What's with our Obsession with Dating Shows?

There’s something about dating shows that attract a huge audience.

You watch one episode of The Bachelor and that makes you want to binge watch all 22 seasons. You press play on Netflix’s Love is Blind and suddenly you’re questioning 95 percent of Jessica’s decisions while also looking up the release date for season two. 

Maybe it’s the anticipation of now knowing who will fall in love and who will be sent home? Or maybe it’s just that reality TV is remarkably good at taking real people and developing them into a story you can easily get sucked into (completely “unscripted” of course).

There are villains and heroes, sweethearts and messy breakups, twists and turns, and a desire for a season renewal. 

Netflix logo stating "Netflix and Alone"

But there has to be something more to it, right? Sure, the audience craves drama but they can get that from any soap opera or telenovela that happens to be playing. What is it about dating shows that seem to draw a cult following? 

We Learn a Thing or Two About the "Dos" and "Don'ts" of Dating

So let’s back up a little to the whole “taking real people and developing them into a story” thing we were talking about earlier. The story might get a little boring if every “character” was the same. That’s why producers work hard to get a mix of people on the show. There’s a good chance that, even though you might not end up in the next season of Love is Blind, there’s probably someone on the show you can connect with. 

So whenever someone tells you that reality dating shows are trashy and a waste of time, remind them of all the valuable life lessons you're learning and how it only serves to better your communication and relationship skills in the future.

“We see many different personality characteristics and relationship archetypes displayed on these shows, viewers often find people they can relate to,” said relationship researcher and coach Marisa T. Cohen, Ph.D., CPLC for Good Housekeeping. “For example, a character experiencing unrequited love may resonate with you if you’re going through the same experience.”

Cohen used the example of Ashley Ianotti in Bachelor in Paradise. She “spent seasons in an on-again off-again relationship with Jared, before finally landing and marrying him, the man of her dreams.” Now imagine you’ve experienced similar ups and downs in a relationship. Hearing Ianotti's story probably provides a glimmer of hope for the future of your dating life. 

They Offer an Escape from Reality 

One of the appeals of TV shows is the escape from reality. For a glorious 45 minutes you can forget about how stressful work is and dive head first into whatever’s popular on Netflix. Sure, I tell myself that watching Portuguese soap operas is helping me improve my vocabulary (which it does!) but it remains my guilty pleasure for other reasons. 

Reality shows do the same - offering an escape from the real world but they’re also popular because they’re about real people. 

Two women on a beach

When we think about dating now, words like “swipe right” probably come to mind. Meet-cutes aren’t a huge part of the vocabulary anymore and dating apps are the new norm...except when it comes to dating shows. Sure, they’re not falling in love in a coffee shop or a bookstore (as romcom tradition would dictate) but they also don’t rely on Tinder or Bumble. 

So now, imagine you’re watching The Bachelor (no dating apps to be seen). The audience can now live vicariously through the contestants and watch as they meet their potential significant other.

It’s like the real world has been brought to life on television. Except, in this case, the real world required a few creative liberties and pushes from TV producers.

Woman in a white bathing suit, photo of her back, facing natural scenery

Whether or We Care to Admit it - We Love the Drama

Reality dating shows may not be as dramatic as telenovelas, but their exaggerated version of real relationships and tumultuous story lines make them easy to get sucked into. 

Are secret twins going to appear out of nowhere, only to change the course of the whole season? Probably not. But people are carefully selected by producers to add suspense, adding to the drama factor that viewers get wrapped up in. So, in a way, reality dating shows aren’t much different than any other movie or TV series. 

Take The Bachelor for example.

The Rose Ceremony: either the one you’ve been routing for is about to continue on for another week or they’re about to be eliminated (and trending on twitter). 

A close up photo of a rose

“No one knows the fates of these perfectly coiffed contestants, except for the bachelor or bachelorette (and their producers)” said Jen Kim in a story for Psychology Today. “Astute audience members might correctly identify frontrunners and favourites who are deemed safe for weeks on end, but as the bachelor’s harem of potential mates begins to dwindle, predicting who will take home that coveted final rose—not to mention, a free Neil Lane engagement ring and, oh yes, a new life partner—becomes more and more challenging.”

They basically turned handing someone a flower into one of the most high stakes scenes of reality TV - and the audience loves it.

4 fashionable dressed friends laughing with arms linked, three blonde one brunette

You Take Home a Life Lesson or Two 

In February of this year, Netflix dropped Love is Blind (mild spoilers ahead), a social experiment in which five couples get engaged—without ever having seen each other. They meet face-to-face, move in with each other, are introduced to friends and family and plan a wedding....all in three weeks. 

It may sound impossible but many of the problems that come up on the show echo common complaints that occur in everyday relationships (you know, the kind that lead to a marriage in more than three weeks). 

There are lessons that can be taken away from the show like the importance of sharing your feelings in a relationship and not comparing yourself to other couples. 

Engaged couple laying on the grass, man wearing a blue shirt and sunglasses, woman wearing beige cardigan

“Let's go back to Lauren and Cameron for a moment. Cameron expects Lauren to move into his house once they're married, but Lauren is loath to give up her apartment, which she works out of and has made into her own sacred space,” said therapist, yoga instructor, and writer based in New York Julia Bartz, LMSW. “She brings up the idea of keeping her apartment, and Cameron appears unhappy with that idea. In this case, a couple's therapist might explore Lauren's fear of losing her independence, as well as Cameron's need to bring Lauren into his space (instead of them finding a new home together).”

We live in a culture where relationships seem effortlessly perfect and that “happily ever after” is easily attainable. Strip away the Instagram photos and relationships take active and consistent effort from bother partners. 

“The truth is that humans are imperfect; thus, relationships are imperfect,” said Bartz. 

So whenever someone tells you that reality dating shows are trashy and a waste of time, remind them of all the valuable life lessons you're learning and how it only serves to better your communication and relationship skills in the future.

Or, just continue to watch The Bachelor in secret and tell yourself, well at least I haven’t gotten into soap operas yet.

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