Reality weddings: Whatever happened to romantic love?

THE nation was glued as the latest television dating show kicked off on Channel 4 last night.

Reality weddings: Whatever happened to romantic love?

Unlike Take Me Out, however, where the newly-acquainted couples famously jet off to the isle of Fernando’s, Married at First Sight is set to follow three pairs of total strangers as they take a trip down another kind of aisle.

Based on a Danish show of the same name, episode one of the social experiment yesterday saw six single people paired off by man and machine, based on scientific and sociological criteria.

Cameras will then go on to follow the newlyweds, who only meet on the morning of their weddings (shown in next week’s instalment), for the first six weeks of their lives together, before they eventually decide whether to stay married or get divorced.

Religious groups, such as British-based The Christian Institute, have already slammed the documentary series for “denigrating” the age-old institute of marriage.

However, Ireland’s top matchmaker Willie Daly says the concept of the show may not be barmy as it sounds.

“Years ago, when a matchmaker introduced a man and a woman, they would get married,” he says. “It would have been quite uncommon to go against that decision.

“Now, with the internet, people have been stretched in a lot of different directions. There’s more choice for people.

“I think the basic need for companionship and wanting to share your life with somebody is still there. When people are matched properly, they usually want to marry as quickly as they can. From a woman’s perspective, it’s all about timing. If the time is right in her life, circumstances have little to do with it.”

Next door to Ireland’s estimated 1.5m singletons, a staggering 15.7m adults are going it alone in Britain, the latest census figures for both countries show.

More than 200 singletons applied to go on the show to find their perfect match with the help of a panel of experts, including a psychologist, priest and anthropologist.

However, what kind of person would voluntarily leap before they look... and on national television?

Well, there’s Jerome, a 30-year-old technophobe, who says he’ll do anything to meet Miss Right, “even if that means embarrassing myself on national television”.

Take reformed “serial relationship fiend” Petra, 35, who’s hoping to finally find ‘the one’, and believes being set up on TV “can’t be worse than Tinder”.

Responding to criticism of the 21st century twist on the tradition of arranged marriage, Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt insists the reality show is “a celebration of marriage”.

“What if we take a slightly different approach and, at its heart, is the idea that we make the biggest decision of our life based on gut instinct,” she asks. “And what if you got an array of experts to help inform that decision and you would be more likely to make the right choice?”

Yes, but does it have to be so complicated?

Since following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps almost 50 years ago, third-generation matchmaker Daly claims to have fixed up more than 3,000 marriages at the annual Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival in Co Clare.

Then there’s the Dublin-based introductions agency, PerfectPartners.ie, where modern-day matchmaker Bill Phelan has also played Cupid for hundreds of couples over the past six years.

“I’m aware of quite a number of marriages that have happened as a result of our introductions,” says Bill, who spends two hours getting to know each new client and guarantees at least six introductions in the first 15 months.

“We match people on the basis of values, interests and intellect, the idea being [that] at least when they meet, they have something to start with.

“It’s more an art than a science, and that’s where our training, understanding and life experience come in.

“Any marriage is a gamble,” he adds. “It depends how it’s put together. Because we can’t guarantee that [clients] will meet their soulmate, we have to be able to ensure that, at worst, they enjoy themselves along the way.”

Figures show that one-in-10 marriages here end in divorce.

However, in the US, more than half of ‘I dos’ — 53%, to be precise — end in ‘I don’t’.

Given that marriage originally evolved, among other reasons, to help prevent incest and protect property, just like Married at First Sight, is it time to take another look at the notion of happily ever after, and how it begins?

“The notion of romantic love and marriage is only one form of coupling and, arguably, a rather modern one at that,” explains Dr Ronnie Moore, a medical anthropologist at UCD.

“I think we have to unpick a number of things that are often taken as a package, such as love and marriage.

“Historical and cross-cultural evidence tells us that the institution of marriage is multifunctional,” he says. “Apart from the economic function, it also helped maintain peace and stability in society.

“Marriage is simply the legal institutionalisation of the partnership.’

For actress Zoe Saldana and artist hubby Marco Perego — who wed in 2013 less than five months after meeting — it was good old-fashioned love at first sight.

“I don’t do the ABCs,” the mum-of-twins said. “I do what my heart says, what my heart feels. From the moment I met my husband, we were together. We knew.”

In an era of Tinder dating, though, where love — or lust, at least — is literally around the next corner, is it possible for big data to pin down ‘the one’?

“Chemistry we can’t do,” concedes Bill Phelan. “Online guys will tell you they’ve developed all these algorithms to find the perfect partner; it’s nonsense.

“We’ve put people together who ticked all the boxes, and it didn’t work, and we’ve put people together who we weren’t sure about, and it worked. It’s impossible to explain.

“If I had an aerosol for chemistry, I’d retire tomorrow.”

Perhaps a more pertinent question for participants in the show, is: Can the act of marriage in itself ever lead to lasting love, can we choose to love a husband or wife?

“Ideas of marriage cross-culturally make a nonsense of marriage being a natural institution,” says Dr Jamie Saris, a senior lecturer in anthropology at NUI Maynooth. “In ancient Egypt, for instance, Cleopatra wasn’t married to her lover Mark Antony — but to her younger brother.

“As a society, we have fetishised marriage to the point where it’s impossible [for it] to do all the things we expect,” he adds. “The more marriage is asked to do — be the primary arena of social, sexual, and emotional satisfaction, as well as the primary platform for child-rearing — then the more likely it is to fail.”

Sure enough, six months after tying the knot on television, all three couples who appeared on the US version of Married at First Sight have filed for divorce, with one newlywed Jessica Castro last month even filing a restraining order against husband Ryan De Nino.

Closer to home — in England and Wales, where divorce rates are much lower at 42% — what are the odds of the latest group of reality TV newlyweds going the distance then?

“If there’s anything wrong with these programmes, it’s that they only ever include [young, good-looking] people who could get anyone they wanted,” reckons Willie Daly. “I’d like to see them bring in people of a certain age, who find it a bit harder.

“But, there’s no reason why the marriages shouldn’t work. In fact, I’d be surprised if they didn’t.”

Dr Ronnie Moore agrees.

“There is every reason to think that a lasting match between total strangers stands a good chance if they fulfil the expectations they have of each other.”

“Growing up, my father and grandfather would have created matches out of need and circumstance,” says Daly.

“Coming out of that era, I always thought it was wrong for a very old man to be married to a very young woman, although that would have been very common in the past.

“People can fall in love completely instantly,” he insists. “For me, as a matchmaker, it’s more of a physical thing.

“You can hum and haw, and ask a hundred questions [but] none of it is relevant when you’re suddenly confronted with Mr or Miss Right.”

* Married at First Sight continues on Channel 4 next Thursday, July 16, at 9pm

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