'Surviving Marriage': TV Review

Courtesy of A&E Television Networks
Not your mother's couples therapy

Can a marriage be saved via a reality show? Probably not.

If your marriage is in trouble, your first thought probably isn’t “We need to go on a reality show. That will help.”

But these are strange TV times we live in. With the premise that five days on a remote island in the South Pacific will bring long-festering issues to the fore, Surviving Marriage takes a couple on the brink of divorce and throws them into an extreme survival situation. Think Dr. Phil meets Survivor.

Dr. Colleen Long, a licensed clinical psychologist, and Dr. Tom Kersting, a family therapist, serve as de facto hosts for the series. They call this “a radical new therapy” and “extreme marriage therapy." The goal is to get couples as “far out of their comfort zone as possible.”

First up are Cleburn, 30, and April, 28. They married young, have five children and over the course of their 11-year marriage, both have cheated. Cleburn is hot-tempered, doesn’t treat April with respect and constantly makes her feel stupid. And several times during their marriage, April has left Cleburn and her children before changing her mind and returning home. Cleburn had a career as a fighter before he had to get a job that would support their family. He still blames April for his dashed dreams. “What does it say that being lost and hungry and tired and being rained on in the jungle in the dark is still about 90 times easier than 30 minutes at home with all the kids?” Cleburn wonders. The couple clearly have real, tangible issues, which makes trying to solve them via a reality show all the more uncomfortable.

For their first exercise, April must lead Cleburn through the jungle. “We’re guessing he won’t like April being in control of this exercise and that’s the point,” Kersting tells viewers. The exercises are often extremely literal. They lug around bags filled with 40 pounds of rocks to represent all the baggage they’ve been carrying in their marriage and what they need to overcome “if their marriage has any chance of surviving.” Later, the two take a sledgehammer and smash rocks. My first thought was, “I hope their kids never see this show.”

Viewers don’t get to see any interactions between the therapists and the couple, which is odd. Kersting and Long address the camera from the comfort of the indoors where they are most likely well rested and have had plenty of access to food and water. The setup is reminiscent of the days when Jeff Probst would saunter out well-fed, showered and shaved to address the Survivor contestants.

Often, Kersting and Long come across as sanctimonious and judgmental. “April, it’s time for you to step up and prove you’re an equal partner in your marriage,” Kersting admonishes. And there’s a lot of trying to convince the viewer that the exercises make sense. “Feeling removed from the world that they know is slowly stripping away all the defenses that enable their worst behavior,” Kersting says. “The walls are officially down. There’s no hiding their true feelings anymore.”

To the show’s credit, it doesn’t wallow in stereotypical reality show antics. While Cleburn gets very angry — there are times every other word he uses has to be bleeped — you don’t get the sense that he’s performing for the camera. His raw, volatile emotions appear to be genuine. The duo also don’t appear to be using this show as a launching pad for future fame.

I’m not a licensed therapist, but it’s hard to imagine Surviving Marriage solving deep-rooted marital issues. While the show provides a brief written update on the couple, I would be interested to see how they are doing a year after participating. 

At one point, Cleburn, frustrated with the whole ordeal, says, “Whoever came up with this program, they [sic] missed their mark.” The man might have a point.