There comes a time in every romantic relationship when a serious decision needs to be made about the direction the couple is going in. Are we exclusively dating? Should we move in together? Do our long term goals match up? Is this thing sustainable in the long run? These hard questions and more lead pairs to what may be a fork in the road, and that crossroads moment can make or break even the strongest of connections. TV shows like The Ultimatum, Marry Me Now, and Put a Ring On It are leaning into these especially tense personal decisions, providing fans of reality dating shows with a dose of chaos and toxicity as people from different walks of life try to determine the trajectory of their relationships. Sure, it’s just entertainment, but relationship expert Dr. Nicole LaBeach asserts that audiences can walk away from each episode of these popular series with practical tools that can inform and transform their dating lives for the better — particularly where ultimatums are concerned.
Looking at the wide selection of reality dating shows that are currently on television, the goal sometimes seems to be anything but a committed relationship. Although they claim to be a vehicle for help good-looking singles find true love and marriage, series like Too Hot to Handle, Love Island, and even The Bachelor tend to be more geared towards drama and sex. The latest trend of dating shows, however, raises the stakes of these productions by recruiting participants who have already seemingly found their happily ever after and hitting them with an impossible choice: piss or get off the pot. (In other words, getting married or breaking up.)
Netflix’s The Ultimatum once again positions Nick and Vanessa Lachey as Relationship Goals™ after their hosting gig on Love is Blind, this time attempting to “help” couples figure out their relationships by further complicating them via partner swapping. On OWN’s Marry Me Now, women who are fed up with the stagnancy of their long-term relationships take matters into their own hands by secretly planning elaborate proposals and entire weddings unbeknownst to their partners. Executive and relationship expert Dr. Nicole stars in Put a Ring On It, an OWN project with a similar premise and process to The Ultimatum but with a more…grounded energy; Dr. Nicole’s key role is to flesh out the personal motivators behind the contestants' contrasting outlooks on love and marriage, and then support the couples as they figure out what can (or can’t) be salvaged in their respective partnerships.
With decades of experience advising and working with hopeful — not hopeless — romantics, Dr. Nicole knows a thing or two about the taxing process of looking for “the one,” and she believes that shows like Put a Ring On It and The Ultimatum highlight the impractical way that popular culture has conditioned us to approach our romantic relationships. On these shows and in real life, says Dr. Nicole in a Zoom interview with Unbothered, much of our understanding of dating is driven by hypotheticals. Rather than playing the dating field with eyes wide open, moving based on what we know to be true for us (internal) and what we see in others (external), we tend to make things more stressful by binding ourselves to a timeline that’s mostly fake — and holding potential partners to a relationship schedule and terms that they never explicitly agreed on.
“If you're willing to see and believe what the person is showing you, and they're willing to receive what you're showing them, this now becomes a fair exchange,” Dr. Nicole explains. “We now have an equitable understanding of where we're trying to go and what we're trying to do. It's us being able to decide, are we for each other? Are we in this together? Do we want the same thing?”
That line of questioning, as evidenced by the turmoil that plays out on these reality shows, isn’t easy to approach, and it doesn’t always turn out the way we’d like it to. So what happens when the answers to your romantic inquiries aren’t the ones that you were hoping for? If you ask Dr. Nicole, you should chalk it up to the game. Dating isn’t just about being “chosen” in the long run — it’s also about collecting data along the way.
”Most of the time, we want to cut things off and never, ever see the person if they don’t want exactly what we want when we want, and to never think or hear about them ever again. But that’s because people so often date to be chosen. They don't date to collect data, and there’s a huge difference between the two,” says Dr. Nicole. “When you're dating just to be chosen, it's I like them, I'm not sure if they like me, but I want to be chosen by them because I don’t want to be single, and I’m killing them off in my mind if this doesn’t work out. That way of moving can create attachment to people who may not be our best match, but we're working so quickly to be attached that we don't invest enough to understand who we're trying to be connected to. We've filled in the whole board without the other person's consent and then, because we don't want to be 10 steps ahead by ourselves, we’re now trying to force them to catch up.”
“When you're dating to collect data, it’s more of I'm going to date you so I can learn more about you, and you're going to date me to learn about me. And I'll probably date multiple people, and so will you until there is an offer that's mutually agreeable instead of forcing a timeline,” she continues. “Dating this way allows you to see what people value, what's important to them, what's real, what's meaningful. As those things start to line up, if there’s an alignment, you'll feel it, and it'll progress if y’all are being authentic. You’ll know what they want, and they'll know what you want, and you both get to decide what happens next.”
When I point out how taking the fact-finding approach might feel a bit businesslike in comparison to the pheromone-fuelled, feelings-based method that many of us typically employ, Dr. Nicole is quick to assure me that this more measured way of dating is actually just as sexy; it takes the guesswork out of the process by prioritising vulnerability and authenticity in the moment, and allows us to focus on the pleasure that comes with getting to know someone that we’re attracted to. No timelines, no expectations, no pressure — just fun.
“It's a privilege for me to get to know a quality person. And I'm a quality person, so it's a privilege for them to get to know me too,” says Dr. Nicole. “When you approach dating with this mindset, you don't have to deal with the persona or the representative, because you're getting to know the real person beyond just those stipulations you’ve created for yourself. You're really talking about your dreams and what's important to you, so there's space for the connection to be real and more dynamic.”
With summer just around the corner, our feelings about dating exist on a spectrum; on one end are the people literally itching to get off these streets — it’s hard out there, man — and on the other, the hot girls are already curating a list of summertime sneaky links. Regardless of how terrified or excited (or both) you are to get back out there dating again, Dr. Nicole has one simple but crucial piece of advice: just do it. (Scary, I know.)
“People talk about dating a lot, but when you ask when the last time they went on a date was, there’s crickets,” she laughs. “So get back out there! Go out for coffee, meet at a movie, hang out at a festival, go to your local Whole Foods or Sprouts — just be open! Your person could be anywhere, and because you’re not so closed off to anything that isn’t on your list, you won't have to tear down so many walls to get to each other.”
”If you're open to fostering connections with others, the energy that you exude is infectious and sexy.” Dr. Nicole concludes. “It's confident, it's yummy, and it’s so good! And you might surprise yourself with who or what comes your way.”