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What I've Learned About Love from Trash TV
A sentimental journey through the last twenty years of romance in reality television.
In the waning days of this past September – just before the fiery reds and oranges of a New England autumn erupted, on the cusp of a new moon – I married my partner, Ben. We met roughly eleven years ago as freshmen in college, meaning that about 4000 days passed between our first introduction and our wedding day. Outside of necessities that impact my immediate health and hygiene, pledging myself to Ben is the only thing I’ve ever consciously decided to do for 4000 days in a row.
One of the greatest contributors to the series of decisions that ultimately linked us for life? Regular servings of the trashiest reality television available.
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I already know that some of you will be quick to denounce this as incredibly stupid. After all, many people like to believe that they are above the low-budget, highly manufactured drama that fills up countless hours of airtime.
But the truth is that from its infancy, much of reality television has focused on the tenuous strings that tie relationships together. An American Family, a 12-part PBS documentary from 1973 that’s often cited as the first true US reality television series, gained millions of clamoring fans as it documented the breakdown, separation, and divorce of the protagonists. In the decades since, reality television has found just about every conceivable way to tackle the topic of relationships. From theatrics derived from the shoddy lie detector tests on Maury to the drawn-out deliberations that fuel series like The Bachelor, it’s undeniable that a huge percentage of us are willing to temporarily suspend our disbelief and become invested in the love lives of perfect strangers.
The reasons why people as a whole are attracted to this type of programming – be it curiosity-charged voyeurism or some twisted form of schadenfreude – vary from viewer to viewer. But analyzing and identifying the exact reasons why we tune in isn’t where the utility of reality television lies. Instead, the potential is in shared media’s ability to transport couples into “fictional”worlds, where they may develop mutual parasocial relationships or engage in the sort of serious conversations that are difficult to broach in less absurd realms.
The idea that something as mundane as watching television together can bolster real-life bonds isn’t entirely speculation on my end. Social psychologist Dr. Sarah Gomillion postulates that watching a show with a partner can create the sense they are sharing a social connection with the actors on their screens, which promotes interdependence and in turn may decrease the likelihood of a future breakup. One psychological study from the University of Rochester suggests that assigning couples to watch and discuss a relationship-themed movie with one another was about as effective as a skill-based clinical intervention at preventing divorce over a three-year period. A survey conducted among nearly 2000 adults ages 25-49 revealed that 66% of participants believed that watching television with a partner strengthened their relationship.
As the year winds closer to an end and the holiday season looms on the horizon, we’re often tasked to consider what we are thankful for. Though I may not have empirical data of my own to provide in wider defense of trash television, this year I can’t help but feel thankful for the hours I’ve spent watching TV and slowly realizing that the man sitting on the couch next to me was one that I could spend the rest of my life with. So, with that in mind, I’ve compiled a brief overview detailing the evolution of reality romance over the past 20 years – and a little bit of insight on what each installment has inadvertently helped me realize about real-world love.
Wife Swap has never been the most romantic show on television. It wasn’t even the first modern reality show to feature relationships, as it was preceded by programs like Cheaters (2000), Temptation Island (2001), The Bachelor/Bachelorette (2002), and Joe Millionaire (2003). Nevertheless, Wife Swap was innovative and iconic in ways that are often entirely overlooked.
As the title suggests, Wife Swap takes two families and forces them to swap matriarchs for two weeks. Though it may seem simple enough conceptually, the show’s popularity has inspired iterations across twenty countries, from Russia to Brazil. Multiple spin-offs, revivals, and specials have been released in the United States and abroad. When ABC initially released the Wife Swap, FOX created an almost identical (albeit less popular) program of its own titled Trading Spouses.
Rather than focusing on the tumult of a budding passion or the collapse of romance in ruin, Wife Swap hones in on marriages so established that there hardly seems to be room for secret or surprise at all. That doesn’t mean that the featured families themselves aren’t entertaining – producers went to great lengths to find extreme opposites that were easy to gawk at (i.e. evangelical conservatives against liberal hippies burning sage for Gaia, the cutthroat executive pitted with traditional housewife). But almost every family unit featured worked in perfect sync with one another, perfectly adjusted to their own weird routines and ritual. Instead, the entertainment stems from the stress of an experimental transplant threatening to undo the monotony each wedded couple has functioned on for years.
