When They’re in Love With the Idea of You and Not Necessarily in Love With You

bride and groom cake wedding topper
Image by slgckgc / CC BY

As I’ve been packing and unpacking, cleaning, painting, and organizing, I will typically have on either a TV or my cell phone streaming a TV show. It keeps me company and makes it so I’m significantly less bored.

So even though I’ve been really busy the past month or so, I’m watching — or at least listening to — more TV than normal.

One of the new (to me) shows I’ve been into lately is called Married at First Sight.

Arranged Marriages With a Modern Twist

For those of you who haven’t seen it, here’s the premise: A team of relationship experts descend upon a particular city (one season I watched, this was Miami; in another it was Chicago) and extensively interview and psychologically profile something like 30,000 single people. After this huge group of people have been evaluated, they select six of them, three couples (all straight), and set them up together. The kicker is that this isn’t a normal matchmaking service — there are going to be three weddings of complete strangers.

It’s basically an arranged marriage but instead of family members doing it among the network of people they know personally, it’s relationship experts doing it in this giant pool.

The singles go through the vetting process knowing there’s only a slight chance they’ll be selected. That there are long odds here. And apparently five months typically pass between the vetting and their being selected.

But once they’re told they’ve been matched, the process moves quickly. They’re also told at that time they’re getting married in two weeks.

To a complete stranger that the experts think will be a good match for them.

They have a wedding, go on a honeymoon, and move in together. After several weeks together (on one season I watched, it was six; in another it was eight), they’re asked if they want to stay married or if they want to get divorced.

Do They Actually Stay Together?

I was explaining this show to someone else recently, and the first thing they asked was, “Does that actually work? Do they stay together?”

The answer is sometimes, yeah. I’ve been staying away from looking up stats on whatever season I’m currently watching, but informally (and reviewing past seasons that aren’t available to stream on Hulu — where I’m watching it right now), it seems like about two-thirds of the couples opt to stay together at least until after the show ends. And about a quarter of the couples who got married on the show (which has been going for several seasons now) are still married.

Sure, 75 percent is higher than the normal divorce rate (currently about half). But it’s not too bad actually, compared to your garden variety blind date. Although to be fair, I should admit now that I myself am a bit of an outlier that way. I actually married my one and only blind date. All told, we were together about 10 years. We dated for four years and then were married for the next six before getting divorced.

The Monday Morning Quarterback of Matchmaking

Anyway, it’s a fascinating show to me — if sometimes really uncomfortable to watch — for a variety of reasons.

First of all, I’m well known as an eager matchmaker and friend shipping magnate among my friends circle. So it’s fascinating to me to see how the show’s experts put these people together. Sometimes I agree with their reasoning; sometimes I don’t.

They seem to value complementarity and the potential for individual growth more than I do. I’m swayed more towards similarity of values and temperament because that’s what empirical psychological research suggests, which is my background, preferring to view relationships not as potential self-improvement programs but social supports. (The experts on this show, conversely, are from a variety of other backgrounds — pastoral counseling, clinical practice, and life coaching.)

So I get to sit there and Monday morning quarterback.

When You Think Weddings and Marriage Are Magical, There’s a Placebo Effect…But It’s Short Lived

Another reason it’s interesting for me is watching the participants’ views of marriage. They clearly go into the show believing that it’ll benefit their life. That marriage in and of itself is a boon — and that the wedding ceremony imbues the relationship with magical powers. Regardless of who exactly their spouse is.

As a person who has been married twice, once to a person I wasn’t really all that compatible with (my former blind date) and then to someone who is eerily like me in values and priorities (my current husband), I can’t entertain that idea for a minute.

My friend John back in Maine once said of weddings, “The wedding is the wrapping paper; the marriage is the gift.” And I’ve always agreed.

Just like you can elope and live happily ever after, a thoughtful gift that hasn’t been wrapped can still be amazing. Conversely, an extremely expensive wedding can result in a short and unhappy marriage. And a beautifully wrapped gift can be completely wrong for us.

But the participants really believe in the process, with a kind of faith I frankly find enviable. And there’s a placebo effect that sets in even among the worst-matched couples. Typically, they’ll be really happy for about two days, making it through the wedding and the first day of the honeymoon, before they begin to squabble.

Desperation Can Be a Powerful Aphrodisiac

There’s also another reason it’s interesting to watch that’s frankly really uncomfortable for me.

How truly desperate the people on it are.

And it’s uncomfortable not because I’m embarrassed for them. But because I relate. I’ve personally been on both sides of that.

When I first met my ex-boyfriend Rob, I’d been polyamorous for about a year, having opened up my first marriage at my then-husband’s urging. In some ways, it had been really exciting, but in others, it was extremely frustrating. Because I lived in rural Maine at the time, a hard place to find compatible partners even if you were dating monogamously and looking for traditional things. And this was about a decade ago, when most people hadn’t even heard of polyamory, let alone were even remotely interested in doing anything like it.

