Married at First Sight holds up a mirror to dating. That’s why we can’t look away

“We can observe it [problematic behaviour] really calmly and objectively when we watch other people. Their behaviour – jealousy, negativity, arguments over small things – are all things we’re probably guilty of doing at some point. But when we’re in that moment we can’t see it objectively because we’re in the emotions, so being able to sit and watch other people do it and reflect, we can really learn from it,” Sommer-Ball says.

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Psychotherapist Melissa Ferrari agrees, saying, “these kinds of shows highlight and bring to the fore stuff that is happening in relationships that do really need to be discussed,” adding, “It’s a great representation of how not to behave.”

Unlike other reality TV programs in which we see people come together through feel-good teamwork to pull off a catering challenge or ripped marathon runners clinging to a wooden beam in the Australian outback for eight hours in exchange for immunity, MAFS proudly uses the problematic behaviour of its participants as its primary selling point. Its ability to consistently pull over a million viewers every night confirms this.

For Sommer-Ball, whose patients often use the show as a springboard to discuss their own relationship concerns, MAFS has meaningfully contributed to a long-term cultural shift in the way people view toxic behaviour.

“Gaslighting is a nightmare epidemic that I see every day,” Sommer-Ball says. “As recently as 10 years ago in therapy that word wasn’t being used, and now we know so much more about it and are better at recognising it; there’s awareness about it. Any time we have conversations about behaviours like manipulation or gaslighting I think that’s a good thing and these shows promote conversations around those hard topics,” Sommer-Ball says.

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Perhaps the most controversial topic on the show to date came when trainee teacher Olivia Frazer shared nude photos of Domenica Calarco with other members of the group without the latter’s knowledge. What ensued was an attempted slut-shaming from Frazer and other women, as well as a handful of men seeming to think women posting nudes was a dumpable offence.

“That entire storyline created an experience for people to start to question their own judgments a little bit,” Ferrari says. “And what a great thing those moments spark others to look inside and check on your own judgment and reflect on what you think about that kind of behaviour.”

“People can say whatever they like about the show, but it is certainly bringing an opportunity for conversation about relationships,” she says. “It’s real life stuff. Sure, it might be amplified, but it is real life stuff.”

At this point, declaring a show like MAFS as the problem is lazy and low-hanging fruit. The show is simply a visible symptom of a greater, much wider issue. So instead of slagging off and tuning out, maybe we should keep watching and allow the industrial-sized spotlight it projects into the darker corners of dating culture to keep shining.

The final episode of this season of Married at First Sight airs on Monday on Nine at 7.30pm. Nine is publisher of this masthead.

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https://www.smh.com.au/culture/tv-and-radio/married-at-first-sight-holds-up-a-mirror-to-dating-that-s-why-we-can-t-look-away-20220401-p5aa53.html

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