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Harry Benson’s marriage lines: The lessons of Love Island


Royal wedding preacher Michael Curry had it right when he said ‘there is power in love‘. And with love in the air, yes, ITV2’s hit reality show Love Island is back!

It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but 2.5million watched last year’s season finale.

I have to out myself and admit to having watched most of the series last year, encouraged by my daughters. They have been prepping for this year by watching reruns of key moments in previous seasons.

If you haven’t watched Love Island, the premise of the programme is to put a bunch of attractive young men and women in minimal clothing in a tropical location, isolate them from the rest of the world for a month, and use various tricks to encourage them to ‘couple up’. Along the way, couples are voted off by the TV audience – which helps pay for the programme, of course – and by the couples themselves. Others are also introduced to mix it up, exacerbate splits and generally cause drama. Eventually one couple, and even one individual, emerges as the winner.

It’s not exactly highbrow stuff. The quality of conversation is often hilarious in its vacuity and cheap gossip. ‘He’s my type on paper. Tall, muscly, tanned, tattoos.’ ‘She’s fit and all that. D’ya know what I mean?’

The really big contrast is between us – the TV audience who want love, romance, boy meets girl, and the dream of happily ever after – and them – the contestants whose relationships, with rare exceptions, prove fragile when exposed afterwards to the less glamorous reality of everyday life once the series is over.

Most of the couples from the three previous seasons have split up. However some have succeeded.

Two stories stand out for me in this respect.

Last year’s winners, Kem and Amber, did indeed seem like a nice couple. Their season finale win was accompanied by romantic talk of marriage. One of the features of the more appealing couples was they were kind towards each other and the other contestants. However only a few months after the show they had split up, claiming rather absurdly that ‘their schedules made it difficult’. In retrospect, it looks as if they were in it to win the show rather than each other.

Contrast that with the dramatic moment from the previous season when a glamorous girl called Rachel was eliminated early. On the spot, her hunky ‘boyfriend’ Rykard said ‘f*** this’ and walked straight off the programme to follow her. Good man. Sacrifice by men is a powerful indicator of commitment. So even after ITV revealed to her that he had secretly slept with the contestant in the next bed – I told you it’s not highbrow – somehow they have sorted it out and, according to the Mirror, now live ‘a relatively normal life‘ out of the limelight.

Maybe I’m trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But I quite like this show because of what it highlights about human nature.

All of us love ‘boy meets girl’ stories. All of us dream of ‘happily ever after’. Kindness is a fundamental quality of good relationships but on its own it’s not enough.

The illusion of Love Island – and indeed the illusion of romantic novels and dating websites – is that love is enough. In reality much of this show is Lust Island, probably as much for the viewers as contestants.

Two glaring omissions explain why so many of these relationships fail.

The first is the absence of support from families and long-time friends. On the show, a stream of contestants mouth platitudes to one another that ‘you’re the best friend I’ve ever had’ after just a few days. Real friends are the people who’ve been alongside you and on your side for years. There’s a reason why having more people at a wedding is linked to greater subsequent relationship happiness. When you choose one person, you close the door on all the other choices. The support of friends and family – even at earlier stages of a relationship – is vital for affirming the risk you are taking. Well done, they say. Good choice. It gives you confidence that this can work, that you have a future, and that you don’t need to run for the door at the first sign of trouble.

The second is the absence of signs of commitment. Commitment means making a decision to be a couple with a future. Even after the presenter told her he’d cheated on her right at the beginning, I suspect Rachel saw this quality in Rykard. He’d made a decision to put her first. He’d chosen the possibility of a long-term future with her rather than the fleeting glory of a few weeks in a swimsuit and other temptations. I may be proved wrong and will probably never worry one way or another. But theirs is a good story where Rykard’s actions contrast with the ultimately empty words of Kem and Amber.

I won’t be watching all thirty episodes of the new season. There’s a limit to how many times you can hear the phrase ‘d’ya know what I mean?’

But I will have a peek from time to time in the hope that maybe I’ll spot some ‘happily ever after’ love, kindness and commitment amongst the vacuity and lust.

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Harry Benson
Harry Benson
Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation and a PhD student of social policy at University of Bristol.

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