It’s Autumn which only means one thing – Married At First Sight (MAFS) UK on E4. Whilst undeniably entertaining, MAFS crystallises a point about dating and life made by Oliver Burkeman in his book Four Thousand Weeks.
That point is that people should be more comfortable settling: Marrying based on a rational choice, rather than chasing a romantic dream, or striving for someone who matches up to every aspect of your ‘sparkling’ personality.
Burkeman makes the point that not only does everybody have to settle when they choose to settle down, but they should be happier doing it. When previously successful relationships break down, often the problem, is that your partner is ‘a person’ with failings, and these failings cannot match up to one’s imagination, where the rules of reality don’t apply.
Continually thinking about the future, and the person we could end up with, is compelling because often contrary desires can be housed together in a fantasy world. We can see this in MAFS, where there’s a common desire expressed by would-be spouses that they get both a spontaneous partner in crime and a source of stability. Asking for both in the same person will probably produce great TV as arguments arise about how well or otherwise the goals of spontaneity and stability are being met. However, given these two qualities are diametrically opposite, wanting them both isn’t necessarily going to ensure a lasting relationship.
Burkeman’s advice for this new batch of MAFS hopefuls would be to settle – and settle in a way they can’t row back from – follow up on the non-legally binding ceremony with a real marriage; doubling down with a dog together would be even better (quite a lot of the people on the show have dogs, why not add to the pack?). Because when people choose, and choose in a concrete, settled way they are happier. Ultimately, marrying is settling. It is a partnership to get through the bad bits together, and enjoy the good bits more fully – and it lets you spend less time day-dreaming about an impossible future.
The benefits of settling are supported by a study from Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert. He gave a group of research participants the option of choosing a free poster from a selection of prints. Half of the sample were told they could exchange; half were told that the decision was final. A month later when surveying the group – those that had no option of change were happier with their decision and more appreciative of the work of art they chose. The change here is that Paul Carrick Brunson and his team have chosen the pairings – but if you can’t trust his taste, whose can you trust!
This advice isn’t just relevant to marriage but can be applied to all manner of spaces, where we can see modern consumers being throttled by choice and possibility. Increasingly we decide not to decide, picking old content (Friends anyone), magpie-ing a range of ‘stuff’ rather than committing to big new shows (TikTok and YouTube), dreaming not doing (the ubiquity of self-help manuals in best seller lists).
Maybe we should all be a bit more MAFS – embrace one direction of travel, and move into the consequences of the choice we make, as opposed to dreaming about the things we haven’t and won’t do. We’ll probably be happier if we do …