Perhaps the shows evergreen appeal boils down to its straightforward messaging. While some families make small adjustments after interacting with the new wives, the main thing that most spouses report is a newfound appreciation for their other half. As “Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale croons in the background of nearly every reunion scene, the lyrics reflect the realization featured couples likely contemplate as they embrace:
“I said no one could take your place/
And if you get hurt by the little things I say/
I can put that smile back on your face.”
The show is almost – almost – wholesome in its reminder that there are millions of other people out there infinitely more insufferable than your spouse (even on their worst day). Unclouded by the lies and betrayals and rejections that drive almost every one of Wife Swap’s aforementioned predecessors, this program is a rare attempt at actively strengthening rather than degrading relationships. Ultimately, strange as the creatures on Wife Swap are, their stories illustrate that an ideal marriage is more a functional filling of gaps, perhaps not as glamorous as the trainwrecks on the next channel over but much, much sturdier.
Around the same time that Wife Swap gained traction, WE TV came to be. Originally known as Romance Classics, a major overhaul in the early aughts rebranded the cable movie channel as Women’s Entertainment (WE) Television and started shifting content from feature length films to “lifestyle” programming. Straight away, a monstrosity was birthed in the form of Bridezillas.
Most people – women especially – are conditioned to believe that their wedding day is destined to be the single greatest day of their entire lives. Inherently, this expectation creates pressure around weddings to attain a level of perfection that simply isn’t attainable. The creators of Bridezillas (which is, of course, a portmanteau of “bride” and “Godzilla”) were among the first to realize that ceaseless chaos and potential for failure made weddings excellent fodder for reality television, and subsequently began sending camera crews to push brides-to-be into near-manic states.
The sole purpose of Bridezillas is to capture women acting as irrationally and unreasonably as humanly possible. Each episode, audiences witness a frantic collage of brides hyperfixating on inconsequential details and throwing violent tantrums. Barely-contained rage is the defining attribute of virtually every bride on the series, making it difficult to distinguish any real differences between episodes. A disembodied feminine voice adds constant critique, punctuating nearly every phrase that comes out of the featured bride’s mouth. As one might expect, Bridezillas reeks of internalized sexism.
But in the moments in which contorted charicatures fling flower arrangements across their reception hall or scream at bridesmaids wearing dresses that hug their hips a little too tightly, it’s hard not to consider what drives this insane behavior.
Would “bridezillas” spend so many hours haranguing wearied wedding planners if we all collectively agreed to that there is no law dictating that one’s wedding day HAS to be without flaw? Would the oppressive force that weighs on every bride on her wedding day exist if we assured her that the best days of her life may very well lie 5, 10, or 25 years after matrimony?
Heavy editing and snarky commentary makes the brides of Bridezillas an easy target. But ultimately, there’s not a whole lot to be gained from knocking these women down a peg. Much more productive, I think, is instead being mindful of the folly the brides fall victim to time and time again. With the right partner by your side, a wedding shouldn’t be a perfectly choreographed last hurrah, marking the slow and steady decline of life as you know it. Rather, it should be a celebration that the days you’ll cherish most are yet to come.
As reality television producers got a better idea of what viewers wanted to see, the subject of romance became increasingly popular. Naturally, this discovery led to the creation of MTV dating shows
Since the early 1990s, MTV has embraced reality television, churning out some of the earliest influential reality blueprints in shows like The Real World and True Life. Likewise, they initially tried their hand at setting up singles with a 1995 game show appropriately title Singled Out. As the beginning of the new millennium came and went, the network strayed from the game show format but continued to explore the idea of a series based around the arduous endeavor of dating as a young adult.
Consequently, this resulted in a plethora of zero-budget programs with ridiculous premises that truly straddled the line of how fake reality television was allowed to be. Even so, shows like Date My Mom, Room Raiders, and Parental Control were hits with teenage audiences. But more so than any of the others, Next best encompassed the absurd alternate universe of MTV pretend-romance.
Populated entirely by wannabe actors between the ages of 18 and 25, Next would set an eligible bachelor (or bachelorette) up with a queue of five potential suitors. One-by-one, each hot single would be summoned and try their damndest to win over the heart of their blind date. The bachelor (or bachelorette) could dismiss her suitor at whim by shouting “next”. The suitor would then be paid a dollar amount equivalent to the number of minutes the “date” lasted.