So I’d spent the first year of my open marriage basically dating monogamous people who weren’t so sure about my being married to someone else. Serving as the poster child for polyamory in my small Maine town.

It had been really stressful. And while I’d had some fun, nothing serious had taken hold.

My most fully developed relationship other than my marriage was with Tina, a doctor I was dating who identified as polycurious. She wasn’t originally from Maine. She’d gone to school in Ohio and had moved out here to practice medicine at a small rural hospital (one that I believed would pay off her student loans for her if she stayed long enough). Since Maine was a nice, safe place to raise kids, her plan was to do that with her husband.

She was on OkCupid because it had proven extremely difficult to even make friends in Maine. Her profile talked about wanting to do board game nights. We struck up a correspondence, became friends, played board games, and then eventually ended up dating.

Back in Ohio, their best friends had been polyamorous, and she’d occasionally slept with her husband’s best friend, who had an open marriage.

That was Rob. They considered one another play partners. After I started dating Tina, Rob reached out to me as a friend to see what I was about. He did mention that he thought I was cute, but at the time I didn’t think much of it. I responded politely.

Rob kept writing. Eventually, I agreed to chat with him.

Rob quickly told me he’d fallen in love with me. Like, really quickly. After something like only four hours of text chatting via Skype.

I thought this was much too soon. And I probably should have run in the other direction. But I was lonely, and my love life was still pretty slow. My husband at the time seemed preoccupied with chasing new love interests instead of spending much time with me; Tina and I had connected physically, but she often seemed to hold me emotionally at arm’s length, something that was difficult for me.

So I kept talking with Rob. And after a few weeks and a phone call, I discovered I had developed feelings for him.

It’s curious, looking back, how easy it was for us to fall for one another. And all I can say about it now is that desperation is a powerful aphrodisiac.

In Love with the Idea of Having Someone Rather Than Being in Love with Them

Because that’s what we were: We were both desperate.

Rob really wanted a girlfriend. I wanted a polyamorous relationship with a deep emotional connection that actually lasted. One where I didn’t have to sell someone on the idea beforehand.

Since Rob had been polyamorous for eight years at the point that I met him and he was already telling me he loved me, it was easy just to slip into that situation. To pick it up and take it.

Even though I didn’t really know him and he really didn’t know me.

He thought he knew me. It was a frustrating process as he made assumptions and I’d find myself correcting him over and over, only to find that instead of listening to my corrections that he’d just assume I didn’t really know myself. That he knew better.

In reality, he had an image of an ideal partner in his brain, one that he would pretend I fit in order to be happy. Instead of seeing me as the person I really was, the woman who was actually standing before him.

But he could only maintain this illusion for so long. And it was only after I relocated 900 miles to be with him in Ohio that it became to clear to me that he had never really been in love with me. Instead, he’d been in love with the idea of me. Of a girlfriend.

The reality wasn’t really for him. When push came to shove, he didn’t really know how to manage his time, to be vulnerable and reach out, pay attention to both me and his wife, or manage the way she behaved badly whenever she felt insecure (which was often).

It was a devastating reality. That this couple who had been at this for eight years, who had both had other lovers in the past, seemed actually worse at all this stuff than a newbie who at the time had been at this for about a year (me) and had learned most of what she knew from reading and talking to people.

For Others, Desperation Can Be a Powerful Turnoff

But the move was a good idea. I was hooked into Rob’s friends circle, people who are still my dear friends today. And through that circle, I did meet Justin, who became my best friend over the year we knew each other before dating and who I’m now married to.

While we were friends, we often talked about our dating lives and what was going on, confiding in one another. I told Justin that I was worried that Rob was more in love with the idea of me than with me, and Justin was warm and supportive of that relationship, told me that it at least seemed to him that Rob cared about me.

And Justin was able to relate, since he was running into similar themes. He had women in his life who would pay him lots of attention but seemed desperate. They wanted a relationship, commitment, marriage. Someone.

But not necessarily him.

For him, it was a turnoff. And a big one. It ruined everything.

I found myself for a long time wondering about that — how Justin could be so clear-headed about desperation and run away from it appropriately, where I had been sucked into it.

I still think about it sometimes, now that my life is completely different. Now that Rob is long gone and Justin and I have been together for eight years. When we accidentally fell deeply in love after a long friendship, at a time where we were the opposite of desperate. Barely had time for one another but found a way to see each other.

When we weren’t hungry at all but found each other completely delicious nonetheless.

Knowing I’m Not Any Better Than the Participants

So Married at First Sight is an uncomfortable show to watch sometimes — because of this history. Because of this self-knowledge I have that in spite of how my life is now, I have a history of acting out of desperation. Even making huge life choices because of it.

I can’t sit there and judge the people on TV who are making what seems like a rash and drastic decision. Because at the end of the day, I know I’m not any better.

And that’s precisely why it’s a good thing to watch.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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