“The Ultimatum” Promotes A Scarcity Mindset In Dating

(Spoilers): The latest Netflix dating show had a bleak ending.

In Netflix’s Love Is Blind — a blatant ripoff of the long-running and, IMO, superior Lifetime series Married at First Sight — a bunch of people go on dates in “pods” where they speak to each other through walls and decide to marry strangers they have not yet seen or touched. If that wasn’t bonkers enough, hosts Nick and Vanessa Lachey have leveled up the drama with The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On. In this new series, whose finale and reunion hit Netflix today, couples with one partner who’s pushing for marriage and another who’s not so sure are thrown together with other couples at a similar crossroads, then encouraged to pick one of the other people’s partners to live with (and potentially date) for three weeks.

The goal, seemingly, is for every person to emerge from the experiment knowing whether they really want to marry their original partner. But far from promoting the development of strong and loving partnerships, The Ultimatum, like its predecessor, encourages and exacerbates its cast members’ scarcity mindsets about love, monogamy, and their own self-worth. By glorifying marriage as the only truly worthwhile and meaningful relationship in someone’s romantic life, these sorts of reality dating shows convince their contestants to value the social signifiers of marriage — of being able to claim, as one of the guys on The Ultimatum puts it, that “this is my girl” — to such an extent that they’ll do just about anything to put a ring on somebody, anybody’s finger.

“Psychologists agree an ultimatum is not a good way to get somebody else to do what you want,” Nick Lachey tells the cast in the first episode. “But it is the best way to get you the answers you need on a timetable you can live with.”

Every person who gave their partner an ultimatum for this show, which was cast and filmed in Austin, Texas, seems incapable of living with a time table longer than a meager three years. These are people in their early 20s who’ve been dating for a year and a half, maybe two, and are demanding a lifetime commitment. For me and my friend group of mostly queer thirtysomethings, the desperate desire to settle down with whomever you happen to be with at the ripe old age of 23 is as inconceivable as it is horrifying, but it’s also a good if extremely sobering reminder that straight people are not okay. As depressing as these people’s relationship woes might be, though, it’s also perversely satisfying to watch. Like @honeypluton on Twitter, I, too, love experimental reality dating shows “because I believe straight people should be psychologically terrorized.”

The Ultimatum is worth bingeing if only for its exquisitely off-the-rails third episode. The cast has so far spent a week dating other people’s partners, and now they’re all together for a big dinner to decide who they’re going to pair up with for the cohabitating bit of the experiment. Dinner kicks off with a proposal (!) by one of the couples who came on the show together, Hunter and Alexis, after Hunter realizes that he doesn’t want to spend time with any of the other girls. Then it’s suave, unsettling Colby’s turn to pick someone, and he waxes poetic about his time with Lauren, a long-haired dirty blonde with tattoos; “it’s crazy to say I love you in so short a time,” he says, inspiring a grimace from his partner, Madlyn. Lauren’s original partner, Nate, is the one who gave her the ultimatum, since she’s unsure she wants kids and Nate is desperate for them. Colby wants kids too and is completely unbothered by Lauren’s hesitation in her original relationship, believing in the way so many men before him have that he can simply convince her otherwise.

Listening to “big cheese Colby” and his plans to impregnate Lauren whips Nate into a jealous frenzy. Before Lauren is able to choose Colby to live with for three weeks, a prospect that has Nate “shitting his pants,” Nate makes the spontaneous decision to propose to her, and Lauren happily accepts.

For the two now-engaged couples, you could say that the ultimatum worked: When threatened with abandonment, both Nate and Hunter decided to lock it all down. But the second proposal confuses and even pisses off the rest of the cast. Alexis points out that the issue of whether to have kids isn’t just going to go away. Twenty-three-year-old April, a dark-haired beauty dealing with fertility issues who wants to be pregnant yesterday, is “really fucking pissed,” accusing the engaged couples of skipping out on the experiment before it’s complete and calling out Nate specifically for his “fake-ass proposal.” She ends her big, tearful speech by storming out of the room. It’s impressive, and might have been convincing, but you know that if April’s boyfriend, Jake, had been the one to propose that night, April would have been euphoric. What she’s actually angry about is that the two men she grew closest to during the dating trials are now off the market; “I wasted this whole week,” she says.