The fun of Next is that any given episode is absolutely bananas. In preparation for writing this, Ben and I watched one episode in which the featured date took place at what was clearly a staged, nameless fast-food restaurant, complete with angry, milkshake-chucking drive-thru customers that proceeded to place orders from prospective dates dressed in skimpy uniforms that violated nearly every food safety regulation known to man. It was bizarre and lacked any semblance of authenticity.
Over the course of each 21-minute episode, the audience never gets much information concerning the methodology of a Next guest’s decision-making process. There are never discussions of future or finances or feelings. Characters tend to describe their admirers with little more than superficial one-syllable adjectives like “hot” or “weird” or “cool”. Extrapolating anything useful from the vapid, short-sighted world of Next can be a challenge simply because it exists in a universe designated for the young and inexperienced, familiar only with the kind of love that’s uncomplicated and primarily hormone-fueled.
Anything beyond that cannot survive in Next’s harsh atmosphere – not because of the age of participants, but because the exaggerated masks these singles adopt create conditions inhospitable for anything more advanced to develop. These personas are unsustainable the moment the cameras turn off, and from there it’s only a matter of time before an individual’s “next”-worthy flaws become evident. The heavily-scripted singles of Next are doomed to remain single because, by virtue of participating on the show, they do not understand this crucial fact: to truly love someone is to be vulnerable enough to reveal your blemishes, and to be truly loved is to be accepted in spite of them.
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DON’T TELL THE BRIDE
In even the most abbreviated history of romance reality television, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the spectacular garbage produced outside of the US. Although Hollywood has famously made America an epicenter for entertainment, Europe was actually the initial incubator for much of modern reality television. Many European imports – such as Survivor, Big Brother, and Wife Swap – have become household names in the United States. But one of the countless shows to never gain traction in the states was Don’t Tell the Bride.
Set in the UK, Don’t Tell the Bride provides cash-strapped grooms-to-be with a modest sum of money to spend toward a wedding. The only condition? The men are not allowed any consultation from their future spouse. That means that over the course of two weeks, each groom must take care of every aspect of his wedding day, from crafting a guest list to arranging decor.
At times, it’s easy to feel pity for the tasks the men of Don’t Tell The Bride are faced with. I’m still not really sure how grooms are expected to successfully find the perfect wedding dress for their wives when there are entire series devoted to the struggles women endure to find a gown of their own. But those moments usually quickly give way to horror, as it becomes increasingly clear that the majority of men featured have very little insight concerning the preferences of the person they’ll presumably be spending their life with. As brides are prompted to show off the castles, churches, and sprawling estates they’d be married at in a perfect world, grooms proceed to book vacant buildings, emptied out nightclubs, and registry offices as venues. Worse still are husbands that eviscerate budgets on blow-out bachelor parties without any consideration of how cracking a cold one open with the boys might impact the person he claims to love most.
Although it seems like it would be common sense not to waste limited shared finances on an over-the-top night of drinking, that’s exactly what happens on Don’t Tell the Bride disturbingly often. Tuning into each episode is a lot like watching a car crash in slow motion, as components bound to upset the powerless spouse stack on top of one another, destined to come crashing back down to earth. While the men featured on the series universally lament that what’s traditionally considered “women’s work” is difficult to relegate on their own, it is uniformly the brides that suffer the consequences of their incompetence.
I guess it’s easy to claim, from the comfort of my living room that my partner would do a better job at fulfilling my needs if dropped into a similar situation. All the same, a partnership is at its core a pact to try to understand one another, and it’s hard to watch the show without questioning just how much these committed pairs don’t know about each other. But perhaps that means that Don’t Tell The Bride can serve as a warning rather than a mere documentation of human suffering. If the small-scale disasters of the series can teach us anything, it’s to never stop asking questions about ones you’re supposed to know best.
In 2010, reality relationship shows may very well have reached an all-time low (or high, depending on your tolerance for depravity) in a short-lived mishap known as Bridalplasty. During its sole season on the E! network, twelve engaged women faced off in a series of head-to-head challenges in hopes of winning a “celebrity-style dream wedding”. What really made the show stand out from a sea of other marriage-centric programming, though, was the fact that challenge winners would be sent to operating rooms and granted cosmetic surgical procedures of their choice.
