure skating coach said the decision to leave wasn’t an easy one. “It was hard to walk away,” she tells Bustle. “I had very high expectations… I was confident in my ability to put all my effort into it and be a good wife. But I knew at a point it wasn’t just up to me. The other person had to be willing to participate as well.”
The hardest thing for Shiben was “being rejected on TV based just on looks” — especially after having such faith in the experts and the experiment due to the intensity of the casting and matchmaking process. She says that all three experts — along with Coles, the show is guided by Pastor Calvin Robinson, the lead pastor at Atlanta’s Progression Church, and Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a PhD sociologist, expert on intimacy and sexuality, and tenured professor at the University of Washington — tried to help the couple move forward in their relationship in various ways. But Shiben says that when they realized her marriage wasn’t working, they supported her decision to end it. “The experts always want what’s healthiest for the individual over the experiment at the end of the day. That was my experience,” Shiben says. “When it was really impacting me, I fully had their support to leave when I felt it was time.”
For a franchise that can end up peddling breakups more often than love stories, Shiben’s experience is not an unfamiliar one. Coles points to a relationship from the most recent MAFS season, Season 12 in Atlanta, involving accountant Paige Banks and fast-food franchise owner Chris Williams as a prime example. After Banks and Williams had sex on their wedding night, Williams disappeared the next day for several hours before re-emerging long enough to tell Banks he wasn’t attracted to her. On their honeymoon, Williams learned his ex-fiancée was pregnant with his child, and finally told Banks — after being encouraged by production — that he was still in love with his ex and might want to get back with her. Still, Banks wanted to stay in the relationship and try to make it work.
Chris Williams and Paige Banks on Married at First Sight Season 12.Lifetime
“With Paige, there were countless times she had conversations with the three of us [experts] where she said she was all in on being a ‘bonus mom’ and said she had dated someone in the past with a child,” Coles says. “So how are we supposed to tell her, ‘No, you can’t consider being a ‘bonus mom’ for this child’? We can’t tell her she can’t, and that before, that was someone she chose to be with and that this is a very, very different scenario. We told her, ‘You need to consider this very, very deeply.’”
Coles says she’s often most surprised by the ways in which people who embody one of the main traits they look for in casting — the willingness to be ready for commitment — take things to extremes in sometimes unfortunate ways. “She chose commitment!” Coles says of Banks. “She chose it in spades! So how can we tell someone in one breath to be committed to their partner and work through things and also say, ‘Um, you need to run’? It’s a difficult position to be in, for sure.”
When couples married in the experiment must decide if they will continue their marriage or pursue a divorce on “Decision Day,” Williams asked Banks to consider staying married to him and trying their relationship again — even though he had never moved into their shared home and the two had ended things weeks beforehand. The question of staying in the marriage threw Banks for a loop, so much so that it provoked a six-hour-long session with the experts (not all of which was aired) that necessitated the rest of the couples’ decisions not being filmed that day. Ultimately, with the experts and her own producer asking Banks to remember how she felt when she first entered the room intending on divorce, Banks chose to leave the marriage. Banks declined to be interviewed for this story, noting that it may be a while before she does any press about her time on the show.
Married at First Sight may take a nonjudgmental if not wholly supportive stance towards breakups, but that doesn’t mean that participants heal immediately. Yet it also doesn’t mean that they don’t ultimately look back on their experiences getting married to a stranger on TV in a positive light, despite the sometimes messy outcomes.
“Initially there was hurt that even at the time I was trying to cover up and put on a brave face about,” Shiben says. She might not have gotten her fairy tale ending, but she’s grateful for the experience. “Overall, I’ve really grown from [the experience]. I would say right now I’m more happy than I’ve ever been, even though I’m not married.”
A version of this story originally appeared here on bustle.com