The “I Do’s” and Don’ts of Reality TV

Watching for Love on All the Wrong Channels

Cake TopperThe immensely popular so-called reality shows on television are “anything but,” says Dr. Dennis Lowe, founding director of Pepperdine’s Center for the Family and professor of psychology.

And it is especially true with the relationship programs that lead people to the altar or to teary-eyed breakups while millions of television viewers tune in to watch.

“You can’t deny they have viewer appeal,” says Lowe. “The show promises a behind-the-scenes look at how you fall in love, and that’s a fascinating process.” It is, believes Lowe, an unfulfilled promise.

A licensed psychologist and marriage and family therapist, Lowe is a recognized authority on relationships. Along with a growing number of his colleagues, he has identified a new and disturbing trend in how today’s society views the institution of marriage. “Our consumer mentality has seeped into our view of relationships,” Lowe says.

He goes on to explain that as a culture, people are becoming less producer-driven and more consumer-driven. What once was an agrarian community that relied on individual toil to produce food for the table now pushes a cart through a well-stocked market or clicks online to make an instant purchase. Lowe likens this “shopping for satisfaction” approach to society’s modern view of relationships.

“As a consumer, you select from certain goods,” he says. “You develop certain criteria for making your selection, and when you find yourself with defective goods, you return or replace them. These reality shows are not only the epitome of that consumer mindset, they promote it.”

Contestants’ criteria for selecting their future husband or wife from a group of contenders are often limited to what they can observe on the surface-looks, physical abilities, or possessions. “These standards plant an image in the viewer’s mind of what is really important, painting a picture of what qualities make a good marriage,” says Lowe. The results can be heard in lunchrooms, dorm rooms, and classrooms across the nation. “I can’t believe she didn’t pick Charlie,” a woman exclaims over lunch. “He made everyone laugh and Ryan is such a bore!” Throughout these conversations, Lowe sees signs that the consumer mentality is working its way into social consciousness and people are progressively turning to these criteria in their own real-life dating scenes.

He urges audiences to look beyond the entertainment exterior of reality programs to see the signs of a culture at war with traditional relationship values. In a consumer culture, happiness is pursued through the collection of things. Lowe warns that shopping for a mate in the same way one would shop for a sweater is the unstable foundation on which these modern consumer relationships are built.

“The damage is done even before you get to the point of viewing someone as replaceable,” says Lowe. “The damage is done the minute you adopt the ‘how do I choose someone?’ basis that is presented on these shows.”

Lowe argues that these shows direct viewers to focus on selecting the right person to the neglect of being the right person. The bachelor or bachelorette spends the entire season examining the qualities in others that would best fit his or her needs and seldom conducting any self-reflection. “According to these shows, if you aren’t happy in your relationship, it is because you chose the wrong person,” says Lowe, “so then all you need to do is go find another ‘right’ person, and then another.”

While he accepts the wave of these programs as a new social reality, Lowe cautions that however subconscious it may be, viewers are absorbing a message that is progressively getting stronger. It is the message that relationships are all about self-satisfaction. “I’m not sure that the definition the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote ‘pursuit of happiness’ was ‘Are my personal needs being met?'” quips Lowe.

So, the question is: how should viewers protect themselves? What should they be looking for in a potential relationship? “People should examine what their own growth areas are,” says Lowe. “Take a good look at yourself and ask, ‘What do I have to offer?'”

He stresses that both individuals need to be asking themselves that question, not just one. “Both people contribute to how successful and satisfying a relationship is going to be,” says Lowe. “It is not meant to be one-sided, no matter what you may hear on television.”

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