Love Is Blind: A Romance About (Not Having) Choice
Love Is Blind is a strange hit, a romance about having all of our choices made for us.
Mild spoilers ahead, no info about the finale.
The new Netflix reality dating TV show Love Is Blind stormed its audiences with a curious premise: Bring together a group of people who are willing to marry someone (anyone!) within a month, get them to talk to each other through a wall in separated “pods,” and get them engaged before they ever see each other in person. The question of the show is, at least ostensibly, “Is love truly blind?”
There are so many things that are strange about this show—not the least of which is that each participant is so unreasonably attractive that this question could never be meaningfully answered here. The participants do not have access to their phones, the Internet, or anyone they know, so they spend all day in the windowless pods dating (and drinking), sight unseen. I’m sure contestants can leave whenever they want (and there are quite a few people that we meet in the first episode who we never hear from again) but there’s a distinct feeling that the only way to escape the dystopian dating prison of the pods is to propose to someone. And it feels like there’s a larger truth to that scenario, even within the bananas logic of the Love Is Blind universe: getting engaged does feel like the key to escaping the terrible merry-go-round of swiping, meeting, dating, and hearts breaking. Perhaps the deeper question of the show’s experiment is: If we were forced to commit, could we let go of the anxiety of our options?
Love Is Blind is the most popular show on Netflix right now. We can’t get enough of it because it speaks to a deep fantasy of the internet age: a fantastical world where a choice is made for us and it is, somehow, the right choice. It’s an American romance about arranged marriage.
Numerous studies have shown that humans are very good at making decisions when they have about five to seven options, but our brains kind of short-circuit when we have any more than that. In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper did an experiment where they set up two displays of different jam flavors in a grocery store. The first day had a massive display with 24 options, and the next day's display offered only six. More people were attracted by the large display, but they were much likelier to purchase a jam when they had seen the small display (30 percent) than when they had seen the large one (three percent). In an era where we have literally thousands of people at our fingertips that we could swipe through, we are completely seduced by the idea of choosing a person from a small group of options and just sticking to that. For life.
There is a concept within the Tantric worldview that I think about often: We are not bound beings trying to get free; we are free beings trying to get bound. While some spiritual perspectives believe that our meditation, yoga, and prayer practices set us free from the prison of our fallible human bodies, the Tantric perspective holds that we were free before we were born and inevitably return to that freedom when we die. We get this short vacation as human beings with bodies that can feel, love, connect, and touch. Our work on this earth is to choose what to bind ourselves to. Our bonds—love, commitment, routine, home—are where we find our joy as human beings. From this perspective, the work of our lives is choosing. This show deeply indulges in the fantasy of having that particular problem solved for us.
Of course, it’s doesn’t work out so perfectly for all the couples. Each one, desperately in love in the pods, struggles to reconcile the major commitment of marriage with their need for freedom, independence, and more than four weeks to get to know a total stranger (except, perhaps, Kelly and Kenny, who are nearly perfectly matched in their absolute whitebread milquetoast glory).
No one struggles more than Jessica, an absolute fan favorite for her drunken flirting and dramatic fights, and most especially, perhaps, for her indecision. She wanted Barnett, the frat boy who, by the way, gave all the black women on the show the “no feeling” back in the pods, and then struggled to choose between three white women. Barnett chose Amber, so Jessica wheeled back to Mark, her best choice simply because he likes her—a compelling reason, perhaps, after having just been roundly rejected by the one she really wanted. She meets Mark in person, who is a very handsome Mexican American, but something about him doesn’t feel quite right to Jessica. She is used to dating taller men, lighter men—read: whiter men. Here, there is an undercurrent about race and “rightness” in dating that isn’t fully explored in the show’s universe, leaving an uncomfortable question unanswered.
Jessica struggles the most, perhaps, because she almost had a different choice. She is haunted by the specter of Barnett, who is still around all the time because, of course, the couples are forced to spend time together in the mad laboratory of this love experiment. She keeps trying to sabotage his connection with Amber and make him choose her again, to restore the illusion that her choices mattered. The others struggle less because they are sticking with the only good option of the seven or so they were given, and that seemed right enough to get off the dating merry-go-round and stick to it.
It’s worth noting that Jessica gets most uncomfortable when she is around the other couples, comparing her relationship to everyone else’s. She struggles to allow her relationship to unfold at its own pace and to allow herself the space to feel whatever she genuinely feels. She is haunted by what she could feel, if she had more choices. When she and Mark are alone together, she does okay. When friends and family don’t judge her, she keeps her ring on. But as soon as she starts to feel that it could be another way, that she should feel the way the other couples feel, that life might be better with Barnett or any of the other millions of choices at her fingertips, she takes her ring off. When she spends time listening and communicating with the human being in front of her, she relaxes, puts the ring back on. She writhes under the bonds of her commitment. Takes the ring off. Puts it back on.
Perhaps this whole story is a parable about how far we will take a belief that we desperately want to believe. So often, that’s how relationships go. We commit not to a person, but to a story: the meet-cute, the ideal of having found “the one,” the roles we decide to play in each others’ lives. The real practice of marriage and commitment is about slowly watching those delusions fall apart as we spend time with an actual, evolving, changing human being with skin.
True love involves a measure of non-attachment. Non-attachment doesn’t mean caring less or not allowing our feelings to get involved. Rather, to paraphrase the yoga teacher Michael Stone, non-attachment means letting go of the story of who you expect a person to be. True love involves showing up to your other and allowing them to be exactly who they are, day to day, and that includes allowing them to change. It means letting go of the idea that your relationship requires that everyone play specific roles.
The flaw of Love Is Blind (well, let’s say, one flaw) is that the couples get engaged before ever seeing each other in person. As deep and meaningful as they seem to think that is, it’s not possible in a context like that to truly know who a person is because all you are getting is the story they tell about themselves. You cannot see whether or not they are kind to servers or take good care of their pets. You cannot see how much time they spend playing video games or whether or not their home is just a massive empty space waiting for you to fill it with things (I’m looking at you, Cameron). The love stories begin to fall apart when the couples enter the real world because the real world cannot abide these flimsy stories about who each person thinks they are.
Mindful true love requires a choice, of course. Yes, we must choose a person from the too many options out there, and our choices require consideration of practical details like money, values, and shared goals. But beyond that, the choice to commit to someone means committing to seeing them for who they really are, day to day, and giving them the space to change and grow. It means letting go of the story.
Love is Blind is a fantasy about skipping the hard work of dating and choosing to allow someone to be chosen for us. Who knows whether or not the couples who make it down the aisle are going to stick together in the long term—commitment to a delusion is still commitment, after all. But can they stay true to who they really are while being willing to see their other in all their flawed human glory? If they can, then they have found true love. It will be true enough even if it began in a strange windowless pod with nothing but a few drinks and a good story to go on.
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