Is TV making marriage problems worse?

When I saw that NBC had just launched a second season of a show called “The Marriage Ref”, I jumped online to check it out. If you’re looking for Jerry Springer style drama, this is not that kind of show. Each episode features three regular couples each struggling with some sort of conflict. Again, these aren’t frying-pan-in-the-face kind of marriage problems. One, for example, had to do with the husband’s obsession with growing giant pumpkins. Another was over a mother-in-law’s tendency to visit in chunks of up to 6 months at a time.

The quirky couples and their cute/funny problems are great, but the true stars of the show are the panel of celebrities who judge the situations and make hilarious comments throughout. The season premier featured Julian Moore, Ricky Gervais, and Jerry Seinfeld. Once the panelists have decided who out of the couples is right, the show ends with an audience vote on the “rightest-of-the-right.” That person wins $25,000 and “a billboard in their hometown declaring they are right.”

In a television culture that constantly dramatizes and exaggerates (or idealizes) marriage, it is refreshing to see a light-hearted show featuring real people. The couples are very likeable and everyone can relate to the conflicts between the husbands and wives: the in-law who won’t leave you alone; your husband’s obsession that seems to replace you. The show treads a fine line between lighthearted joking and actually making fun of the couples.

All in all, very entertaining.

BUT. I have a serious problem with the premise. The show is based on the idea of black-and-white conflict, that there are two irreconcilable viewpoints and one of them is right while the other is wrong. Conflict is exciting, and the ability to say, “I was right!” is immensely satisfying. At the same time, this is not the right way to think for a healthy relationship! Believing that only one person can be right immediately creates a push-and-pull dynamic and sets you up for more conflicts in the future.

My advice to the Marriage Ref? Use a dash of Power of Two Win-win decision making skills. Make the show about finding satisfying solutions to marriage problems that address each person’s underlying concerns. This isn’t about making sacrifices, either. It’s about finding alternatives that both of you are happy with. (Click here for some examples). Remember, you and your spouse aren’t opponents! You’re on the same team!

Sure, collaborative decision making isn’t as exciting as a battle for marital supremacy, but it would set a much better example for healthy marriages. And if they really need some dramatic pizzazz, they could set off some crazy pyrotechnics at the end when a win-win resolution is set. KABOOM! CONFLICT RESOLVED.