In many ways, these shows are like "The Dating Game," "Singled Out" or other dating shows of the past. Contestants are presented with multiple dates and must choose one by the end of the show. However, these newer shows aren't as playful. Rather than having contestants ask silly questions and then end with the promise of a date, these shows start with dates and contestants eliminate people only after they have spent an evening with them. Therefore, the final rejection or acceptance has greater emotional impact.
On "Change of Heart," two people in a troubled relationship go on dates with other people, compare their partners with their dates and then choose to stay with the partners or break up. On "The Fifth Wheel," two men and two women go on a blind date. Then, midway through the date, another man or woman enters and someone becomes "the fifth wheel." On "Elimidate," one man or woman goes on a date with four people at the same time and eliminates one in every round until one is left. On one hand, these shows merely provide entertainment. On the other hand, they reflect a trend to use romantic partners as prizes. In these shows, people try to "win" the best date.
In the same way, people in "real life" go to bars, evaluate people in a glance and expect to find a compatible person. Or, they date someone for a year and never consider themselves "taken." On the shows, this behavior can seem funny, but in real life (and probably in the contestants' real lives), it just causes damage. First of all, measuring people against others makes for insecure relationships. Better alternatives -- or at least the appearance of better alternatives -- always will exist. Therefore, in order for relationships to be stable, something must tie people together beyond their superiority over other potential partners. No one can control how attractive other people appear or how many attractive people will appeal to the person they date. They can control only themselves and their own behavior.
Therefore, if people are constantly compared to others rather than judged on their own merits, they have little ability to prevent themselves from being rejected or replaced. This lack of control leads to immense jealousy. Everyone becomes competition -- even friends. On the shows I watched, which primarily involved strangers, people criticized each other's bodies and clothes and accused each other of being promiscuous. In real life, when people invest much more, being continually held up against other people causes greater resentment.
Obviously people need to have some method for re-evaluating partners and relationships, but these choices and conclusions should be made based on the person, not in comparison to other people (or on a television show!).
Consciously comparing potential partners also lacks romance. Love might not be the magical and mysterious thing we see in movies, but it's nice to think that it's not as calculated as being mentally lined up and compared with other people. Everyone has different advantages and possibilities that require time to truly appreciate.
One evening, or a blind date taped for television, won't do it. Of course we should consciously choose people, but we should do so because we like them not because they seem better than everyone else.
In my opinion, the two best things about romantic relationships are being overwhelmed by something unexplainable and trusting someone else. Both of these things disappear when we treat people as objects to be won.
I know that these game shows are just entertainment, but their existence reveals something scary. We seem to secretly want multiple people to vie for us to the point of petty jealousy, and we want to use romantic relationships to boost our self-esteem. Seeing the attractiveness of these things is easy. Obviously we want guaranteed romantic alternatives, attention and control. Romantic relationships can be elusive and nerve-racking, and it makes sense that we want something to make us feel secure. Of course, though, promoting jealousy or treating people like trading cards can't really help. We lose safety and the reassurance of commitment and end up making ourselves and other people miserable. Hopefully, watching the contestants on these shows disparage strangers or break off long term relationships for the chance of something better will stop us from wanting to act out their exploits for ourselves.
Marian Crotty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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