Theoretically, the purpose of this was to ensure that the winning bride could have perfect looks to match her perfect ceremony. In fact, as losers left the communal bridal mansion one by one, the host would lament that each woman’s “wedding will still go on – it just may not be perfect”.
I really shouldn’t have to explain all of the reasons why this show was fucked up. There were Botox injection parties, lie detector tests, and countless broken dreams. Every second was saturated with a sense of deep desperation that a mere clout-chaser after her 15-minutes of fame couldn’t conjure on demand. The frequent sobs of women anguished by their own imperfections is a poignant reminder to assure the people you care about most that your love is not solely dependant on physical appearances.
But now that I am married, what strikes me as one of the most fucked up aspects of Bridalplasty isn’t as obvious as the blatant barrage of body shaming. Rather, it’s the fact that participants were required to spend FOUR months away from their future spouses. Missing out on a third of a year with my husband would be devastating in itself. The thought of going through surgery without him by my side is absolutely unthinkable.
Putting myself in the shoes of a Bridalplasty husband – rarely seen, but of paramount importance – is equally unfathomable. Primarily for the benefit of the men they intend to marry, these women are left to heal from breast augmentations and rhinoplasties in physical and emotional isolation. Did the grooms-to-be spend long nights worrying about the wellbeing of their partners during the separation? Or were their concerns centered primarily around the quality of the end results? How, exactly, were any of these dudes able to utter that “in sickness and in health” vow with an ounce of sincerity, considering the external and internal agony each of the wives endured without them?
Some might say that Bridalplasty’s contestants deserve little compassion, as they’ve willingly subjected themselves to a self-depricating spectacle. Others might point out that the insecurities driving each woman under the knife likely developed long before a fiancé or a television crew entered the picture. Even so, one line from the series premiere haunts me. In the arms of her man, contestant Lisa Marie refers to her sacrifice of time and flesh as “a good deed”, implying that she views the show’s extreme beautifying measures as a means of making herself a worthier partner. Ultimately, this passing moment drives home Bridalplasty’s most important message – imperfect as we may be, the arms of those we commit to should exist to quell (rather than amplify) the flaws and fears that make casting parts of oneself away seem appealing.
MARRIED AT FIRST SIGHT
If you’re not familiar with Married at First Sight, let me be the one to inform you that it is exactly what it sounds like. Fed up with dating, singles place their trust in “professional matchmakers” and agree to marry complete strangers in this popular Lifetime series.
Even the most romantic-minded among us can agree that this idea is a horrible one. Though marriage brokers have existed in various cultures for thousands of years, the folks traditionally in charge of brokering marriages aren't generally presented with the incentives dangling in front of Pastor Cal, Dr. Pepper, and nameless television producersto generate the most catastrophic unions possible. As you might expect, the track record for Married at First Sight couples is pretty poor. Just 14 out of the 59 couples featured across the show’s first fifteen seasons have remained in tact.
What is it, exactly, that makes these individuals so bad at sticking together? In practice, the series basically functions as a high-stakes, high-stress speedrun of a relationship. Individuals can do little more than pray that they’ve been paired with someone somewhat tolerable. After little more than a whirlwind honeymoon dominated by the drama of fellow couples, the unfortunate men and women of this series are forced to cohabitate before they even have the time to learn basic facts about one another, let alone develop effective communication strategies.
As grim as this all sounds, there are plenty of love stories to be found on Married at First Sight. It’s just that the love stories don’t usually occur between the matched pairs. Instead, kinship blossoms among the same-sex participants forced to go through the same surreal experience. When frequent fights break out between newlyweds, it is almost always the fellow Married at First Sight participants that are around to offer support, be it a bottle of wine, a night on the town, or a shoulder to cry on. Aside from the occasional personality conflict, it’s clear that the friendships that form organically throughout the show are more often than not infinitely more authentic and beneficial than the marriages themselves.
