If you’ve been watching Married At First Sight, you’ve probably been feeling as exasperated as I have watching women suffering through toxic on-screen behaviours from their “husbands”.
This season has seen a particularly problematic pairing – Melissa Rawson, a woman who expressed her lack of self-confidence in early episodes and has repeatedly shown behaviours that align with low self-esteem and insecurity in relationships, and Bryce Ruthven – the man who repeatedly reminds her on-screen that he wouldn’t have picked her first.
We’ve seen James Susler get called out for gaslighting Joanne Todd, twisting her words on-screen and telling her she’s imagined conversations and scenarios. Sam Cararro tell Coco Stedman she’s too much and not funny.
Then there’s Brett and Booka, the dark horses – a seemingly healthy, thriving relationship that has completely broken down and seen Booka criticised for everything from being too “intense” to being too confident.
The reason we’re all up in arms about the behaviour from men on MAFS is because we know this is how so many men behave in relationships. We recognise gaslighting because we’ve lived through it – we’ve all had a man manipulate us by twisting our words in an argument or telling us we’re “crazy” or “imagining things” when our gut recognises something is wrong in the relationship. We’ve been with the guy who tells us we’re too much – too loud, too intense, too confident.
We’ve been in the relationship with the emotional manipulator and the man who makes us feel less-than, comparing us to exes or other women, critiquing our appearance in subtle ways.
These men aren’t unique in their behaviours on-screen – we have all dated these men, or watched a friend go through these experiences. They are a product of a culture that still favours men, that still says to women “you need to be fun but not loud, successful but not more than me and you definitely can’t talk about it, you should be thankful you have found a man who wants you because he could easily leave you.”
Like many men I have dated, Bryce seems to have one eye on Melissa, and one eye on something “better”. Instead of lifting Melissa up by focusing on the qualities he likes about her, he has honed in on her faults on-screen – which, in his eyes, centre on her appearance. He placed her fourth in a ranking of the wives in the experiment, and while we could possibly forgive him for that had he been gentle about it, expressing how superficial the task was given he barely knew Melissa at that point – he has repeatedly brought it up both in private and in public. How lucky Melissa should feel to be with this man when she is, after all, only the fourth hottest woman in the room.
What has played out on screen has been reminiscent of a relationship I was in once where my partner would often mention a woman he used to hook up with, always calling her “so hot but so crazy”. I found myself comparing my body, my face, my style to this woman, always falling short. In hindsight I can see my self-esteem slowly eroding every time she was mentioned.
I also related deeply to Booka’s experience this week, she was (via Patrick, what Brett had told Patrick, and The Letter) ripped her to shreds over her confidence and personality. She had simply spent too much time being proud of her achievements and failed to build up her husband with affirmations, she wasn’t funny enough but when she did joke around, it wasn’t the RIGHT kind of funny.
I have been with SO MANY MEN whose eyes have glazed over when I’ve talked about my podcasts or stories I was proud of. I’ve seen grown men throw tantrums because I’m too busy with side hustles and a demanding job. I was once told I talked too much, “70% of the conversation was about you”, by a man who barely responded to questions I asked him about his life.
If I could sum up how I feel about what we’ve seen on MAFS, and how I’ve experienced dating men in my own life, it’s this – men want women to be standing behind them. Don’t be confident, be grateful to be chosen. You can be talented but if you make me feel untalented, that’s a problem.
It’s “make ME feel good about MYSELF” energy, whether that comes from the doting, just-happy-to-be-here relationship or the need for women to pipe down about their own successes to allow men to shine.
No, women aren’t perfect. Yes, I believe Booka could have acknowledged Brett’s feelings, and both parties were terrible at communicating across the last two episodes. Yes we have seen pretty toxic on-screen behaviour coming from women on MAFS too – Bec picking Jake apart has been hard to watch. It’s worth us as women assessing how we have behaved in relationships past, too – and if we’ve been the Bec or the Booka, lacking self-awareness when it comes to how our partner is feeling.
Is it problematic to show these experiences on TV? I don’t think so – I’ve always felt the concerning depictions of relationships in reality TV just help us to recognise and discuss these wider issues, because they don’t exist in a vacuum. Yes, I think people such as Melissa who already have self-esteem problems they need to work on shouldn’t be cast in shows that will only traumatise them further. But in general, documenting these toxic behaviours doesn’t validate them, it draws them to the forefront of conversation and makes us in turn cast a light on our own learned behaviours and accepted social norms.
It’s just my hope that the men who behave like this and see it play out on screen, from the stars of the show to viewers, see the ramifications and change their ways accordingly.