The Problems That Marriage Can't Fix – The Atlantic

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Rather than explore the complexities of building a life together, Netflix’s The Ultimatum too often touts matrimony for matrimony’s sake.
As a woman in my 30s, I am often besieged by a peculiar kind of sponsored content in my social-media feeds. Posts from the jewelry company Brilliant Earth implore me to pick a favorite engagement ring so that the brand can digitally “drop a hint” to my significant other. To quote an ancient Twitter proverb, I would rather eat a denim jacket. But despite my personal aversion to letting a corporation telegraph my hypothetical desire to get engaged, I can’t seem to look away from Netflix’s The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On—a reality series in which people hoping to tie the knot essentially let the show shape the trajectory of their nuptials.
Couples come to The Ultimatum at an impasse. One partner wants to be married, and one partner is dragging their feet. At the outset of the series, they break up, date other participants for a week, and then pick a different partner to cohabit with in a three-week trial marriage. When those three weeks end, they switch back to their original partner for the same amount of time. The experiment concludes with three options: Go home single, start a new relationship with someone they’ve met on the show, or get engaged to their original partner. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with wanting to get married, and plenty of people are happier in marriages. But too often, The Ultimatum simply touts marriage for marriage’s sake. In the process, it highlights the pitfalls of a culture—and a show—that’s preoccupied with the institution, to the detriment of actual relationships.
The hosts Nick and Vanessa Lachey (who were the lackadaisical anchors of Netflix’s earlier reality-dating hit, Love Is Blind) frame The Ultimatum with a lesson from their own marriage. The pair had been dating for five years when Vanessa gave him a choice between matrimony and splitting up, leading them to go their separate ways for about a month and date other people. That’s all it took for Nick, who had gone through a very public divorce from Jessica Simpson, to realize he wanted only Vanessa. The Lacheys, who’ve now been married for 12 years, recite their feel-good story alongside a requisite disclaimer: “Psychologists agree that giving an ultimatum isn’t exactly a good way to get someone else to do what you want.” But because this is a reality show, the 40-something hosts are quick to gin up drama by reminding participants that ultimatums are “the very best way to get you the answers that you need, and in a timetable that you can live with.”
Like many reality-romance series, The Ultimatum is very much a train wreck: A cabal of conventionally attractive young people flirt brazenly, opine on the nature of love, and drink heavily. Friends and family members of the participants, who meet the new paramours and spend more time with the original partners, offer biting commentary. But unlike other contemporary dating shows such as Married at First Sight, Love Is Blind, and 90 Day Fiancé that feature near-strangers, The Ultimatum zeroes in on couples whose discontents started before the cameras ever began rolling.
Focusing on real-life couples—and the conflicts and compromises that come with ongoing relationships—can make for fascinating television. But more than wanting to build a life with their partner, many of the show’s participants seem to simply want to be married. The podcaster Cecilia Regina, who popularized the term shut-up ring to describe the engagement ring that one partner (almost always a man) begrudgingly presents to their long-suffering significant other (almost always a woman), refers to The Ultimatum as “The Shut-Up Ring Show,” and for good reason. Though no one on the show uses phrasing quite so stark, the series depicts marriage as something that couples—and the women in them, particularly—should be constantly auditioning for, validating a worldview in which “wife” or “husband” is the loftiest title one can aspire to.
Read: The bizarre relationship of a “work wife” and a “work husband”
On The Ultimatum, women seem to spend much of their on-screen time attempting to prove they’re fit for the role of wife, usually by naming the work they do in their relationships—they cook, they clean, they plan for future children. This season, one participant responded to her boyfriend’s skepticism about the existence of soulmates by reminding him how long she’d been by his side: “I feel like at this point, seven years in, you should know for sure, like, am I the person you wanna spend the rest of your life with?” It’s a fair critique, and she quickly pivots to self-examination: “If he’s unsure about marrying me, then what am I doing?” The show’s men, meanwhile, almost invariably use their economic status as justification for why they’re not ready to propose—or, if they’re financially stable, for why their partners should agree to get married on the exact timeline that works for them. Intentionally or otherwise, these men frame marriage as either a sacrifice made to appease their nagging partner or the logical corollary to their career accomplishments.
Earlier iterations of the show have shown similar preoccupations. On The Ultimatum: Queer Love, which aired earlier this year, queer women and gender-nonconforming participants grappled with some cast members’ fervent belief in marriage as the only way to validate a relationship. For queer people, the desire to be seen by other people as part of a legitimate union can be understandably complicated, and the show addressed some of that nuance through its participants’ conversations. But in the end, The Ultimatum: Queer Love subjected the cast to some of the same harmful ideals that plague the show’s heterosexual version. In that season’s reunion episode, one participant revealed that she’d been arrested for assaulting her then-partner, who was also onstage. Following the revelation, her ex fled the scene in tears. But rather than acknowledging the severity of the described incident, the show treated it no differently than any other that had ended a relationship during the season.

This season’s reunion also included a troubling response to domestic violence—specifically, a scene in the first episode in which one woman physically assaulted her male partner. During the reunion, that moment was discussed primarily as an example of the woman’s pregnancy hormones affecting her behavior, as though it were on equal footing with the verbal insults she lobbed at her fellow participants. This was an unfortunate reminder that the show’s myopic focus allows it to treat intimate-partner violence as just another obstacle to marriage.

By forcing participants to choose between accepting a televised proposal and breaking up with their long-term partner on-screen, The Ultimatum elides meaningful interrogations of the assumptions that people bring into their romantic unions, and the kinds of conflict that cannot be solved with a ring. For all of the progress that realitydating shows have made in recent years, the genre still tends to prioritize the mainstream vision of happily ever after that shapes American dating. Paired with the drama-intensive environments that producers devise, it can make for some really queasy viewing material. Perhaps we’re the ones who should be moving on.


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