12 strangers are about to get married, but why?

Kim Knight,
Spy News,
Publish Date
Saturday, 9 September 2017, 3:15PM

When Married at First Sight called for Kiwi participants, 4000-plus singles applied. Kim Knight meets one of the experts charged with finding the perfect match.

The academic expert in social psychology has just blown a very unacademic raspberry.

She relaxed her lips, pushed her tongue right through them and, as the splooging sound filled the room, added a thumb's down for emphasis.

"Put that in the article!" says Dr Pantea Farvid, speaking in full caps. "THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS 'THE ONE'."

Do you hear that? It's the sound of a thousand puppies drowning. Of unicorns exploding and the heart-shaped cake industry going out of business.

"Fairy tales create a version of love that is just not true," says Farvid.

"Love is hard work. Hanging out with someone 24/7 and for a long time, is pretty much the hardest work you'll ever have to do in your life. I don't think there is any magical spell out there. It is just hard work. In some ways, I'm surprised so many people want to do it."

Do you hear that? It's the sound of a television network public relations manager hastily interrupting this interview: "Generally," stresses the PR person. "Not in the show."

Well, obviously not in the show. Because if your previous efforts to find The One have failed, then obviously there is a very high chance you will find them on a television programme called Married at First Sight.

Briefly, the show requires complete strangers to meet, marry and fall in love as telegenically as possible. Camera crews follow couples on honeymoon and then into apartments where they live together and, at the end of six weeks, decide if they want to stay together.

First screened on Danish television in 2013, local adaptations have now been produced in more than 25 countries. Some participants have gone on to have children; others have, reportedly, filed restraining orders.

Next month, New Zealand joins the MAFS club. Six couples have been selected to have and to hold for your viewing pleasure - and unlike the Australian version of the show, where legislation means the telly weddings are a sham, in New Zealand, participants will be legally married. If they want to split, they will need to apply for a legal divorce.

The good news? They have been optimally matched by two "experts" - relationship counsellor Tony Jones, and aforementioned raspberry-blowing academic, Dr Pantea ("Pani" for short) Farvid.

Dr Pantea Farvid.

The 36-year-old senior AUT lecturer has a doctorate in psychology. Her research interests include "examining the intersection of gender, sexuality, power, culture, technology and identity" with an orientation "towards social justice and social change, specifically on promoting egalitarianism within hetero-sexuality".

What is a nice academic doing on a television show like this?

"I know, right?" says Farvid. "Reputation-wise, it could be a risky endeavour."

Married at First Sight is billed as an "extreme social experiment" - but don't expect science in any official ethics committee-approved sense of the word.

"The rigour is in our selection process," explains Farvid. "We spent hours, weeks, going over profiles, doing testing, to try and pick the best, ideal matches out of the people who applied."

What happens next, she concedes, is out of her control.

"What I decided it could offer is a way in which to have a different avenue to talk about nuanced and critical approaches to gender and sexuality in relationships, even though we're dealing with something kind of traditional - marriage - this social experiment allows us the room, the 'in' to deal with a lot of longstanding and ongoing issues and queries that people are still worried about."

Key questions for Farvid: "What is marriage? Is love at first sight possible? Is marriage something that is still relevant? Should we still be searching for 'the one' in the contemporary context when a sexual partner is a swipe away? Does it make sense to commit for life?"

In 2016, Statistics NZ put the official marriage rate at 10.9 people per 1000 or about one-quarter of the 1971 peak of 45.5. Last year, New Zealand residents registered 20,235 marriages or civil unions - and 8169 divorces.

"Tony and I are not fortune-tellers," says Farvid. "We will do our utmost with our experience, intellect, tests ... to do our best to choose the right people and to choose the right couples. I cannot guarantee that's going to mean lifelong marriage for all them. It's up to them now to bring what they can to the table."

In the most recent Australian version of the show, what they brought to the table was wine. It fuelled episode recap headlines like "Marriages drunkenly implode during disaster dinner". Participants accused producers of selective editing and viewers feared the so-called experts had a vested interest in keeping couples together, even when they were miserable.

Can the New Zealand participants quit their shared apartments any time they want? Farvid: "I don't know."

Official position from the TV3 publicity department: "The participants' contracts with Warner Bros are confidential. What we can say is that the experiment is about matching people to fall in love so everything possible is done to ensure the participants want to stay on and see the experiment out."

"Maybe," says Farvid, "What you're trying to speak to is this is some kind of masochistic, messing with people situation? That's just not what is going on and I really firmly want to put that across. I know the attitude of the production company and I know the attitude of the network ... this isn't about drama creation and this isn't about chewing up and spitting out the participants. The goal is creating successful and long-lasting relationships."

The Catholic Church has accused the show of trivialising marriage for television ratings - but, arguably, that horse has bolted.

"Marriage is on the decline as cohabitation has risen, as the morality associated with associated with co-habitating and premarital sex has declined," says Farvid. "Marriage is a traditional religious institution and one has to unpack that in a 2017 secular context ... if the church was in charge of our country, I don't think we'd be able to have a social experiment show that had people get legally married."

