What Love Island can teach us about relationships

As a relationship therapist, I'm hooked on 'Love Island' - a TV show about which many of my acquaintances throw up their hands in horror. 'Awful' is one of their most frequent expressions in describing the participants. Personally, I don’t get that. I've found 'the Islanders' extremely supportive to one another and, by and large, they are considerate about the feelings of their 'partner'. When they are thought not to be, they're 'called out' by their fellow Islanders.

But whatever you think of the participants, it provides a unique environment to study relationships. Because the Islanders spend 24/7 time in each other's company over a finite summer period, which, because of the vagaries of the show - ultimately a contest - can end abruptly for an individual, the dating process is hugely accelerated. This strips down 'getting-to-know-you', and decisions on compatibility, to the basics. It is on this topic that, as a therapist, I think is most revealing.

The problem with multiple choice

Love Islanders frequently find themselves in a 'love triangle', with an individual agonising over which of two boys or girls he or she will choose. A common theme in counselling relates to decision-making and commitment. Rachel and Rob came to counselling because of Rachel's indecision about committing to the relationship. In all respects, they seemed perfectly matched, with similar interests, values, aspirations, and a satisfactory sex life. Both were highly intelligent. Rachel was in the final stages of completing a PhD. It became apparent that she couldn’t find any fault with Rob, but on an intellectual level she struggled with the concept that, in principle, there were an untold number of romantic matches that she hadn’t explored, so how could she know that this one, Rob, was the right one?

During counselling, Rachel came to recognise that her issue was a classic existentialist conundrum, and at this point I concede that we're departing from the normal decision parameters of Love Island. When faced with any decision that involves alternatives - sometimes an infinite array of possibilities - how can we be certain that we're choosing the right one? In Rachel's case, difficulties of choice affected many areas of her life; choosing a dress was a nightmare. The realisation that all decisions involve a loss - the path not taken - was extremely helpful to her. Repositioning her relationship decision in terms of loss was transformational. She rapidly concluded that she didn't want to lose Rob.

Individuals often come to counselling during or after an affair. A central question they bring is whether they should stay with or leave their partner. Addressing the question in terms of loss facilitates a sharper focus on what's good or, conversely, bad about the status quo and the way forward. Jamie, for example, had been married to Caroline for 35 years. Both came from upper-class backgrounds. He said he was unsure if he'd ever loved her, but was extremely fond of her. He had built a successful business. They had a large house in Chelsea in which he had a valuable art collection and loved entertaining and 'showing-off'. He was part of a large inter-connected social circle in which Caroline was held in high esteem. He'd been having an on-off affair with Carly for ten years and couldn't make his mind up whether to end his marriage. His decision changed on a weekly basis, but eventually looking at it in terms of loss led him to decide that it would be too great - emotionally, financially, and socially.

By contrast, Emma, who was married to Paul, couldn’t make her mind up whether to stay or leave him for Steve. When she looked at the decision in terms of loss, she saw no prospect of changing her life with Paul for the better. Instead, she envisaged years of unhappiness ahead, and she called time on the marriage.

Where’s your head at and what’s inside it?

A frequent phrase uttered by 'Love Islanders' to prospective partners is 'where’s your head at?' -meaning 'what do you think about me, does our relationship have legs, and where's it heading?'. Often, they don't know what they think. One reason for that is that we're attracted to others because of unconscious as well as conscious reasons, and psychology theory has it that it is the unconscious ones that are the most powerful. So, doing a deep dive into therapy to discover these forces can be revealing.

In the case of Rachel, who appeared earlier in this article, her dilemma was compounded by family history. Her mother had trained as a vet but had never practised after she met and married Rachel’s father, and immediately started a family. It was Rachel’s impression that, although her mother had been happy, she was somewhat unfulfilled. Rachel’s coming to see that she didn't have to fight what she saw as her mother's battles of the past also helped her with her decision to commit to Rob.

On Love Island, we often hear individuals saying they wish they were like their partner. Sometimes, however, the opposite is true, and they wish their partner were more like them. At an unconscious level, we are sometimes attracted to people who have characteristics we lack, or have repressed or in some cases are trying to get rid of. We can then watch partners manage and control these behaviours, and eventually take them back and accommodate them. That is, if all goes well - bringing to mind the phrase 'opposites attract', and conversely 'repel'.

Simon was a dentist. He was scrupulously tidy, which he said was a result of his training. When Tanya moved in it was the beginning of 'toothbrush' wars. She allowed a build-up of calcium on the head of her battery-powered device, which tipped him into meltdown. Initially, he'd been attracted to a carefree spirit that he wasn't, and for good reason, since a careless, unhygienic dentist wouldn't be most people's choice. Recognising what was driving his behaviour and distinguishing between his professional standards, personal life, and his relationship helped him and Tanya to end toothbrush hostilities.

What is this thing called love?

Sometimes Love Islanders will say 'it's just not working'. Often, they don't know why or what's missing, promoting the age-old question 'what is this thing called love?'. One of my go-to models to deconstruct a relationship is Sternberg's 'triangular theory of love'. The triangle comprises the three apexes of 'passion, intimacy, and commitment'. All three are required for 'consummate love'.

Passion is a strong sexual or romantic feeling for another. Intimacy is about experiencing a strong shared connection, and commitment reflects a longer-term desire to stay together. In Love Island, couple attraction usually starts with passion or intimacy. Sometimes the relationship combines both, corresponding to what Sternberg terms 'romantic love' - equivalent to a romantic affair. In these instances, couples tend to speculate about how their relationship will be 'on the outside', i.e. when the show is over and they return to the real world. For this to happen, the relationship needs to have the third corner of the triangle - commitment.

Using Sternberg's triangle, in the case of Jamie and Caroline, we might speculate that they have 'companionate love' - an intimate, non-passionate but enduring relationship which is often characteristic of long-term partnerships where passion has been replaced by deep affection. Jamie’s relationship with Carly corresponded to 'romantic love' as described above - passionate and intimate but lacking commitment. By contrast, the relationship of Rachel and Rob looked at least prospectively to offer the prospect of consummate love, combining passion, intimacy, and commitment.

What have we learned?

Based on the above, my claim is that we can learn a lot from Love Island. The dilemmas of participants hold a mirror to look at questions common to most relationships at their beginning and at crises points. So, the next time your friends get sniffy about the programme, ask them what they think about the existentialist dilemma of choice, unconscious attraction, and Sternberg's triangle!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Written by Brian Appleby, MA (Relationship Therapy), MA (Econ), MLitt (Econ), MBACP
London W1G & W4

Brian has a private practice in Harley Street, providing individual and couple counselling. He trained with Relate and has an MA with Distinction in Relationship Therapy. Before becoming a therapist he worked in change management in international corporations. He believes the client-therapist relationship is fundamental to successful outcomes.

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