Would you marry a complete stranger?
That is the simple yet completely complicated question Married At First Sight poised to six singles and viewers back in 2014. Since then, 18 couples have signed up to have their marriages documented over the course of eight weeks, with three new pairs set to kick off their journeys when season seven, set in Dallas, premieres on Tuesday on Lifetime.
Based on a Danish format, MAFS sets out to stage the ultimate relationship experiment, seeing if “the parenthesis of already starting the relationship with marriage would change the way people acted and impact the investment in that union,” Dr. Pepper Schwartz, one of the show’s three experts, explained.
But if you think Married At First Sight really begins simply with two strangers agreeing to say “I do,” the road to the altar is a lot longer and bumpier than you could imagine.
Chris Coelen, the CEO of Kinetic Content (the production company behind MAFS), and expert Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist who has been with the show since it premiered, broke down the intense casting and filming process for E! News and how its changed over the years.
For the first season set in New York, “We were just hopeful that we would get people to sign up for it,” Coelen admitted. “We were like, there’s no way people are going to sign up for this, are we even going to be able to make this show because this is insane!”
Without initially telling the applicants they were going to possibly marry a stranger, once they learned of the show’s premise, “Of course, immediately a bunch of people popped up and they were out of there,” Dr. Pepper recalled with a laugh. “But what was surprising of course was how many people stayed.”
Little did they know what they were in for…
Karolina Wojtasik/A+E Networks, FYI
How It Actually Works
First, the city is picked, with production then spending about six months in prep, where, in addition to all of the applications they receive (hovering around 50,000 now), they are going to churches and bars, going on dating apps and reaching out to possible candidates to “make the prospective pool as big as people,” Coelen said.
Next up for the interested people are interviews over the phone or Skype, followed by an extensive and thorough questionnaire. Within that process, people are vetted out for various reasons.
By then, the MAFS team has whittled the pool down to about 100-200 people, who are invited to workshops, with the men and women being separated from another to avoid seeing their prospective spouse.
This is where the experts come in. A big meet-and-greet, interview sessions with each of the three experts, separate and very in-depth psychological and background evaluations all go down, and then, if you make it far enough, a home visit from Dr. Pepper is one of the final stages.
What They’re Looking For and Red Flags
The trait Dr. Pepper is most interested in finding in prospective candidates? Coachability. “Somebody who’s willing to take advice,” she elaborated, noting each expert looks for different things. “I’m looking for heart, for warmth, for the ability to empathize with someone else,” she said.
Coelen also noted it’s not just about being a perfect match on paper. “It’s also about trying to pick people who are earnest and kind. You don’t have to be honest and kind and you still might have a terrific match, we really want people who are authentic about their reasons for doing this and are full of heart in terms of the rationale for doing it.”
Which brings up red flags, with Dr. Pepper highlighting her biggest concerns include “looking for some fame of some sort. For somebody who really thinks this is a way to some kind of career path, I think there are easier and less risky ways!”
Another huge no-no? Inconsistent stories, as all three experts’ interviews are recorded for later review. If a major detail changes, they’ll note it.
Dr. Pepper also looks for “people who have a lot of anger” or are “obsessive on some issue,” which could signify a person that may need “much more therapeutic intervention than we’re able to do even in this hyper-analyzed process. I interviewed somebody once where I never got time to ask a question because they never took a breath!”
How the Final Three Couples Are Picked
Surprisingly, the three experts have the final say…and always have.
“The experts are the final say. The bus stops with them,” Coelen said. “The experts always have the final say and that is an extraordinary level of trust that the network gives to them. And we as producers give that to them as well.”
Dr. Pepper said, “I know it’s not believable because there are a lot of other productions out there where it’s highly scripted and controlled, but I can give you 100 percent of my word that we get the last word. While the producers definitely have opinions and they will give them, ultimately, it’s up to us and we have gone against the producers’ desires lots of time.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s always a unanimous decision among the experts. “It’s rare we have a difference, and when we do, we keep talking,” Dr. Pepper said of working with her two colleagues, Pastor Calvin Roberson and Dr. Jessica Griffin, noting she recently had to push for one cast member the others weren’t initially sold on.
And during the eight-week process, the three experts communicate daily.
“We talk or are on email if not once a day, almost that often,” she said. “It just takes that to stay on top of it and get each other’s wisdom and hunches. There’s always intuition and then we see if it’s correct or not.”
The first major lesson production learned after season one? It’s all about location, location, location.
“We want to go into a very specific geographic area,” Coelen said. “We want to be as minimally intrusive into their lives as possible and so we go into an area and through experience on the show, we’ve discovered that you can be in the same area but if it takes you three hours to get to one another even though you’re in the same metropolitan area…that’s probably not really helpful to your marriage.”
For Dr. Pepper, “getting information earlier” was key, using outside psychiatric companies “with absolutely no agenda.” And her signature home visits have gotten “much more intrusive,” she said with a laugh.
Other additions throughout the years include bringing friends and family members to the early round of interviews, “a lot more interactive exercises,” and bringing in photos of exes or people (non-celebrities) they find attractive. “We really wanted to know in their history, not just what they found attractive, but who did we really date, who did we really see?” Dr. Pepper explained.
