Thanks to my co-worker, I have become addicted to 90-Day Fiancé and, consequently, way too invested in the love lives of people who, in my heart of hearts, I believe should know better. The truth is, when it comes to love, a lot of us should know better — and do — but that doesn’t stop us from making less-than-smart decisions, like considering text conversations with a man whom we’ve never met in person or had so much as a phone conversation with the start of a budding romance. And buying a plane ticket to visit him and confirm as much.
That’s just one example of the dysfunctional types of unions producers at TLC follow on their shows, 90-Day Fiancé: before the 90 days and 90-Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After? The former centers on Americans attempting to build relationships with men and women who are abroad, while the latter focuses on couples who surpassed the K-1 visa period allowing foreigners to move to the U.S. and live with their partners for 90 days before either marrying or returning home. The entire concept is intriguing and the show episodes thoroughly entertaining, but somewhere in the midst of every 60- or 90-minute episode I find myself feeling sorry for most of the Americans who are so desperate to find love, they can’t see that they’re being emotionally manipulated and financially conned.
Consider Danielle, an Ohio woman who, up until this past Sunday’s episode, was married to a man from Tunisia named Mohamed. Danielle is a 41-year-old mother of four, Mohamed is 26 and uses his culture to justify not kissing his bride on their wedding day. Spoiler: They only end up having sex twice before being legally divorced some two-and-a-half years after Danielle brought Mohamed to the U.S. You can watch one of their early interactions here as Danielle admits, “Mohamed has a habit of playing me to get what he wants.”
The video is from November 2016 and nearly a year later we still routinely witness Danielle cry over being played by Mohamed and find reasons to hunt him down — he’s left Ohio since the dissolution of their relationship — stalk him and the women he’s involved with on social media, routinely request to meet up with him to get things off her chest, and, most disturbing, justify her behavior to her children who simply want her mom to let go and move on.
To be fair, Danielle’s situation is a bit of an anomaly on Happily Ever After?, as most of the other couples, who actually met and built a connections abroad, are simply adjusting to cultural differences and the normal struggles of newly married life. On Before the 90 days, however, this type of scenario is all too perplexingly common. There’s Paul, a Lextington, KY, man who travels to the Amazon to visit his 21-year-old girlfriend Karine. His Portuguese pretty much stops at obrigado (thank you) and she speaks no English. And there’s Sean, another Ohio native who travels to Port au Prince to visit his lady, a Haitian woman named Abby whom he gifts with a Mac laptop and iPad before sharing in a confessional that he’s invested $12,000 in their relationship and he would be devastated if he was being used. Abby, on the other hand, called Sean by the wrong name when speaking to the cameras.
In Amsterdam, we watch Darcey, a 42-year-old mother of three daughters, desperately throw out hints to her 24-year-old suitor Jesse about expecting a proposal at the end of what was supposed to be a six-week trip to simply see if they could make a relationship work. Nevermind he’s controllin, militant, and has yet to meet her children, she wants a ring. And that takes us back to Courtney, a young woman who has bought a plane ticket to Spain to visit a model whom she texts every day but is always “too busy” to facetime her or talk on the phone when she asks.
Like with anything in life, from the outside looking in, it’s so blatantly clear to me and everyone else watching that most of these people are being used for monetary gain, citizenship, or simple crude enjoyment. But for the American subjects of these series, they see an unconventional situation that could yield a substantial benefit. Where we see someone being taken advantage of, they see themselves as being needed. Where we see desperation, they see hope.
And that’s when the entertainment aspect of the show escapes me and I find myself somewhat despondent, asking what could’ve happened in these individuals’ romantic pasts to make the scenarios before them seem plausible. It’s when I think about how starved we are for love that we’re willing to ignore every sign to the contrary and place all of our hopes, dreams and, in some cases, life savings in someone who has everything to gain and nothing to give.
And then I think about how many of us are tolerating the same behavior on American soil where the investment isn’t quite as deep as sponsoring someone to come to the U.S. but the stakes just as high in terms of our hearts. I think about how complicated we’ve made love — something everyone so clearly wants — and how on one hand some people are willing to give it so blindly to undeserving individuals while others have been so scorned in their romantic dealings that they deny they even desire it at all and engage in contradictory behavior.
I’m almost certain that wasn’t the goal when TLC unleashed this wildly popular series with numerous web and TV spinoffs. But unlike other reality shows, these people aren’t characters. Love and desperation is their reality. And it’s for that reason that watching their non-fairtytales unfold at times feels more exhausting than entertaining.