Originally published on June 17, 2015

Ryan and Jessica From Married at First Sight

Married at First Sight is a popular show that captures our imagination about the meaning of marriage. Ryan De Nino (real name Oehl) and Jessica Castro were the darlings of the show, who clearly had chemistry, and were the first couples to consummate the marriage. But is “chemistry” all that there is?


Most folks outside the marriage counseling field would believe that couples who fight on a show like this are doomed. Still, Gottman has shown that couples that fight a lot can be just as happy or miserable as those who never do.

The difference?

Couples who successfully fight, fight “fair”

And “fair” isn’t as simple as it sounds. It doesn’t mean ‘not getting angry.’ Ryan and Jess clearly get angry at one another, which isn’t problematic. It is that they fight very poorly.

What Gottman found was that couples fight fair when they keep out four behaviors; he calls them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are:

  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling
  • Contempt

Couples who know how to fight fair have “low poop detectors.” In other words, they have partners who “complain,” sometimes a lot.

Jess might want to complain, but she’s been matched with a guy who escalates their battles, meeting her complaints with defensiveness and criticism, with a healthy dose of contempt and stonewalling thrown in.

Clash of values

Jess wanted a “humble man,” according to the hype, and instead, she got Ryan, who hardly fits that definition. Ryan is a proud man.

She wanted balanced gender roles. Ryan, however, remembers how his “ideal” grandparents had pretty traditional gender roles. And as far as his sharing domestic labor? He runs a business. He could eat sushi every night, especially if it were his turn to cook. And these are the sorts of differences that can get an average couple into hot water.

Ryan’s storm

Guys like Ryan are common in my practice. He’s hot-headed. He’s proud. He’s successful, and he’s used to getting his own way. And he’s never been taught how to get a better handle on that strong horse he rides: His emotions and his temper.

The “Ryans” I see are helped when they understand that they can actually do something about their short fuse. They don’t have to live with it; there’s a difference between being “honest” and being “critical.”

Understanding escalation

People like this can learn to recognize the internal signs that they are starting to escalate. They can decide to calm down instead of escalate.

Doing so (calming down instead of escalating) will do great things for their marriage.

Guys like Ryan often consider that shutting down (stonewalling) or storming out are better alternative behaviors than violence. This is, of course, true. 

Worse behaviors can get them into legal trouble. (His threats later did get him into legal entanglements.) However, these are not the only choices.

Because often, when spouses get “hot under the collar,” they are physiologically in a state that Gottman calls “Diffuse Physiological Arousal,” DPA, or Flooding.

Here’s a YouTube video I did on flooding (and many other issues related to couples therapy) that will explain it better than I can write it.

But in a nutshell, I can tell you what to do when you’re flooded; leave, get your mind off the fight, return after 20 minutes, and start back where you left off. It will be a different conversation.

The hundred dollar bill

This is such a classic fight that a series devoted to REAL couples therapy could be built around it. It later was.

If you have not seen the episode, Ryan is short on cash, so he asks Jess to take a hundred-dollar bill they got for their wedding, sitting in the drawer. I imagine he needed lunch money, “walking around money,” and hadn’t gone to the bank. Jessica is hurt because, to her, she wanted that money to “do something special.” It is not just “cash” to her, but it is symbolic of their wedding, their commitment.

Clearly, to Ryan, it’s simply cash.

He needs cash now.

Later, Jess brings it up during a fight, and Ryan tells his pal, “She accused me of stealing money.”

In real life, these kinds of fights make up most of my working life with couples: they get hot fast because each person is invested in their own point of view. And this point of view directly conflicts, in an unflattering way, with the other person’s perspective. And both are hurt by it.

Put hurt, anger, and a handful of rejection, and you have a fight that will likely not be resolved quickly. It’s full of symbolism.

To Ryan, he “heard” Jess accuse him of “stealing money,” and to a guy who drives a Benz, this is an insult of the highest order.

“Really? Stealing a hundred bucks…from my own wife!?!” I can hear the disgust.

To Jess, who works as a receptionist, a hundred dollars is a lot of cash. And its symbolism is so powerful because this marriage is already on shaky grounds by its very nature. The money represents an investment by family and friends in the two of them as a couple. Her plans is to “do something” with it, something they both decide to do with it.

She desires something tangible to tell the world: “We’re a couple!”

If they were my clients, I’d do an exercise Gottman calls “Dreams Within Conflict,” discussing the issue of the hundred dollars. They would process this fight in order to learn how to have all arguments of this type: the ones that heat up quickly and die down slowly.

The ones that cause people to hold resentments for YEARS.

Shows like this display to us how hard marriage truly is, and why commitment and building trust is so important over a period of time. Short courtships don’t allow for that trust and commitment. These types of relationships, especially when explosive anger is present, are sure to face serious problems.