This is because love is not something that spontaneously generates in full-force. It takes time to cultivate, and often it will wither under the pressure of expectations. Because the Married at First Sight participants don’t expect anything of their cohorts, they’re allowed the freedom to bond at their own pace, and to reveal parts of themselves if and when they see fit. They’re allowed to focus on the actual time that they spend together without the heavy weight of questioning whether the bond can stand the test of time. It’s in direct contrast to the hasty marriages, which demand immediate physical touch, immediate prioritization above all else, immediate melding of the souls. Ultimately, this leads to partners falling short of one another’s expectations, which subsequently leads to divorce.
Unlike most of its predecessors, part of Married at First Sight’s draw is the high risk that there may not be a happily ever after. Maybe the show’s greatest lesson lies in showing just how poorly forcing two people together and hoping for a fairytale romance can go. But this does not mean that love itself is a pipe dream. Rather, something greater and infinitely more beautiful is attainable than what the arranged couples of First Sight have – if only we can find the patience to let it grow.
90 DAY FIANCE
Before I delve too far, a warning: attempting to pare the 90 Day Fiancé extended universe down to just a few paragraphs is a difficult, if not impossible, feat. Trying to unpack all of the tomfoolery that occurs from week to week on 90 Day Fiancé could easily constitute its own newsletter.
This statement may come as a surprise to those that have never watched an episode of 90 Day Fiancé. On the surface, this “documentary” series simply records the processes surrounding the K1 spousal visa. But in actuality, 90DF is more than anything a documentation of people struggling to navigate an awkward adolescent stage of global connectivity. Though the lonely hearts featured have learned how to reach out to lovers a world apart, they haven’t yet quite figured out how to coexist harmoniously. Words, actions, and ideals are frequently powered by xenophobic distrust and the kind of logic-defying superiority complexes that exist only in those that truly, wholeheartedly believe that the United States of America reigns supreme over all other nations. The lunacy of each storyline teeters on the edge that separates distressing from hysterical.
90 Day Fiancé has garnered a ravenous fanbase that will consume just about anything 90DF adjacent as quickly as TLC can produce it. As a result, coverage of the most harebrained couples often goes well beyond 90 days. Months turn into years, and all the while camera crews continue to follow the same dysfunctional relationships.
As each individual storyline unfolds, you can’t help but wonder how you and your partner might cope with any of the deranged scenarios presented. Unlikely as it might be, what would we do if my husband’s parents began to berate me? How would I react if my spouse told me that my leg hair wasn’t sexy and that I needed to shave more often? When, if ever, is it justifiable to snoop through a partners DMs? Dramatized as they are, these silly plot points serve as sparks for more complex conversation and reflection on how my husband and I function as a unit.
The downfall of many 90DF pairs often comes when a couple’s needs and wants are misalligned. Sometimes this manifests in financial disagreements, in which one partner wants to send funds to struggling family overseas at the expense of their new family in America. Other times, conflict arises when a man seeking a subservient wife is shocked to find that his spouse has ambitions outside the confines of the home. Some duos can’t even agree on a common language to speak and are forced to communicate through faulty translator apps. Instead of suggesting compromise, the show is a constant debate over which partner is “right” and which is “wrong”.
But, as most rational people already know, the world is composed of shades of grey. Relationships are no exception. In TLC’s attempts to sow division between people, 90 Day Fiancé serves as a valuable reminder of just how crucial finding middle ground is in finding long -term success in love. Or, at the very least, it’s a reminder to stick with someone that can speak in a language you can understand (both literally and figuratively).
ARE YOU THE ONE?
As time has passed, the format of reality television has changed. No longer are our guilty pleasures solely relegated to the boxes in our living room – the rise of social media has given the entire reality genre a whole new dimension. Drama now spills over onto platforms like Twitter and Instagram, and fans follow their favorite stars in flocks. No longer do the zany one-off characters a la Next pass by our screens in droves, never to be seen again after a brief appearance. Observing the obsessive online following for shows like Married at First Sight and 90 Day Fiancé, producers are now more likely to introduce fewer characters that have greater potential to shine online.
Enter Are You The One?, one of MTV’s more recent attempts at romance. Like Married at First Sight, the show features 20 influencer-types that have given up on finding love on their own. However, instead of relying on human matchmakers, this younger generation of singles entrusts their love lives to an algorithm. As a group, the twenty participants must identify all ten "perfect matches" among them. If they're able to correctly pair off, the group wins a $1 million USD prize (split evenly twenty ways, of course).
