Marriage was once a far more pragmatic undertaking in the Western world; a contract between two families about family and property. But in the middle of the 20th century it changed and now there is a societal belief that your partner must be everything.
Married At First Sight expert Dr Panteá ‘Pani’ Farvid states, “They have to be your soulmate, your friend, your compatible sexual partner; you both must have wonderful careers, be wonderful carers… the pressure’s so high, it can feel unattainable.”
Take that pressure, then add oodles of choice thanks to digital technology, and you have the current state of the dating world. Online dating has been around since the 90s but it was still viewed as somewhat of an island for misfit toys.
Then Tinder arrived in 2012 and the game changed almost overnight; by 2014, the dating app was registering over a billion swipes a day. It made us impatient, it made us fussy, and it gave us a visual representation of just how many fish in the sea there really were.
“The more tools out there for you to connect with an intimate partner, the less likely people are to actually make meaningful relationships,” Pani says.
“There’s this abundance of choice: ‘I can’t commit to one thing, because there might be something better in the next swipe.’
"A lot of the people we spoke to [for the show] were sick of online dating,” she divulges.
The other societal shift, MAFS expert Tony Jones says, is the fact we have moved into being totally centred on who we are and what we need, thanks to the world of self-help.
“In the olden days, I’d have asked you three things you wanted to change about yourself and three things you liked about yourself, and you’d have stared at me blankly. But that’s changed,” he says.
“What I see now in the people coming forward is they go, ‘Well, this is who I am,’ and they have this incredible emotional vocabulary about themselves, but they don’t have the understanding to deal with other people.”
When it comes to relationships, he says, our default attitude has become ‘What can I get out of this?’ instead of ‘What does this relationship need from me?’
If you’ve ever been confused about something in your love life and turned to others for advice, you’ll probably have discovered the golden rule: as far as relationships go, nobody really knows what they’re talking about. Even Tony and Pani are quick to admit they too are always learning.
Tony jokes that going home to his wife and “assuming I’m the expert in my relationship” is a very quick road to ruin.
“I’ve learned that, as a husband, sometimes it’s better to take stock and think, ‘Ooh, better I don’t say that.’”
The biggest lessons he’s learned from his work is to be mindful and to be present, as a husband and as a father, and to be on the same side as your partner.
“Be the captain on the field, not the manager off the field. Be the person that’s along in the fight, along in the journey. Empathise and sympathise. And explore what this might look and feel like for them.”
Pani wryly jokes that once people hear what she does for a living, they quip that men must be scared of dating her.
“I’d hope it would be the contrary, because I’m so open to possibilities, as opposed to just going, ‘Well, I know exactly what this is about.’”
Approaching every situation and every relationship with a sense of enquiry, rather than assuming she knows it all, is key.
“If something new comes up, saying ‘Hey, this thing that just happened, what do you think that’s about?’ or ‘When you said that, I wasn’t sure what you meant?’ Engaging in a dialogue allows you to understand yourself and those around you better.”
For both of them, their reasons for taking what could be considered quite a controversial career move are varied. Dating shows like this can be an effective way to demystify the counselling process, says Tony.
“I had a couple in their 60s come in a while ago, and it was a bit of a power play; they were quick to point out how qualified they were, and that they’d sought me out because I had a Master’s.”
But when he asked what had brought them to counselling, it was the Australian show The Last Resort, where couples are sent to a tropical island and given counselling as a last-ditch attempt to save their relationship.
Not at all a highbrow advert for therapy, but evidently an effective one. “Making counselling a bit more accessible can only help,” Tony says.
“So if I get three or four people who want to bitch and moan about me being on the show, but I get seven people who knock on the doors of other counsellors, I’m okay with that.”
Having a show like Married at First Sight will help us question the idealised norms around relationships, Pani believes.
“We’re constantly in this battle to work out if we’re doing it right. But from research I’ve done, there isn’t a wrong or right way. One of the ways to get to the bottom of this is to have a counsellor. I’m always astounded that we see it as important to have a lawyer for our legal issues, an accountant for our taxes but with emotionality, or our relationships with ourselves, people see it as so strange to invest in that. More insight into who you are creates more power, and more choices.”
Given that we know how much stress affects us, and that the biggest stressor we can have is relationships, Tony says investing in them is the smartest thing we can do. A study done through Harvard, which tracked people across a wide range of socioeconomic categories over 75 years, found the biggest predictor of happiness was meaningful relationships, Pani says.
“We’re social beings and we need connection, we need to feel loved and understood.”
When you consider all that, it can become that little bit clearer why people will go against the grain to find it, even if it does mean marrying a total stranger and hoping for the best. And whether it works or not, we’ll be watching.
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