Why We Can’t Look Away From Love Is Blind

This article contains spoilers for Love Is Blind Season 2.

If you’ve never seen an episode of Love Is Blind, the best way I can describe the viewing experience is this: It feels like a television producer read a Wikipedia description of the Stanford prison experiment and decided that all it needed was a little romance.

The show, which concluded its second season on Netflix last week, sequesters 30 people in a studio for a week and a half to test the theory that instinctual physical attraction is an impediment to romantic love. Participants spend their time alone in tiny, closed rooms—the pods—going on “dates” through a speaker system. To be freed from the pods and graduate to the next phase of the show, they have to get engaged, with a wedding a month later. Only after an accepted proposal are couples allowed to see what the other person looks like, and until the betrothed return from a post-engagement trip to Mexico, they are cut off from the outside world. No cellphones, no internet, no support system.

Everything about the show upsets me, and not just because it’s plainly a bad idea. Contestants who have known each other for a few days start calling each other their best friend. Most participants who fail to bond with a stranger through a wall are not named or acknowledged, scuttling in the background like the non-playable characters in a video game. Everyone involved is constantly clutching metal wine glasses because sobriety is a longtime enemy of compelling reality television, and so is Chardonnay that lurches up and down in its glass, belying an edit that might not be strictly chronological.

But, regrettably, Love Is Blind is also tremendous content, and the show has turned into a big hit for Netflix and a hot subject for social-media gossip. Last weekend, my friend David warned me that he had started watching it with his girlfriend on a whim. On Monday, he sent me an update. “I started Saturday morning reading a Jonathan Franzen novel,” he wrote. “Now I’m ten pages deep in the Love Is Blind subreddit.” This is a popular trajectory for fans of the show: The contestants open up their most intimate moments for the general public, and then the general public wants more, scrutinizing their Instagram accounts, podcast appearances, and anything else that might provide definitive proof of who sucks and who should be celebrated and, most important, how people should behave in matters of the heart. And it’s that last part—that consensus-building about the right and wrong ways to experience some of life’s most difficult moments—that makes the show land. Love Is Blind is so harrowing and so enthralling because it’s not just about 30 striving contestants—it’s also about the rest of us.

One of the most jarring things about the show is how quickly and completely some participants’ boundaries disappear. What starts out functionally similar to eavesdropping on a series of deranged Tinder dates turns into watching couples bond over tales of childhood trauma and adult violence and deep personal insecurity, all within days of being introduced to one another’s voices in the pods. This season, Iyanna and Jarrette, two contestants who get engaged, swapped stories of parental abandonment and attempted murder by a onetime friend. Two other women, Danielle and Deepti, shared details of years-long struggles to make peace with their bodies and feel confident after dramatic weight loss; they eventually got engaged to the men who listened. If you walked into a room where two strangers were discussing these topics, you’d apologize and leave. But part of the prurient thrill of reality TV is being invited to stay and see the squirmy interior lives of others.

I asked Kirk Honda, a Seattle-based psychologist and couples therapist who has built a following on YouTube by breaking down the interpersonal dynamics on popular reality dating shows, why Love Is Blind is so effective at getting people engaged in such strange circumstances. He told me that the show is built for fast intimacy. Producers, he suspects, look for people who really do want to get married, and then cast members are plied with alcohol, cut off from their social lives, given virtually nothing to do all day outside the pods but think about the people they’ve talked with, and forced into competition for a small group of potential mates. When participants aren’t in the pods, they’re in standard-issue reality-TV housing segregated by gender, gossiping about their pod dates. The normal hopes and tensions of dating get cranked up to 11—if you don’t do everything you can to bond with the person you’re most interested in, one of your new friends could yank your future husband out from under you. Love Is Blind claims to stand in opposition to dating-app culture, but it replicates a common anxiety caused by those apps: You can never feel confident that someone you’re really beginning to care about isn’t simultaneously having the same conversations with half a dozen other people.

These dynamics also push participants to rationalize things that are made into obvious red flags for viewers. Deep into their pod courtship, Shayne accidentally reveals to Natalie that he’s continued to pursue another contestant. When Natalie says that she feels misled, Shayne blows up and nearly quits the show—but they get engaged anyway. When Iyanna accepts Jarrette’s proposal, she does it knowing that he already proposed to another woman and got turned down. Danielle and Nick spiral into the same fight over and over again. Deepti and Shake bond over their shared cultural roots and dating histories but seem to gloss over Shake’s obsession with having a skinny partner, even though Deepti has been open with him about her body insecurities. Once they’ve met face-to-face, Shake tells anyone who will listen that he’s not attracted to Deepti as soon as she’s out of earshot.

To producers’ credit, this sets the show up for incredible fireworks. Decisions on whether to stay together or break up are made at the altar. Brides are in their big white dresses and grooms are in their tuxes. Their wedding parties are full of their actual friends, and their families mostly try to muster support. It’s nearly impossible not to root for some of these people to get left at the altar and humiliated in front of the world, even though you know virtually nothing about them. You’re encouraged to scoff. You’d never act a fool under these circumstances. You’d never spill your darkest secrets on Netflix. You certainly wouldn’t fall in love with some bozo in the next room after four days. You wouldn’t get reality-TV married.

You might, though. To me, that’s the most unsettling part of Love Is Blind. Most of the contestants seem well-meaning, if a little desperate for companionship, which isn’t particularly rare. The conflicts are blown up for entertainment value, but they’re mostly identical to the stuff of normal relationships—unlike most other dating shows, there are few hoops to jump through except engagement and marriage, which makes some of the drama distressingly familiar. All couples argue, and lots of them have the same argument over and over again. Defensiveness, poor communication, and hurt feelings have turned us all into jerks on occasion.

Every day, people try to push past insecurities without dealing with them, try to reconcile conflicting desires that make for an uneasy fit with an otherwise lovely partner, try to tell the difference between anger issues that can be resolved and those that are more likely to devolve into abuse. Sometimes they tell themselves that these efforts are going better than they really are because they so badly want that to be true. There’s nothing all that fantastical about any of it, which is maybe why it invites such close examination and rowdy discussion by fans online. There but for the grace of God go many of us, even if cameras aren’t capturing our fights and disappointments. If we can all just agree on the right way to argue, the right person to blame for a broken heart, and the right way to fall in love, maybe we’ll all do better the next time we try.

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