In season six, the show allowed the three couples to interact for the first time, with the three men and three women setting up dinners and hang-outs throughout the process.
“It’s working really well. The reaction from all of the people who had been on the show before were like, ‘Oh my god, why didn’t I get to do that?! I wish I got to do that!'” Coelen said. “And they all unanimously said that would’ve been incredibly helpful, to be able to speak to people throughout the process and check in with them. And again, in the spirit of authenticity, these people all live in the same city, and they are obviously super curious to know and I’m sure left to their own devices they would find out who the other people are. So why not embrace that? And let them support each other?”
Dr. Pepper said, “This is not a static show, it’s organic. Every time we learn something we put it in the quiver as another arrow as can use.”
Adjusting to Marriage…and Cameras
The one factor the experts or producers can’t predict during the intense casting process? How someone will actually handle being filmed for ten hours a day for eight weeks. Aside from that, the couple is talking to producers, who send detailed notes to the experts (a “huge improvement” from the earlier seasons, Dr. Pepper noted), every day, along with the couple occasionally using their own “diary cameras” to capture any moments they think are cute or worthwhile. “We really look at it as a documentary,” said Coelen.
And that can take a toll.
“The documentation is a player in this, there’s no denying it,” Dr. Pepper admitted. “We have had some problems in this where people desperately want a husband or wife but they don’t want to be documented. A lot of people in the casting process think it’s great, it’s wonderful, they’ve seen it and love it, but then they get there and they go, ‘I don’t like this!'”
Both Dr. Pepper and Coelen used Sheila Downs from the Chicago-set season as someone who really struggled with the documentation. “You don’t know how somebody is going to react, you make an educated guess,” Coelen said.
And then, of course, there’s the off-camera time, which usually ends up coming on-camera anyway, with Coelen explaining, “They are not on a property controlled by us, they’re living their actual real lives so stuff is going to happen.”
The biggest example of this was Jon Francetic recording his then-wife Molly Duff telling him he was “disgusting,” much to the shock of the experts and producers last season.
“We did get to see that footage because it was seen as something totally unexpected and we even had to decide if it was ethical to see it,” Dr. Pepper said. “That was very unusual.”
Happily Ever After?
Like viewers, Dr. Pepper and her fellow experts can never really predict how the three couples will end their respective journeys at the start of a season.
“We often have the thing like, oh my gosh, we say, ‘3-for-3!’ and then other times we start and say, ‘Well, maybe 2-for-3,'” she said. “We pick people we expect to be successful, but we don’t see the mix until the honeymoon, right? We’re sometimes really, really surprised.”
Season five’s Ashley Petta and Anthony D’Amico, who are still together, was a “sweet surprise” for the experts given how quickly they hit it off, while season one’s still-married couple Jamie Otis and Doug Hehner also caught Dr. Pepper off guard for a completely different reason.
“Jamie took one look at her husband and was like, ‘No, what have they done me?!’ I was listening to that, and I remember going, ‘Oh no!’ Jamie and I had been pretty close and I was very much involved in that and I just felt so bad. And then of course it developed in the way we hoped it would.”
She continued, “I’ve learned to suspend judgment, and just to stay in there trying every single moment until they make up their decisions and even then we sometimes question them. It’s one of those things where you’re very proud of yourself for the ones you forecast correctly and you try to re-examine yourself about why didn’t it work when it doesn’t. There are some circumstances where you just read somebody wrong. We forgive ourselves. But often it’s because people read themselves wrong.”
One concern for the experts, however, as the show’s fanbase has increased, is some of the couples choosing to present a united front on Decision Day to avoid backlash.
“We worry about that. We do worry about it. It never used to be the case, now, we’re this big, successful thing,” she said. “We try to keep people on honesty track, we think most people really do, it’s hard to peer into the deeper hearts of people or their sense of self-preservation.”
Of course, social media is a huge factor. “People often start treating these people like characters in a play when they are real people trying to live their lives,” Dr. Pepper said, adding she does counsel the cast members on how to handle receiving comments from viewers.
“Remember that this is not the whole denominator who watch you. Most people are hopeful and sympathetic. If they get irritated with you, they generally have it in a modest level, and the people who go for you are not the average person and you shouldn’t treat it like that’s the expression of the country. It’s not. It’s very misleading,” she said of the advice she often gives. “We try and tell them how to protect themselves, how to understand that, when to respond, when not to. But it’s a tough part about it. I have huge admiration for the people who go through this process now, because they’ve seen all this. We just try to protect them as best we can.”
Of the 18 couples who’ve been married on the show, four are currently still together, giving the show a 22.2 percent success rate.
“My hope was that we would be able to support these people and help them grow into better versions of themselves by bringing out skills to the process, by matching them through science and maybe this really could work and it could work even beyond helping these people grow and get more information about themselves, but to give them skills. And to augment what we hoped was already thought was a good match according to our scientific tools. And the more we went on, the more I believed in it because I could see people listen and learn and it was fascinating and wonderful.
She continued, “It worked out beyond my wildest fantasies.”
Married At First Sight airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Lifetime.