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Why Reality TV Dating Shows Are Survival Competitions

Reality dating shows challenge relationships instead of fostering them.

Key points

  • Reality TV dating shows can impact contestants' abilities to form secure attachments
  • These shows should describe themselves as being intense emotional, psychological, and relational challenges.
  • Shows should ensure contestants are aware of the potential risks or harms.
Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Since its invention, reality television has been a popular form of entertainment. Instead of watching scripted shows, we now can see people's "real lives." And we enjoy the voyeuristic nature of the shows. The drama feels more dramatic, and the emotions feel more emotional, all because it is real. Any fights we witness are real fights. Any problems people face are real problems.

It's easy to get pulled into reality television. We feel like we have a special window into other people’s lives and get invested in how things turn out. And this is perhaps most true for dating shows.

Dating Shows Thrive on Drama

Most shows in this genre generally have the same premise: Get a group of people together, make them date each other (ideally in front of each other), stir up some drama via jealousy, betrayal, or rejection, and then, at the end, hold up a couple (or perhaps a few) as proof that the “experiment” or “experience” works.

Contestants sign up for these shows hoping to be one of the lucky few who finds a lifelong partner. And who can blame them? We all want to find love, and it's not as if dating in "the real world" is easy, so why not try an unconventional approach?

Since dating is already riddled with heightened emotions, it’s no surprise these shows are exciting and, as a result, popular. We love watching strangers navigate outrageous situations in hopes of finding their true love.

However, there’s one big problem with these shows: Given what we know about human psychology, the premise is more likely to destroy relationships than build them.

The thing is, happy relationships are boring. It’s no one’s guilty pleasure to watch a couple calmly and lovingly discuss a problem. We want drama! We want fireworks! We want couples on the brink of breakup, love triangles, fractured friendships, and as many unexpected twists as possible.

The Importance of Attachment

The British psychologist John Bowlby is the father of attachment theory, and his theory explains why reality dating shows are not meant to make happy marriages. In brief, attachment theory is based on Bowlby’s observations of children's relationships with their caregivers (usually parents). Children develop either secure or insecure attachments based on how reliable and supportive their caregivers were. From this relationship with caregivers, we answer such questions as: Can I count on people to be there when I need them? Can I trust that people will support me? Do I need to minimize or squash my emotions so that people don’t feel stressed by me? Should I rely on only myself because I can’t depend on others? Is it my job to take care of everyone else, even if no one will take care of me? Will people leave if I’m not perfect?

Attachment theory helps us understand our adult relationships, particularly our romantic ones. The attachment style we develop with our caregivers continues and influences how we approach and act in future relationships. And in the gold standard of attachment, a secure attachment, there is a foundational belief that people are generally reliable. You think people are consistent, dependable, and loving. You see conflict as manageable instead of catastrophic or overwhelming. A secure attachment style is a good predictor of a happy, stable romantic relationship.

Reality TV Challenges Security

Reality television puts contestants into manufactured situations (which, ironically, do not exist in the “real” world) to shake their sense of security. Even if you have the strongest secure attachment, how can you not be jealous when you have to literally watch the person you like talking to someone else?

Yes, in the real world the person you’re seeing might also be dating other people at the same time, but you don’t have to actually bear witness to it. Can you imagine how painful that would be? To watch the person you like on a date with someone else? And then, what if you had to share a house with the other person they were dating? And to top it all off, what if you had to go on a date with the person you like the very next day and act like you aren't jealous or worried or hurt?

These shows challenge the very foundation of secure attachment: that your partner is reliable, present, and committed. In each of these shows, contestants must accept many unacceptable truths: that the person they’re dating is also (very actively) dating other people, that they're being compared to other people in every moment, and the one they want to be with isn’t necessarily committed to a relationship with them.

These things, at best, prevent a secure attachment from forming on the show; at worst, they could damage someone’s sense of security long after filming has stopped.

The situations these shows create—dating multiple people and competing to be chosen (The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Love is Blind), switching partners and watching your partner date someone else (The Ultimatum)—do not strengthen a relationship. If they're being honest, their goal is not to help contestants find true love or pick the best partner. If TV dating shows really did want to help people establish happy, fulfilling, long-lasting relationships, they would, you know, help them. They would help contestants identify their attachment styles, recurring problems in relationships, insecurities, and fears. They would help couples learn how to communicate, establish secure attachments, and foster emotional intimacy. Basically, they would give people access to great individual and couples therapy. And they wouldn't put people in situations guaranteed to undermine an early attachment, which is what they always do.

A More Honest Description

"Reality tv dating show" is an accurate description, but their claims are misleading. Producers should stop pretending that their goal is to help contestants find love. That isn't their goal, and that's okay. They can be more honest about the real intent of the show while keeping the same general premise and people will still love watching.

Reality dating shows should embrace their true aim: to test the limits of people’s ability to withstand uncertainty, insecurity, and heartache. To have contestants compete for affection and navigate multiple relationships while vying to be chosen. To push people to the edge of their emotional capacity and see how they manage.

It's more like Survivor, but instead of a physical challenge of endurance, these shows present an emotional and psychological one. This doesn't sound any less exciting; in fact, it sounds more so. Removing the inaccurate fairy-tale aspect strips away a facade that no one was believing anyway.

Perhaps the best argument for doing this is that a more honest description would allow contestants to have a better idea of what they're getting themselves into. Although they might have an idea of what challenges lie ahead, the consistent narrative that these shows want to "help you find love" probably obscures just how difficult it will be.

Acknowledging the emotionally grueling aspect of participating would help contestants understand the potential risks or harms, and thus allow them to give informed consent before signing up.

So here it is—a more accurate description: Your favorite reality TV dating show: an intense competition that will psychologically and relationally challenge contestants. They will discover the limits of their ability to manage emotional distress and navigate complex relationships. And while contestants may or may not get a romantic relationship out of it, they will at the very least learn about themselves, and maybe make some lasting friendships, too.

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