Internationally, academic researchers have categorised Married at First Sight as a "second-generation" reality television show, sitting between the "camcorder era" and the recent emphasis on manufactured celebrity (Idol, etc). Its defining feature is a focus on transformation. According to one Australian research paper, the show relies on pitching current dating and relationship practices as problematic.

"The individual's failure to find the right partner is corrected through expert intervention," researchers wrote. "Not so much by creating a marriageable individual, but through constructing a resilient couple. Scientific expertise offers an alternative to individual agency ... the individual's inability to know what is best for them is presented as one of the main obstacles in contemporary dating."

It's a hard road finding the perfect man-woman-partner. Modern romantics meet online. They swipe right on a dating app and minutes-hours-days later, they meet for coffee-dinner-sex. Occasionally, love ensues. And if that sounds easy, it is apparently not - more than 4000 Kiwis applied to be on Married at First Sight.

"We cannot underestimate the desire for people to want companionship," says Farvid. "We are social beings. We definitely get lonely."

Applicants told the experts they were tired of a technologically mediated dating game.

"They couldn't handle it, and they were like, 'Could someone just figure it out for me, there's too much choice.' We had a lot of people in their late-20s. People who were like, 'I feel like I've exhausted all my options' and I'm, 'Honey, you're 26 - what are you talking about?'"

Farvid (relationship status: "not married") was born in Iran and lived there until she was 10. She says the arranged marriages she observed among family members in that country were "basically like a blind date - two families go, 'Hey, these two might be good, let's see - if they meet, do they get along?'"

Can anyone learn to love anyone?

Farvid: "It depends how love is positioned or constructed for you in a particular cultural climate or historic context."

For example, she says, if your idea of love is a monogamous partnership, running a house together and raising children, "then I think that's easily growable".

In the Western context, where romantic love reigns? "There is a lot of pressure on couples for love to be something that is almost unattainable. You have to be each other's soulmate, friend, the perfect spouse, breadwinner, housewife, house husband, mother, everything. We put too much emphasis on this notion of love being so unexplained."

In her view, "Where there is common ground - overlap and commonalities - and you have the commitment, the conviction and the desire to make it work, you can make it work."

In Victorian times, says Farvid, even Western marriages were arranged. "It was about duty and procreation and the combining of familial assets. It was an economic and social exchange, not a love exchange."

Not so long ago, more people than not considered sex before marriage was a sin and children born out of wedlock were bastards. Today, All The Single Ladies rule the world and nobody cares if your parents have different surnames - or the same gender. So why are we still so enamoured with old-fashioned marriage?

"Maybe in a social context where there is so much variability, so much choice and flux, marriage or partnerships offer people what they consider is a sense of stability?" says Farvid.

"What does marriage mean now? That's what I'm interested in."

Why I love/hate Married at First Sight

By Tess Nichol

Married at First Sight is a manipulative, cynical piece of television which exploits human loneliness, disguising a cold-hearted ratings ploy as a genuinely scientific experiment earnestly trying to find love for other people.

I love it, devoured three seasons of it and, during an extended period of optimistic delusion, seriously considered signing up for the Kiwi version.

"I'll either find my soulmate or completely destroy my life," I remember saying cheerfully. This is what dating in Auckland does to your brain.

One of my favourite scenes is in Australia's season two, and perfectly encapsulates the absurd nature of this stupid show, which I love.

Newly married couple Mark and Christie are at some beautiful island location on their honeymoon, sitting at an outdoor candlelit dinner with absolutely nothing to talk about. Mark has the major hots for Christie, who at this point in the series is actively repulsed by her husband.

It's the saddest, dumbest honeymoon date ever. In a desperate attempt to bond with his new bride, Mark flails about for a conversation starter, before lamely asking Christie: "How's ya bread?" followed by an awkward smile and stony silence.

A small part of my soul turned to ash at his earnest delivery, while my flatmates and I disintegrated into fits of anguished laughter.

While delighting in watching other people fumble about like idiots, I am aware MAFS is a fundamentally flawed show. Its conceit rests on the presumption that anyone is ready for and inherently deserves love and a loving relationship.

This isn't true, something that is evident enough if you consider, for example, Australia's season four villain, Anthony.

Anthony wasn't, as the experts kept saying, "a strong minded traditional man" but, in fact, a borderline abusive misogynist whose behaviour was arguably being condoned by the show.

My flatmates and I spent the approximately 4000 episodes of that season (I hope the NZ series sticks to the old seasons' much shorter runs) praying for poor, beleaguered Nadia to leave him, only to see her be ruthlessly dumped by the prick at the end.

It sucked.

Then there are the giant adult toddlers like Jesse, who approached his relationship with the very much grown-up Michelle with all the maturity of a teenager excited about seeing his first pair of boobs.

But for every Anthony or Jesse, there's a Simon, or a Sean - shy or slightly gawky men who find dating difficult but seem ready to love someone.

No one from the Australian show seems to have actually stayed together apart from season one's Zoe and Alex, who get wheeled out with their baby at the start of every new season to make the lie that this is a show about love and not ratings somewhat believable.

The pull you feel in wanting their relationships to work out is what draws you back to MAFS again and again (and again, and again. Seriously, cut the run time).

Married at First Sight begins on TV3 on Sunday, October 1, 7pm.