Are the love relations depicted on reality TV fake or real? Let’s explore this question for those of you who long for emotional intimacy. Over the course of the last month, The Bachelorette’s 13th season premiere aired, Bachelor spinoff Bachelor in Paradise began and concluded an investigation into sexual misconduct during the taping of its fourth season, and another Bachelor in Paradise couple from a previous season wed in front of reality TV cameras—their nuptials will be screened for audiences everywhere this fall. A quick Google search for any of these keywords will yield thousands of results, bringing you everything from the very latest in Bachelor news to social media hashtags utilized by the show’s massive viewership—this is, after all, the longest-running reality romance show in the history of television. Over 8 million individuals tuned in to watch the season 21 finale of The Bachelor earlier this year. Bottom line: This show is huge. But is it real?
You may be wondering at this point what a psychiatrist is doing blogging about a pop-culture phenomenon—or maybe you’re asking, Why should I care? Pop culture sensations, especially those which span the course of several years, are worth weighing in on because of the impact they can have on our collective psyche, whether we are conscious of them or not. This is especially true when it comes to our cultural perceptions of love. As humans, in part we are shaped by story. And the stories we consume about any emotion, feeling, and experience have a tendency to influence us in ways we may not fully comprehend. (A good example of these stories are the narratives we each carry around inside us pertaining to our parents’ marriages, and how these affect our own capacity for intimacy). Becoming more self-aware of our relationship to those stories and their significance in our lives can empower us and help us grow in our journey towards more fulfilling, loving, and whole lives.
Now, as they say, back to the show. Since 2002, there have been 34 total seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Over the course of each season, 25 contestants are eliminated until one remains: the one who gets the ring. Despite producing 34 relationships (and marriages), only 8 couples remain together. How long is a season? About nine weeks.
If you’re new to these facts and you’re shaking your head, you certainly wouldn’t be alone. A substantial proportion of viewers only claim to watch the show because they find the concept so absurd or even enraging. Huffington Post editor Emma Gray, who hosts a bachelor recap podcast, sums up the approach of many viewers, saying: “Sometimes entertainment is just allowed to be entertaining, and we turn our brains off for two hours, tweet a whole lot and then unpack the absurdity.”
However, “hate-watching” is still watching. And whether we’re aware of it or not, The Bachelor and the themes it perpetuates can have a profoundly detrimental impact on our ideas and perception of what real love and long-term commitment should look like.
In a groundbreaking study published in the journal Mass Communication and Society in 2012, researchers analyzed the TV-watching habits of nearly 400 married individuals. Their findings will likely vindicate what many of you may already assume about shows like The Bachelor and its spinoffs: Among other consequences, the more people believe the narratives about love and romance they see in their favorite shows, the less satisfied they are in their own relationships, the more likely they are to adopt a grass-is-greener mentality, and the more likely they are to cheat.
This study, of course, begs the question: What, exactly, is so “unreal” about this reality show portrayal of relationship, besides the obvious? To answer this question, I’d like to direct you toward two studies about the psychology of love that have fundamentally changed many professionals’ understanding of our minds—and may help to contextualize your own.
In 1974, two researchers published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that helped to develop the psychological theory known as Misattribution of Arousal. The researchers had two groups of men walk over two different bridges: one group walked over a rickety suspension bridge chosen for its fear-inducing qualities, while the other walked over a sturdy bridge. At the end of the bridge, participants met an attractive woman who offered her name and phone number. The men who walked over the rickety bridge were significantly more likely to call the woman and ask her on a date. Why? Because individuals often mistake the cause of their own arousal. These men were feeling the aftermath of their fear arousal. They misattributed this arousal, however, to sexual attraction.
Can you imagine the level of fear arousal that might occur in participants who were being filmed on one of the most popular reality TV shows in history? Can you imagine how this may be misconstrued, both by the participants and their audience, as love?
Helen Fisher is a superstar in studying the stages of love as they occur chemically within the brain. According to her research found in countless books, articles and TED talks, the chemical processes of falling in love looks frighteningly similar to those of addiction. fMRI brain scans of people in love versus people who have ingested cocaine both display activated dopamine pathways in brain regions associated with feelings such as energy, ecstasy, despair, and craving. And this same activation of dopamine pathways also enhances the expectation of hedonistic pleasure as one imagines future events.
This feeling can extend far beyond a mere 9 weeks of taping a reality show.
In reality, the hard work of commitment and care that characterizes any enduring love relationship comes only after the fire has died down. If the first stage of love is fiery passion, the second stage is reality. How ironic! Reality-based love requires compromise and negotiation. It’s hard, and yet deeply fulfilling. Most relationships, in fact, end at this stage, and many find themselves unable for a number of reasons to pursue something deeper. But that next stage, deep, durable love, is attainable despite our fears and insecurities.
This type of love doesn’t sell ads on television. It doesn’t attraction millions of viewers. And it sometimes takes years, even decades, to establish. But it can lead to a feeling of wholeness and contentment that is worth the struggle.
And if reality-based love is lost, it can be rediscovered. As Mignon McLaughlin once wrote, “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.”
Reader: I want you to know that deep love is possible for you.
Read more about how to establish deep, committed love here.
Dr. Bruce Kehr’s new book, Becoming Whole: A Healing Companion to Ease Emotional Pain and Find Self-Love
Dr. Bruce Kehr’s psychiatry practice, Potomac Psychiatry
Dr. Bruce Kehr’s Weekly Tips, Subscribe
Dr. Bruce Kehr’s Blog