Any time spent with any man that doesn’t lead to a marriage and children is a “waste.”

Here’s one of many instances when a scarcity mindset rears its ugly head on this show. Any time spent with any man that doesn’t lead to a marriage and children is a “waste.” If any of the couples were to break up, multiple cast members insinuate, that would have been a “waste” of two or however many years. These are people who see their relationships as “investments,” and every cast member who hasn’t yet seen returns on their investment — in the form of wedding bells — is more than willing to dump their bad stock.

Living as I do in my gay urban bubble, I can sometimes forget how prevalent and powerful social conditioning really is when it comes to coupling up and having kids. It’s sad how badly these people want to be loved, how convinced they are that the institution of marriage, which sees almost half of all couples filing for divorce, will ensure their partner’s full commitment or somehow mitigate any of their (many) preexisting problems.

Nick Lachey lectures the cast about what it means to have a “fear of commitment,” one of many colloquial expressions on the show and in the world of dating at large that promotes monogamy and marriage — “settling down,” “getting your shit together” — as the ultimate markers of responsibility and maturity. Never mind that the 24-year-old who doesn’t want to marry his girlfriend right this minute is the one who’s making what is likely the actually responsible choice!

Of the two couples who got proposed at the matchmaking dinner, Vanessa Lachey muses to her husband, “I just hope they didn’t do it out of fear.” Surely these men love their girlfriends and truly want to marry them, but it would be ridiculous to think fear didn’t have something to do with their decisions after they’d been backed into a corner and are readily facing the prospect of their partners fucking other guys. So many people on this show and in real life are afraid, due to a scarcity mindset, that if they lose someone they’ve invested their time and emotional energies in, they’ll have to experience the financial and social blows of singledom and potentially never again find someone else to love them.

 Never mind that the 24-year-old who doesn’t want to marry his girlfriend right this minute is the one who’s making what is likely the actually responsible choice!

After a great third episode, the rest of The Ultimatum’s first season is mostly a drag. None of the couples — either the ones who entered the show that way, or the newly created partnerships — are worth rooting for, except perhaps for Jake and Rae, one of the experimental couples, if only because they’re both low-key and seemingly kind, normal people. Now that the last two episodes have dropped on Netflix, Rae/Jake stans will be excited to see them choose each other in the finale, with Jake proposing a trip together anywhere in the world — cute! But the only potential couple to have traded out their partners in the experiment ultimately don’t end up together, either, we learn in the following reunion episode; Rae explains they didn’t take the trip after all, and we learn from her original partner and now-ex Zay that, after the show wrapped, the established couple had again tried to make it work. Now both Jake and Zay are single and Rae is dating a woman she’s very happy with, having recently embraced her bisexuality. I’m sure many fans will be disappointed that Rae and Jake didn’t work out, but how likely would it really have been for someone to find their perfect match this way?! I’m glad they didn’t try to force it, and that they’re figuring out who they are apart from each other.

The couples who’ve lasted, all original pairings, paint a darker picture. After Madlyn told Colby, straight up, that their relationship wasn’t going to work — following reports of him texting other girls outside the show and seemingly hooking up with at least one of them, which Colby insists he did benevolently, for Madlyn, somehow, to “make it real,” by which he means, I guess, to force her to face the prospect of losing him — she arrives at the reunion aglow with pregnancy, Colby at her side. She’d accepted his proposal in the finale, then married him on the spot. Good luck, you crazy kids! I think you’re gonna need it.

Shanique and Randall also got engaged during the finale, but in the reunion, Vanessa Lachey points out that Shanique isn’t wearing her ring. The couple reveal that they broke up for six months after filming the show, which Shanique calls “the hardest time” of her life, and now they’re back together, but no longer engaged: “We’re honestly just trying to figure it out,” Randall says. These are good-looking young people with their whole lives ahead of them, and I just can’t imagine the familiarity and comfort of staying in this relationship could be worth all the heartache they’re putting each other through. It’s not like either person is the villain here — sometimes, most of the time, relationships don’t work out, and it’s no one’s fault, and that doesn’t make the relationship, or any of the individuals in it, a failure.

But of course, if everyone became more comfortable with the idea that every relationship doesn’t have to culminate in marriage and kids to matter — that people will always come into and out of our lives, enriching them and teaching us things about ourselves in the process — then what would we have to watch on television? ●

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