Trend: Divorce Big on TV

Trend: Divorce Big on TV

Viewers Fascinated by Real Life Marital Difficulties in Television Relationships

Marital difficulties seem to be a hot topic in television shows this season. And according to relationship experts, it is a booming trend.

On a reality show that started in September, “Decision House,” couples decide the fate of their relationships as cameras roll. The spend three days in a house with a variety of relationship experts who are put together to meet the couples’ specific needs.At the end of the three days, the couples either use the information they learned from the experts to save their marriages, or they decide to split. “Decision House” airs on MyNetworkTV on Wednesdays from 8-9 p.m. (ET).
An HBO drama called “Tell Me You Love Me” also made its debut in September. The show explores the relationship difficulties facing four couples whose only connection is that they visit the same therapist.
NBC is developing a new show, which is yet to be titled, that will focus on a couple that does not have enough money to separate right away, so the husband continues to live under the same roof with his soon-to-be-ex wife.
These shows join others that have been on networks’ schedules since previous seasons, such as “The Starter Wife” on the USA network, a comedy that centers around a woman recently divorced; syndicated reality show “Cheaters,” which follows and records people suspected of cheating on their partners; and “ Divorce Court,” in which Judge Lynn Toler mediates disputes between sparring couples.
Toler also leads couples through their three days of surveillance on “Decision House.” She said her ultimate reason for participating in the new show was because there were times on “Divorce Court” that she told couples, “You guys aren’t ready to divorce! Isn’t it worth exploring the possibility of being together? Do you thing help might be in order as opposed to just calling it a day.” This show gives her the chance to say that more often, and to show the couple where to find help, she said.
The committee that joins Toler to help couples runs the gamut from financial experts to mental health and relationship counselors to parenting specialists. “We bring an expert in to deal with whatever issues crop up,” Toler said.
“Participants want to take part in shows like “Decision House” and “Divorce Court,” Toler said, because they want their difficulties acknowledged. “When they are coming in, they like to be heard,” Toler said. “No matter who left who, not matter who was cheating on whom, they want to be heard. They need someone in authority to say, ‘You were wronged.'”
Reflexively, the audience likes to watch the couples’ experiences exploring the problems in their relationships because they like a voyeuristic view of personal stories, she said. “I think people love real life,” Toler said. They love to see what is really happening to people.”
The enjoyment of watching true-to-life stories, added to the visceral, compelling nature of reality television, Toler said, might explain the popularity of shows that explore marital difficulty. And when shows then mirror issues that are prevalent in society, the topic catches on among other shows, she said.
“I don’t know if it is because divorce is prevalent, and if you marry that desire with the need for real situations, that desire might author this kind of trend,” Toler said.


Marital difficulties have made for an age-old plotline, according to Dr. Debra Mandel, Ph.D., a psychologist and host of a radio show about relationships in Los Angeles. It’s the reality show angle that makes the trend new, she said. Mandel, whose new book, “Dump That Chump: From Doormat to Diva in Only Nine Steps – A Guide to Getting Over Mr. Wrong“, was released this month, said viewers are fascinated with the kinds of relationships in distress on reality television. “A lot of the dysfunction on TV is serious dysfunction,” Mandel said. “They aren’t showing the run of the mill. We’re talking severe, to the core, seriously screwed-up lives.”

“The reason viewers continue to tune into shows that deal with marital strife is because is gives them a personal charge in some way. I think people get a sense of hope. It depends on the show, of course. Sometimes we like to watch things that have nothing to do with our lives because it is a good escape,” Mandel said. “But whether we like to admit it or not, people like to watch drama. We don’t necessarily want it in our own lives. We get a little adrenaline fix from watching these shows. We get a sense of self-righteousness.”
But in the end, the stories must have some sort of hopeful, positive outcome for viewers to maintain their loyalties to the shows, Mandel said. The antagonist, in the viewers’ eyes, has to face some sort of comeuppance. The viewers feel a bit of sadistic pleasure in watching the show’s participants suffer, but to a point, Mandel said. They can’t suffer too badly, she said. “It kind of makes us feel that we are all in this humanity game together,” Mandel said.


Viewers are embracing television shows about marital difficulty because they see themselves in them, according to Dr. Joyce Morley-Ball, Ed.D, an Atlanta relationship expert who is also the author of “Seeds for the Harvest of a Lifetimes: Increasing Self-Awareness, Self-Esteem, and Improving Relationships.” These reality shows are mirroring what is going on in the private lives of viewers, she said.

“I think it’s going to increase because these days people are going through so much. Relationships are tentative and tenuous,” Morley-Ball said. “People see it’s okay to air our dirty laundry. If it’s broken, it’s okay to say it’s broken. And if it’s great, it’s okay to say it’s great.”
Watching other couples explore their relationships allows the viewers to do the same, Morley-Ball said. “They have the chance to look within their lives, explore the emotional, personal and psychological effect of relationships in distress. And when they do that, she said, they are also giving themselves permission to look for help. I think they can get some sense of direction. Some answer, some insight, some understanding for what they are dealing with,” Morley-Ball said.
John Curtis, Ph.D., said he also believes that viewers watching shows about difficult relationships can be both entertained by the shows, but also be absorbing tools to use to evaluate their own situations. Curtis is teaches courses in the field of family therapy, organizational development and behavioral psychology. He is also the author of “The Business of Love: 9 Best Practices for Improving the Bottom Line of Your Relationship!,” a book that uses business techniques to improve relationships.
Curtis said he cautions that the quick-fix, self-help mentality that crops up in television shows might also be detrimental. He is concerned that viewers will be unwilling to put time and effort into fixing what truly needs fixing. “I think there can be some benefit there, absolutely. Something can be gained. I think there can be some value,”Curtis said. “I worry that it is two-dimensional, simplistic values.Why can’t they solve their own problems in 22 minutes?”
To Curtis, the advent of reality television shows based on marital strife is less a trend than a cycle. To him, it is an example of television networks testing another area of the reality genre. But no matter the objectives from participants on the shows, or the intent behind the viewers, Curtis said, it all comes down to the same desires. “I think it’s all an experiment to make this thing that we all really want, which is a happy home, to work,” he said.About the author: Michele Bush Kimball has a Ph.D. in mass communication with a specialization in media law. She has spent almost 15 years in journalism and teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. She recently won a national research award for her work.
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