8 Love Lessons From Reality Dating

Think online dating is confusing? Try sorting through squirrelly suitors on national television. Here are the most important lessons we’ve gleaned since reality romance came to the tube.

By Jennifer Armstrong

e continue to spend millions on relationship books and therapy, kill hours analyzing our dates with friends and poring over dating advice columns… and yet, there is one place we can go for all the answers — television. Whether we’re watching a Bachelorette contestant sifting through the best and worst mankind has to offer, a bunch of social-experiment-friendly singles Dating in the Dark, or some nubile young things playing for cash and love on Bachelor Pad, the best and worst moves anyone could make in the early stages of courtship are conveniently available for our consumption. It’s hard to even remember a time when dating was something done only in private — and that’s a dark era to which we never want to return.

Here are the best lessons we’ve learned about dating from TV since The Bachelor premiered in
That’s what makes this whole love thing so hard — and so thrilling.
2002 — and here’s to hoping for many more years of valuable life lessons in the future.

1. Chemistry trumps all.
Of course it would be wonderful if we could “choose” whom to fall in love with. But life is not scripted, and neither is reality TV (well, it’s not well-scripted, anyway). Case in point: the millions watching this summer’s extra-compelling dose of The Bachelorette wanted Ali Fedotowsky to pick hunky Massachusetts landscaper Chris Lambton — not only was he a salt-of-the-earth guy, but he had quit his New York City teaching job to go home to Cape Cod and care for his mother during her final months of battling cancer. And now, he was seeking the kind of true love his late mother and beloved father had shared. He was opening himself to the possibility of love for the first time since her death! If this were a movie, Fedotowsky would’ve chosen him. But in real life, even the biggest Lambton fan couldn’t miss the way Fedotowsky lit up every time her final pick — the suave, Spanish-speaking Roberto Martinez — was around, or the easy way the now-couple cuddled and kissed each other. Similarly, you might be impressed with a guy’s perfect profile, touching life story, great family, or impeccable resume — but you’ve got to hold out for the elusive spark. That’s what makes this whole love thing so hard — and so thrilling.

2. “The right reasons” are important.
We all roll our eyes when The Bachelor or Bachelorette harps on whether their dates are on the show “for the right reasons.” But there’s good justification for all this talk of these “right reasons:” intention is everything in the dating world. And while those of us hanging out in real life don’t need to worry that a guy or girl is dating us to gain access to fame and all its perks (unless Jennifer Aniston is hitting up these days, which would actually make a great reality show), we do need to make sure someone’s falling for us and nothing else — not our social connections, not our money, not (just) sex, not our rent-stabilized apartment. Just ask The Bachelor’s latest flameout couple: Jake Pavelka and Vienna Girardi. Or better yet, watch their notorious post-breakup sitdown with host Chris Harrison to see how far their real-life relationship managed to limp along without “the right reasons” backing it up.

3. It’s never too late to fix a “mistake.”
In the 2009 Bachelor season, Jason Mesnick chose Melissa Rycroft in the finale — then, in the After the Final Rose interview special that aired just a week later, broke it off with Rycroft and admitted he still had feelings for runner-up Molly Malaney. He risked feeling the ire of a jilted nation, but unlike most Bachelor alums, Mesnick actually found a wife — he married Malaney earlier this year — and avoided walking down the aisle with a woman he didn’t truly love. And in real life, you don’t even have to break the news on national television! Think of how comparatively easy you have it if you’re ever faced with a similarly wrenching decision — and then do what you’ve got to do, no tabloid interference required.

4. Looks matter.
Though the likes of Dating in the Dark and Average Joe clearly wanted to prove otherwise, life is hardly ‘80s teen comedy featuring Anthony Michael Hall. More often than not, the hotties chose the other hotties on Average Joe. And Dating in the Dark? There’s a reason it hasn’t
You will be found out — one way or another.
been a huge hit: because its lessons are far subtler than your average dating show offers. Here’s what we (mostly) learned from Dating in the Dark: as singles get to know each other in a pitch-black room, it becomes clear that people who have things in common and share similar levels of attractiveness and like each other’s smells (seriously) tend to hit it off the most. It’s the dating-show equivalent of learning that a sensible diet and regular exercise are the keys to losing weight — boringly, disappointingly true.

5. Age matters, too.
Even as cougar-mania swept the nation in 2007, Age of Love’s Mark Philippoussis picked 25-year-old dancer Amanda Salinas over 48-year-old mother Jennifer Braff. And while the show’s outcome doesn’t mean women can’t ever successfully date younger men — it’s still the exception, not the rule. Sorry, Cougar Town.

6. Love doesn’t happen by committee.
Here’s an idea we could all see was a disaster in the making: 2003’s Married by America, in which, yes, viewers essentially voted on an arranged marriage between two “winning” contestants. Rejections and breakdowns ensued. No shockers here — so why do singles so often allow friends and family to weigh in when it comes to making the big decisions about their dating lives? Of course loved ones can offer insight when you’re too love-struck to see the truth, but all that matters in the end is how you feel.

7. You will be found out — one way or another — if you’re sneaking around.
Of course, you’re not trying to cheat on national TV like some people — congratulations on not being a total idiot! — but lightning-fast advances in modern technology have now made sneaking around in secrecy virtually impossible. Two-timing never pays, as recent Bachelorette sting-operation target Justin Rego (whose hometown girlfriend called Fedotowsky and even handed over incriminating voicemails to be played on the air) can tell you.

8. It doesn’t matter where you meet someone if the connection is right.
The very first Bachelorette — Trista Rehn — is, by all accounts, still happily married to her chosen suitor, Ryan Sutter, and living a quiet family life seven years later. And yet, the couple met via the most infamously “unsuccessful” mating method known to man: the reality dating show. And Tenley Molzahn and Kiptyn Locke fell for each other on this past season’s latest sleaze-fest, Bachelor Pad. Love truly can happen anywhere!

Jennifer Armstrong covers television for Entertainment Weekly, a job that includes faithfully chronicling the ups and downs of reality dating via meticulous Bachelorette recaps. She also co-founded feminist lifestyle blog and can be found online at
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