Marriage Mishaps: The Shaky Science of Married at First Sight

Singles who don’t know each other are matched based on scientific research. Let’s take a closer look at this hobby horse of Married at First Sight.

This post is also available in Dutch.

Marrying strangers

Your ears are buzzing, and you nervously scan the room. Many eyes look back expectantly. “…as long as you both shall live?” the wedding officiant asks. She’s talking to you. You glance to the side and swallow: your future spouse is a complete stranger. It sounds like a nightmare to many, but not for those who sign up for Married at First Sight (MAFS). The TV show – Danish in origin and of which the ninth season is now broadcast in the Netherlands – matches strangers through scientific research, at least that’s what the creators claim.

The alleged science behind MAFS

In pre-selection, candidates undergo a series of tests for the matchmakers. The viewer can only guess which findings the program bases these matchmaking tests on, how they are conducted, and how they are used to match singles. The matchmakers seem to rely on the idea that people often choose a partner with whom they share many similarities. They measure height and weight because tall people often choose tall partners, and short people choose short partners. However, the role of height in mate selection is minimal. The effect of similarities in couples’ BMI index is also limited. Often, this similarity only becomes apparent or is strengthened when partners start adopting each other’s lifestyles. Moreover, it’s unclear whether similarities in physical traits say anything about the success of a relationship.

DNA and Scent

The behavioral biologist of MAFS says: “We can look at the DNA to see what someone’s body odor is. Based on that, we can also see if a match is promising.” (S09E01, 4:01). This is quite oversimplified. He probably refers to bits of an immune system complex, which also affects body odor and how we experience the smell of others. We have a preference for partners whose complex complements our own. However, this preference doesn’t always manifest in our behavior and may depend on the situation.

Mysterious Matching

Besides genes and appearance, other factors like interests, life stage, and personality are considered. For the first two, MAFS often aligns with the finding that we prefer a partner with whom we share similarities. How MAFS matches personalities is a mystery. Sometimes, they match similar personalities, which is associated with marital happiness. Other times, we hear: “The fact that Jantine is a bit more of an introverted woman actually fits very nicely with Jeppe’s enthusiasm and extroversion.” (S09E01, 26:06).

The honeymoon is over

Most MAFS marriages end early. It’s not unthinkable that this has to do with a lack of knowledge, as one of the regular experts (S07) consistently mangles the hormone ‘oxytocin’ into a non-existent toxin: ‘oxytoxine’. Candidates pinning all their hopes on science doesn’t help either. The science behind partner choice and relationship success is complex, and scientists sometimes have differing views on the many factors involved. On top of that, there is the opacity of the MAFS pre-selection.

Sometimes, a misconception arises that the test battery will result in a marriage where two people effortlessly grow closer because if you’re a perfect match, you should understand each other immediately, right?! But as MAFS face Eveline states: “… it’s important for people to realize that they, themselves, still have to do it.” (S09E01, 4:16). This is a rather vague and (unintentionally) suggestive comment from the sexologist but I like your spirit. For the producers, it doesn’t matter if couples can’t make sense of this; marriages that don’t work out work wonders for the ratings.

Author: Maartje Koot

Buddy: Lucas Geelen

Editor: Judith Scholing

Translator: Eline de Boer

Editor Translator: Helena Olraun

Photo by Long Ma on Unsplash
Disclaimer: Married at First Sight quotes are editorial translations from Dutch to English.

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