As light-hearted as this sounds, in practice the singles subject themselves to a form of purgatory dominated by heartbreak and binge drinking. Chemistry develops between horny housemates over a few dozen vodka Red Bulls, only to be struck down days later when it’s discovered that the algorithm thinks that they are a less than perfect pairing. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the feelings of participants frequently don’t correlate with the calculations, resulting in nearly every contestant experiencing some degree of misery.
There’s always a character or two that exists solely to remind his or her cohorts that finding the correct answer is a matter of mathematical elimination. But even with large sums of money on the line, the show proves time and time again that logic cannot always triumph over matters of the heart. Lust-fueled affairs all too often form between incompatible players, despite the futility of their affections. Some exasperated housemates take these liasons as a slight meant to sabotage the group’s shot at a big pay day AND wreck individual chances of making a love connection.
Unfortunately, the poor souls trapped within the Are You The One? household aren’t far enough removed to realize the point that each episode iterates time and time again. At the cost of toying with the emotions of people without any relationship maintenance skills, it becomes increasingly obvious that love isn’t something that’s meant to make perfect sense. It’s not something that a super computer can quantify, and it’s not something that’s solvable with a pencil and paper. Not even a cash incentive is enough to make love appear (or disappear) at a whim.
And that’s okay. It doesn’t have to make perfect sense. Sometimes the people you bond with over a drunken night are the ones worth holding onto, and other times they aren’t. The only way to find out is by keeping an open mind and an open heart – odds and statistics be damned.
MARRIAGE OR MORTGAGE
As of late, competing streaming services have created an almost endless array of reality relationship shows to choose from. As a rule of thumb, reality tv is inexpensive to produce and all but guarantees a certain amount of viewer traffic. This, in turn, makes reality the perfect filler to beef up streaming libraries. Marriage or Mortgage is just one of the romance-based shows to materialize over the last few years, released during the bleakest days of the pandemic in which everything still felt like a calculated risk.
Perhaps because it came out during such a complicated time, the show itself is pretty straightforward. Essentially, realtor Nichole Holmes and wedding planner Sarah Miller play a 45 minute game of tug of war over the finances of perfectly normal couples in the greater Nashville area. With a nest egg just large enough to make a down payment on a house or celebrate a blowout wedding, Sarah and Nichole aim to “help” potential clients decide whether their funds would be better spent on a marriage or mortgage.
Neither woman is above arguably manipulative tactics – Nichole will often stage nurseries for couples trying to conceive. Meanwhile, Sarah offers a steady stream of alcohol and fantasy before revealing that the venue they’ve just fallen in love is out of budget
Weddings are beautiful, wonderful, magical things. But ultimately, a wedding is a fleeting thing. They are undoubtedly much sexier than a mortgage.
That said, the correct answer, 100 times out of 100, is of course mortgage.
The reasoning for this isn’t as simple as economic inflation ballooning mortgage rates in recent years (though that is a very good reason). As my ever-astute husband worded it, Marriage or Mortgage is a marshmallow test for relationships. The choice couples make is not one of commitment, as agreeing to settle into a routine and share a space with a partner is every bit a sign of love and commitment as a set of wedding bands. Instead, the choice boils down to immediate versus delayed gratisfaction.
A home lacks the glamour of an over-the-top ceremony, it’s true. A home makes no promises of perfection, and at times it can even feel mundane. But a home, in time, becomes a shared sanctuary – a place where one is completely free to express themselves, the foundation for thousands of moments that ultimately define who we are.
With the right person by your side, finding the fortitude to choose the least sexy option isn’t such a challenge.
Where fiction ends and the real world begins is obviously difficult to parse out in the context of reality television.
Every now and then Wife Swap also utilizes Petula Clark’s “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love”, which is also an absolute banger.
Yes, there is a real “expert” on Married at First Sight named Dr. Pepper.
It’s never specified how this algorithm works, and pairs could very well be matched up by producers seeking to maximize drama. But just for fun, let’s take MTV’s word and assume there is some sort of algorithm that pairs people together.
Incidentally, Nichole and Sarah courted each of these couples just before COVID lockdowns. As a result, the couples that chose a dream wedding all had to severely alter their dreams in order to meet newly implemented safety requirements.