Has anyone else watching Married At First Sight (MAFS Australia) noticed some toxic male behaviours including gaslighting? Sarah Lang is bothered by it.
SPOILER ALERT: Sarah’s story involves references to what happens in tonight’s (March 29) show.
Odds are you already know the premise of Married At First Sight (MAFS) Australia, but here’s the gist. Three relationship experts pair up 12 couples who meet at the altar, go on a honeymoon, live in small apartments with their ‘spouses’ in a Sydney building, engage in tasks set by the experts, have dinner parties together, have “girls’ nights” and “boys’ nights”, go on a group retreat, see if they can be compatible – and maybe even fall in love.
Each week, each couple sits on a couch as the experts ask questions and give some feedback. Each participant votes to stay or leave, but if one writes ‘stay’ and one writes ‘leave’, they both stay. (This season, two relationships became so toxic that the experts didn’t make the couples stay.) If they make it through eight weeks of “the experiment”, they visit home towns, then attend “final vows” stating whether they want to continue the relationship.
Before this season, I hadn’t watched MAFS much before. But since I quit the Bachelor franchise last year, I needed a new fix, and I don’t like any other dating shows screening right now. My husband thinks my enjoyment in seeing people’s relationships play out onscreen is weird, but it’s also not uncommon, judging by TV ratings (earlier this month, MAFS overtook One News to become the highest-rating show for New Zealand viewers aged 25-54).
Also, some of the MAFS brides’ back stories drew me in. Especially Lyndall, who has cystic fibrosis. The average life expectancy people with CF was 32, but new drug Trikafta should roughly double her lifespan, meaning she can at last entertain a long-term relationship.
Then there’s Sandy, a 37-year-old of Indian descent entering her first relationship despite her parents’ disapproval. They worried she’d be disrespected on TV – and she was, by a man named Dan.
But the man we have to talk about is Harrison.
At their wedding, Harrison’s ‘wife’ Bronte discovered he had a girlfriend back home, but he successfully downplayed that, even though he was with the girl right before the experiment. Harrison said he was attracted to Bronte, then said he wasn’t and that he needed time to find her sexually attractive again, and then slept with her, confusing her and making her feel insecure. He emotion-shamed her. He took a girl’s number at a bar, justifying it later by saying he didn’t want to embarrass the girl and deleted the number immediately. Sure.
Later in the experiment, when he dumped Bronte over text message, he said it was because she had broken his trust and hadn’t reassured him enough (even though she told him she’d move cities). Then he ‘un-dumped’ her, saying “I’m going to let Bronte redeem herself to me”. WTF?
After a girls’ night, an exhausted Bronte tells Harrison she’d had to defend herself, him and their relationship. Does he say thanks or show empathy? No. He makes her feel at fault and plays victim. She says “I feel literally insane… I feel completely broken”. Meanwhile Harrison’s off complaining to a producer about “the flippant changing of her mind all the time from [saying she is being] manipulated to not being manipulated, to gaslit to not gaslit, to [calling me] a narcissist then not a narcissist“. Oh dear, Harrison, you’re accidentally calling yourself out, just as you did when you told Adam that “you [Adam] throw people under the bus to save yourself”. In response, Adam said Harrison needs a mirror. Yes. Yes he does.
Yet week after week, Bronte writes ‘stay’ not ‘leave’. Has Harrison said or done just enough to give her hope? He tells the experts that no, he doesn’t think he bears responsibility for any of their relationship problems. At the last commitment ceremony, Bronte says no, Harrison has never emotionally manipulated her (insert jaw-drop emoji), but that “we have had discussions about the way he asks me to talk and the tone of my voice”. Oh, Bronte. He’s trying to stop you having a voice. Then, Harrison finally tells the experts “I’ve got to take some responsibility”. Great! He’s finally going to hold himself accountable? Only in a twisted way. His responsibility, he says, was “not articulating boundaries [to be] put in place for the way [for] Bronte to behave and be held accountable”. And then he’s forced to admit he told someone she was a fake gaslighter.
