Love Better

Is Reality TV Stopping us From Staying in Long Term Relationships?

Are we really there to view these people’s success and joy? No. We’re here for the drama.
smashed tv
Christopher Ingram

Reality TV (if we can call it reality at all) has been creeping for decades into the public consciousness, and it's hard to deny its impact – especially when it comes to dating shows.

While it’s fun to watch the chaos unfold, sitting on the couch, indulging in trash, it’s foolish to assume the huge trend wouldn’t have an impact on us.

Love Island, one of the most prominent reality shows on TV right now, pitches itself as an experiment: a group of hot singles isolated in paradise, sharing one house and regularly rearranging themselves into new “couples”. Being hot is painfully subjective, except on Love Island, where it seems to translate to shiny manscaped men who live at the gym and tiny self-tanned women who don’t know basic geography. A match made in heaven. 


These constant “recouplings” are the crux of the show. Over and over, contestants jump ship from their stable situations when new people are introduced. Everyone’s eyes are peeled for someone better to walk through the door – someone shinier, oilier, bigger, blonder. And, in the world of Love Island, better rarely refers to characteristics like honesty, intelligence or kindness. Instead, the shallow waters of job titles, wealth and physical attractiveness reign supreme.  

Most of the time the journey to the final is filled with betrayal, deception, hurt, shame and embarrassment, however in its final episodes the show pleads with its audience to forget the disaster drama and instead focus on the remaining couples' experiences as the ultimate romantic journey.

Yes, in the world of Love Island, you can live through all the drama and hardships of a relationship in 2 months and then end up with the love of your life. The person who spent months shouting and lying and playing the game will ultimately be the princess/prince charming you’re looking for. 

We watch Love Island because it’s silly, entertaining and trashy fun. But in a world where examples of genuinely peaceful and positive relationships aren’t prominent in the media, shows like Love Island can be the only representation of real relationships young people see.

The 2019 series of Love Island UK was watched by over 3 million viewers, a majority of whom were young women aged 16–34. The show’s contestants independently rack up millions of followers on Instagram in the wake of the show, too. Despite a constant resistance to admitting to watching trash TV, we know that people are watching, and continuing to follow and froth over former contestants, even when the whole thing is over. 


Love Island is far from the only show exhibiting dodgy relationship ideals. Similarly, in Netflix's newest offering, Perfect Match, contestants are paired up, split into new couples, able to ditch their partners for more enticing newbies, and spend less than a month getting to know each other before a lucky few declare they’ve found their perfect match. One couple got engaged in the final episode. They broke up a week after filming.

There’s also Love is Blind, a show that emphasises its social experiment angle, as contestants flirt through literal, opaque walls, without being able to see each other, and then get the opportunity to jump ship after seeing each other in real life.

Married At First Sight is a local favourite in Oceania, trapping couples in loveless marriages for the audience's pleasure. And we can’t forget our own Aotearoa-based additions, FBOY Island NZ and Heartbreak Island. 

These social experiment TV shows can tout their own prowess as much as they like – there’s no denying they can be addictive viewing –  but the format tends to exploit people's vulnerability and often make it seem like being honest and sensitive is a one-track path to failure. In real life, it's traits like these that help healthy relationships function. 

Are we really there to view these people’s success and joy, anyway? No. We’re here for the drama. These are survival competitions – and only the most cut-throat survive. Reality TV has helped normalise superficiality, nastiness, and disloyalty, and the winners are frequently the people most able to weaponise those traits. 


Research in Psychology Today found that “men used shows to learn about dating more than women.” And so dating shows, so often framed as competitions, have gradually become a touchpoint for men – even if they don’t realise it.

Feeling like you have to compete for romantic attention is an idea that should be smashed to pieces, buried and lit on fire. How to make it worse? Add in the idea that to win you must be hotter than everyone else. 

Another Netflix creation, Too Hot To Handle, painfully pushes the idea that your appearance is a key component in your dating life. Low self esteem, body dysmorphia, and anxiety are all linked to the rise in social media usage – so it’s not like we don’t know that young people raised online are susceptible to feeling shit about themselves. But shows like this don’t care if they make you feel worse, and continue to enforce the idea that being typically attractive makes you more dateable. 

The truth is that the makers of these shows don’t give a shit about their contestants finding love – their goals are far from creating long-term healthy relationships. Sometimes, putting in the time to explore healthy relationships that require level-headed conversations and mutual mahi just doesn’t make for good TV. So why make that show, when the drama of hook-up culture, messy public break-ups and on-and-off relationships is much more likely to bring in the views – and the money. 


The hyper-intimate, fast moving, emotionally demanding scenarios, all painstakingly created in reality TV, cause people to focus on excitement and initial attraction and not deeper relationships. If producers were really looking to help people find love, they might occasionally let them interact outside of white-walled minimalist villas kitted out in K-Mart pineapple decor.

Culturally, we’re shifting away from the nuclear family and the typical relationship model of date, then marry, then get pregnant and remain together forever, refusing to acknowledge that you might not be happy. But these shows strike a strange balance, aiming for the monogamous long-term couple while placing people in situations where there’s no healthy way to get there. 

Even with that goal in sight, it’s rare for couples that come out of these shows to stick the landing, with people breaking up comically fast or enduring miserable months faking happiness for good press before they either get their Boohoo dot com deal or just can’t take it anymore. 

TV dating shows cash in on drama and don’t give a shit about exploring what healthy relationships look like, let alone how to find them or put in the mahi to keep them going in the long run. And as much as reality TV is good for dumb fun, the lessons at play do impact our ideas around what’s normal. If Love Island is what's normal, then healthy, long-term relationships sure as shit aren’t.  


Own the Feels is brought to you by #LoveBetter, a campaign funded by the Ministry for Social Development.

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Rachel Barker is a writer / producer at VICE NZ in Aotearoa.