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Reality Dating Show Contestants Struggle Without Psychological Support

Why producers need to provide emotional aid.

Key points

  • Two contestants from "Love Is Blind" report damage to their mental health from appearing on the show.
  • They claim they weren't provided access to therapy or the necessary support for navigating the show's unique challenges.
  • Reality dating shows should have an ethical obligation to protect contestants' mental health and well-being.
Source: WHYFRAME/Shutterstock
We can't be blind to people struggling
Source: WHYFRAME/Shutterstock

Netflix has called its hit reality dating show Love Is Blind a “social experiment.” But it’s not an actual experiment, and therefore doesn’t need to follow the critical ethical and legal regulations we have for research and scientific ventures. This is the loophole that reality television has been exploiting: Because their shows are “entertainment,” they are not required to protect participants' mental health.

Contestants on Love Is Blind sign a contract that clearly explains the possible experiences they may have as a result of being on the show. However, although the show openly acknowledges that contestants could experience some distress because of the way they are edited and portrayed, it doesn’t provide accessible psychological support or financial reimbursement for therapy. Contestants are well informed of what to expect should they choose to participate, but it still begs the question: Why do reality television shows involve this degree of possible emotional harm?

And it’s not just possible harm. I spoke with two former contestants who told me that they felt manipulated, pressured, unsupported, and then cast aside once filming was over. One left after 10 days of blind dating, while another made it all the way to the altar.

In Love Is Blind, 15 men and 15 women go on dates in “pods” where they can’t see the other person, in hopes of making a meaningful emotional connection without the distraction of appearance. They have 10 days to date each other, establish meaningful emotional connections and relationships, and get engaged. The couples who get engaged are then allowed to see each other before going on a brief vacation (“the reveal”) to see if they are physically compatible. During this vacation, they meet the other couples who got engaged, which usually include some people they were dating themselves just days earlier. Then the couples have four weeks to integrate their fiancés into their regular lives, introduce them to friends and family, and plan a wedding before they are to appear at the altar—as contractually obligated—and decide about marriage.

Emotional Harm, During and After Filming

In July 2022, a contestant from Season 2, Jeremy Hartwell, filed a lawsuit against Netflix, the production company Kinetic Content, and Kinetic’s casting company, Delirium TV. Hartwell claims that producers pumped contestants with alcohol; at times deprived them of access to food, water, or sleep; and paid them below minimum wage. Due to the ongoing lawsuit, Hartwell declined to speak with me. However, I was able to speak with two other former contestants of Love is Blind. What I heard corroborated Hartwell’s claims, and raised other significant issues about the psychological ramifications of appearing on the show.

The two contestants who spoke with me did so with the requirement of anonymity, because they were fearful of retaliation by Netflix. Both discussed the emotional challenges of appearing on the show. They reported feeling manipulated and pressured during the dating and engagement phases. One contestant said, “I think everyone had a mental breakdown at one point, at least on the girls’ side.” Since there were no on-set counselors, and contestants did not have their phones with them, and so were unable to speak with their friends or family during filming, they could only turn to their producers, or each other, for support. But the producers aren’t therapists; they don't have the training needed to provide psychological support, and their advice is unlikely to be unbiased, given their roles.

Source: Tiko Aramyan/Shutterstock
Engaged couples were separated for several days after the "reveal."
Source: Tiko Aramyan/Shutterstock

Couples that got engaged were separated for several days after the reveal. They weren’t allowed to see or speak with their fiancé until they started filming again, and this experience was distressing. As one described this period: "You’re back to your hotel room for two to three days and you’re sitting in there…and you start, you know, kind of gaslighting yourself in a way…because you’re sitting there, in isolation, torturing yourself over your own thoughts because you can’t see or talk to this person that you’ve been in this intense situation with.” According to this contestant, couples are separated so their on-camera interactions will be “organic,” but noted, “The situation they put you in, it’s not organic…It’s actually going to be two people in a heightened, anxious space…Both of us thought that the other person wanted out.”

Once filming was over, the two contestants I spoke with felt discarded. One told me, “There were other people on the show and from [another season] that were also struggling. To this day, from [that other season], people are struggling. They’re not feeling supported.” The contestant also felt this way, noting that after the wedding is over, the show packs up its equipment and leaves without giving the new partners guidance or resources for how to reintegrate into their lives or navigate a new marriage. As the contestant said, “You literally get dropped the day after you’re done filming your wedding…We had no idea how to assimilate our lives…And there’s no guidebook, there’s no anything. There’s no support.”

The contestants I spoke with said that watching the show, even episodes from seasons that didn't feature them, was distressing. One told me, “Even recently when the new season came out, a lot of girls didn’t want to watch it. A lot of things are going to come back up, I’m just not ready for that…I’m still going to therapy; I can’t do it.” The other said that after their season aired, “Some people had to take a mental leave from work.”

This would be a time when contestants would benefit from therapy or other support, to help them navigate these challenging and highly unusual situations. (Most people don’t have to experience watching themselves on television, not knowing how they will come across to the public since they have not seen the show prior to its airing.)

Lack of Access to Therapy

As contestants were pushed to their emotional limits, they say, they were not given free—or easily accessible—therapy. They told me there was no counselor on the set. The exception was that if a contestant requested a session with their own existing therapist, producers would arrange for them to speak.

One contestant told me he believed the show offered to cover therapy but it was not clear how to access it. “They verbally say to you, ‘You should take advantage of our therapy offering.’… I didn’t understand, and I tried to understand: Is it, do we find a therapist? Do you have therapists? What about couples? What about individual?” He inquired, but never found out how to get sessions covered.

The contestants I spoke to claim that they suffered lasting psychological damage as a result of their experiences, including anxiety, anger, trust issues with romantic partners, and low self-esteem. One told me, “I’m pissed that I was lied to. I’m upset, I’m angry about it…If I’m having these complex feelings, and I’m getting stuck, I can only imagine that some of the other people are.”

When I asked the other contestant if she stayed in touch with others from her season, she told me, “We’re all really close…We’re like, ‘Are we trauma bonding? I think that’s what we’re doing.’ But we figured out a lot of our connections are because…we were just traumatized.” They have a running joke on a group text chain about who’s going to therapy that day. The punchline: All of them are. And, she says, the show isn’t footing the bill.

What Are the Ethical Obligations of Reality Dating Shows?

Why is this the way reality television operates? Shouldn’t an effort be made to prevent psychological harm? Do producers truly require this type of exploitation and manipulation to generate drama for viewers? And if their answer to the last question is Yes, then why aren't they required to provide meaningful and easily accessible psychological support during and after filming? In the absence of such regulation, the dating genre of the reality television industry has not provided the necessary support for the protection of contestants’ mental health. Reality dating producers should stop misleading contestants with the fairy-tale promise that a lucky few of them could meet the love of their life. Instead, they need to acknowledge that their “social experiments” are really tests of the limits of human fortitude. If their goal was to help people find love and enter happy marriages, they would create conditions that allow couples to build a foundation for their relationship instead of continually tearing them apart. As one contestant said, “In concept, it can work. I know it works, I fell in love but…it’s the pressure of the other stuff. It’s the inhumane conditions. It’s the lack of support.”

Love Is Blind, like most reality TV dating shows, is an emotional and relational Survivor. It’s time we acknowledge it.

Note: Netflix, Kinetic Content, and Delirium TV did not respond to a request for comment.

Facebook image: Krakenimages com/Shutterstock

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