Why Reality TV Relationships Rarely Last Beyond The Finale

Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Kohl/ ABC.
If there's one thing we learned from Season 1 of UnREAL, it's that reality shows are manipulative, soul-sucking productions, and the people on them are merely pawns in the creator's scheme. So when (spoiler alert) Anna pulls a Runaway Bride in the finale of Everlasting, no one was surprised. How often do the couples on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette get married — and stay married?

That's the truth of reality shows: While they are meant to capture real life with everyday people in extraordinary situations, the fact that these are extraordinary situations means it's not real life. "On a show you’re in a false reality," Dr. Reef Karim, psychiatrist and founder of The Control Center, tells Refinery29. And that false reality heightens and amplifies everything, from conflicts to reactions to, yes, emotions.

"You see a bachelor come in [while on a show], and you think, 'Oh my god, he's amazing, he's like a prince,' whereas in reality, he might just be decent," Reef says. "Everything is amplified. People you might have a little conflict with are all of a sudden your sworn enemy. People who kind of like somebody all of a sudden love somebody."

Could people really fall in love with someone in the span of six weeks? Potentially — in that heightened state. "Just think about your first week at college. You probably met a whole lot of people. It's amazing how quickly we can form bonds and long-lasting bonds," one showrunner told us. "Yes the nature of people in reality shows is artificial, but a lot of times the relationships can be substantial, even if they're only for the moment." Do those relationships get dictated by the producers? "There's that saying: man plans, God laughs."

So why don't those relationships — even friendships, sometimes — last beyond the finale? Some of these reasons are obvious — the real world is "like a wakeup call," Karim says. Sure some people didn't appear on television for love, anyway. Whereas "for some people, it was the heightened state that they were wrapped up in, and once they had their reality check, it didn't work out," Karim says.

Of course, some relationships do last — especially if they grow from long-running shows that don't require as much manipulation. One of producer Seth Grossman's biggest issues with UnREAL were the inaccurate portrayals of relationships between cast and crew. "There can be a real sense of friendship and camaraderie that is authentic on both people's part, just from working closely together everyday," Grossman, a former producer of Hollywood Hillbillies and Addiction, told us. "They're like friendships that form between every other group of colleagues."

Not all shows create environments where it's as collaborative, however. "Some shows, the producers start out with an outline of where they want every episode to go, and then they have to cajole, entice, and manipulate the people into playing out their version of the drama," Grossman says. And it's those type of shows that promote some sort of artifice that might make it difficult to transition relationships to the real world.

"There's the people-pleasing effect [that hits stars], where if you think people will watch it, you may put out a false version of yourself," Karim says. "That adds a lot of pressure. It's hard to do that and it's taxing on your psyche." If you don't have a strong identity going in, you could lose yourself to what the people want.

That's why even relationships formed off-screen can suffer from the limelight. "Most relationships that are profiled on a television show can’t handle the stress of being profiled on a television show," Karim says. "You have to have a rock solid relationship, because whatever chinks are in the armor will come out on the show." Reality television story arcs are built off amplified crises, where producers turn little things into big problems. One common tactic is asking characters pointed questions in one-on-one interviews, about topics that may have otherwise been brushed aside. "You reflect more on things [in the interviews], and things are more in the spotlight," the showrunner tells us.

And what a spotlight. While producers are pinpointing problems and exaggerating them for entertainment, months later the audience weigh in via Twitter and social media — and, if you're big, the tabloids. That extends the stress beyond just the filming timeframe. "It’s a big difference when there is an audience that’s watching it is knowledgeable of every problematic aspect of your relationship," Karim says. "That makes you more of a target." As one showrunner put it, instead of just your mom, reality stars end up with 400 moms chiming in on their relationships.

Let's not paint the stars as strict victims here, however. Sure Irene McGee's Real World: Seattle article on Vulture pinpointed the destructive environments of that particular show, but that was more than a decade ago. People, especially the stars, are more aware now than ever about the post-production editing process (hence the "I'm not here to make friends" trope). And there's a lot more ownership going on as a result.

"[The stars] get a lot more comfortable after a while, and they become part of the creation of the show, saying let's do it this way," Grossman says. "I get pissed off by people who assume everyone on reality TV is being exploited. There's a spectrum of shows. On some, the stars are making more money in a year than they have in the last 10 years, they're having a ball, and they're spending a lot of time with their family. They don't care. And I don't think you get to say when someone is being exploited. They get a voice in that."

But, with that ownership comes with an awareness, an acting, of sorts. Once the cameras are off, real life catches up. "[Reality stars] are going through something together on the show," Karim says, "and basic sentiment is we have a relationship in a specific time in our lives, in this state that was a reality show. But after the shoot, after the heightened state is gone, the majority to people probably just go back to their lives." And those lives? Probably don't involve their Real World bff.
Related: Watch this episode of our show The Walker for another take on how reality TV affects relationships both on camera and off.

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