During the hometown visit, Bronte’s sister correctly can’t stand Harrison. At the final dinner party, Harrison tells the group that “Bronte’s sister just started shouting, “You’re a gaslighting, narcissistic, d—head’”. If the shoe fits, Harrison…
“You make me feel like I’m f—ing crazy,” Bronte says, telling him she never wants to see him again, and we’re APPLAUDING. None of us want to see you again, Harrison. Also, any woman you date should be required to watch this whole season.
Call it out!
During many of the episodes, I found myself ‘silent-screaming’ at my screen: ‘Call Harrison out! Please call him out!’ The experts don’t call him out nearly enough – partly, I think, because they don’t see as much footage as we viewers do. And, unfortunately, the men seem to have some sort of bro code that means they don’t challenge Harrison’s behaviour either. MEN, DO BETTER PLEASE! So it’s up to some female participants to call him out. Thankyou for your service, Mel.
At one dinner party, Harrison is wearing a red shirt. Claire says something like “Harrison, take off your shirt, stick it on a pole and wave it around because you’re a walking red flag!” YES, CLAIRE! BUT ALSO DUCK, CLAIRE, BECAUSE NOW HE’S COMING FOR YOU.
When challenged by anyone, Harrison is a master of deflection. To draw attention away from himself, he says shit-stirring, inappropriate and sometimes made-up things, as he attempts to derail other relationships (which he does successfully with Claire and Jesse). Harrison also casually betrays secrets that Bronte’s friends told her. Seeing him smirking after tossing grenades into relationships is nauseating.
Everyone I know who’s watching the show is disgusted by Harrison. A friend tells me: “I haven’t had a verbal response to TV for years! But I’m screaming at him and saying ‘oh babe’ to Bronte. That poor woman. I’m aware of manipulation by the producers and editors but still, it’s amazing seeing echoes of past relationships played out onscreen like this. Just jaw-dropping how good men are at positioning themselves as victims and positioning women as ‘crazy’ and ’emotional’ rather than be accountable for their own behaviour.”
One woman is actually watching with her teenager to help him identify blame-shifting, deflecting, belittling, and gaslighting.
Yes, this is a produced and edited show, but Harrison did and said what we saw him say and do. In my opinion, he emotionally manipulated Bronte to the point that she questioned her version of reality and the validity of her reactions. If that’s indeed what was happening, that’s gaslighting.
We absolutely must be careful about using labels and avoid misusing psychological terms. “Gaslighting” isn’t a buzzword to throw around lightly. And it isn’t just emotional manipulation. So what is it exactly?
Dr Robin Stern, co-founder and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, is also a psychoanalyst who has counselled victims of gaslighting. She wrote the book The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life and has also written Psychology Today article ‘Are You Being Gaslighted?’’. She writes that “the phrase ‘to gaslight’ refers to the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings”.
Gaslighting can be perpetrated by a partner, friend, family member, boss, or anyone trying to gain or retain power over you. Think denial, lying, deflection, contradiction. Sometimes, the person isn’t doing it deliberately, but they want certain things a certain way, so others become collateral damage. But gaslighting generally involves malice and the intention to deceive.
The term originates from a 1938 play and its film adaptations, Gaslight, in which a man tries to convince his wife she’s going insane by manipulating elements of their environment, including dimming the gas lights in the house, then denying there was any dimming.
The term ‘gaslighting’ has been better recognised and understood in the last few years. The Guardian sarcastically thanked Trump for spreading awareness of the term. And ‘gaslighting’ was Merriam-Webster dictionary’s 2022 Word Of The Year after searches for the term on merriam-webster.com increased 1740% that year. Merriam-Webster’s definition of gaslighting? “The psychological manipulation of another person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories.”
It’s hard to know how common gaslighting is because the perpetrator probably won’t cop to it, and the victim may not recognise that that’s what’s happening. But most women I asked about this said they’d experienced gaslighting. If you think you or someone else is being gaslit, perhaps read this Psychology Today article: ‘7 Stages of Gaslighting in a Relationship’
As for MAFS, yes I’m still watching. I know, I know. I want to see if Lyndall and Cam, Tahnee and Ollie, and Melinda and Layton make it to final vows and beyond. And yes, I’m hoping Harrison gets put on blast in the reunion episode. Because this kind of behaviour is simply not okay.