It's an extreme experiment. Meeting a stranger at the altar and agreeing to marry whoever is standing in front of you. The show is called Married At First Sight and in its first five seasons on the air [the sixth is currently airing on A&E] it's matched 15 couples via various relationship and lifestyle experts, only three pairs successfully, giving the entire operation a 20 percent success rate.
Regardless of the results, young singles continue to come out in droves for auditions, which are held in a different city each season.
Jessica Castro, who joined the show's second season, was one of the ladies who was not so lucky in love from the show. Castro's betrothed, a then 29-year old businessman named Ryan DeNino, turned out to be not only a disappointing husband, but also exhibited abusive behavior both on and off screen. Castro, whose divorce from DeNino was final in 2016, says the experience was a traumatic one, but through it she learned she was stronger than she thought.“I did the show because two years prior I was in a 7 year relationship with someone who I thought was the one," Castro tells SWAAY, admitting that for her, MFS offered a way for her to move on from a painful breakup. “I thought 'I have nothing to lose. I work hard, I'm a single girl, I live on my own.' A lot of people say I did it for TV or that I must have known [how it would turn out] but I'd never been in a reality show so I did not know what to expect."
A Bushwick native, Castro experienced her share of ups and downs even before her Married at First Sight experience. “Growing up was a little rough," she says. “In the 80s there were gangs and guns and violence. It was difficult to grow up in that neighborhood. My parents worked hard for their kids to not become a Bushwick statistic."
Castro, a naturally bright girl, excelled in the classroom. With aspirations to compete in beauty pageants, Castro moved to Virginia, where she connected with a high school friend who was in the business of managing talent. Castro soon started modeling and booking music videos and commercials, discovering a passion for the entertainment industry.“I had a bunch of television credits prior to the show, but because it was a nationally -televised show, [Married at First Sight] is what put me on the map," says Castro. “I did think my fanbase would grow but when things went way left, it was very unfortunate. I wanted to fall in love and I wanted to have kids and that picket fence. But I learned from the show that everything will happen in due time and that everything needs to take its course."
Soon after their wedding, Castro's on-air interactions with her new husband began to turn from promising to awkward, then eventually to all-out uncomfortable, as DeNino began showing an aggressive streak that made everyday interactions become potential blowouts. On the show, Castro-who was the first Latina on the series- stomached insults and verbal attacks alike, attempting to openly discuss the issues that plagued them to try and save the relationship.
“I think the whole world noticed I was trying to make it work," she says. “Being in that moment I thought 'this is what marriage is.' I was really naive to be honest. I didn't want to let go because I wanted that love. I held as much as I could but during the process I started thinking maybe it was me. I was starting to second guess myself and have all these insecurities because I had been cheated on in the past, so it was a snowball effect."
The more Castro tried to keep her marriage alive despite the growing altercations and increasing rockiness, the more the viewers seemed to turn on her, admonishing her for not leaving and for complaining so much on-air about how she was being treated.
“I got bashed a lot on social media," says Castro. “People would call me a cry baby and say I'm supposed to be a strong Latina. But, they didn't realize what happens when you have cameras and contracts. It's a whole different ball game."
Although Castro and her husband were matched by experts that included a sexologist, a spiritualist, a psychologist and a sociologist, Castro says as the days of filming wore on, she started realizing this was not her perfect man. Despite "undergoing extensive background and psychological checks by third parties," Castro's lawyer at the time believed the network and production company should have done more to ensure potential abusive offenders be kept off the air.
“Being verbally abused is not something that I had ever dealt with in a relationship," says Castro. “It took time to hit me that this is not normal and it's not how any woman should be treated."
Castro says things got so bad that she actually wanted to walk from the relationship before the allotted six weeks of filming, but says she was unable to due to contractual obligations. "There were times where I didn't want to finish with the experiment because it was just that bad and I had no other choice but continue to be in the marriage for those six weeks," says Castro. "It didn't matter how much I was being verbally abused I had to finish with the experiment."
Castro says it wasn't until she actually watched the show on television that she realized how much she had endured, and how she had normalized DeNino's abusive behavior.
“When I saw the show over again I realized it wasn't me, not that I'm perfect, but I tried hard," she says. “I just had to let it go. He was not the one for me. Going through the process I was completely blinded. I felt like it was what I had to do."
Regardless of the tumult, Castro and DeNino decided to stay together on the show's dramatic "yes or no" finale, where contestants announce to each other, and the world, whether they plan to pursue to relationship or file for divorce. Although it may seem confusing that a couple that was constantly fighting would stay together, it's apparently not uncommon. In fact, of the show's 15 couples, ten stayed together on-air, but only three are together now, which begs the question whether or not MAFS subliminally forces incompatible people to remain together for the sake of the 'win.'
“I felt like saying yes at decision day was me winning, like we made it," says Castro. “But really I remember this day clearly. Right before we filmed it we were in the apartment in Park Slope and my producer, who I became close with, said 'I love you and know you want this to work but you need to write the pros and cons' of this relationship. There were so many more cons than pros but I still decided to stay with him. We decided to say yes but he said 'you'll stay in Brooklyn and I'll stay in Staten Island.' He had no real intentions of making it work."
In the months that followed, the arguments went from bad to worse. DeNino began threatening Castro's family, even spewing vitriol during the show's reunion special, while his mic was still on. In fear for her family's safety as well as her own, Castro decided to get a restraining order against her former husband in May, 2015, which was finalized in summer of the following year.“I thought it [the restraining order] was necessary from the threats that came out," says Castro. “I knew he was serious and after realizing how easily he can fly off the handle from little things, like a window being open in the apartment, I didn't want to risk anything, especially the safety of my family. He knew where I lived and where I worked. It wasn't worth the show or the spin off [a series planned that would update viewers on Castro's life], it was about our safety."
Castro soon found herself the subject of media scrutiny in articles that rebuked her as well as the show's producers for allowing a person with anger issues to participate with the show. “It's no surprise that the tabloids took it and ran with it," she says. “It was an unfortunate situation but I don't regret it. I've learned a lot from my experiences."
Finally, Castro- with the help of a trusted friend- realized she had to formerly end the marriage and move on with her life, turning a negative situation into something that would help uplift herself and other women.
“My aha moment came on a Sunday phone call with my best friend," says Castro. “She was the one who opened my eyes and said 'Jess this isn't the right person.' She said I had to let go of every attachment. I had to block him on everything. It took me a few days to realize this is what needed to be done. I shipped him back his tux, that's how done I was. It happened in the blink of the eye."
Castro then immediately mobilized, taking time to go through the many messages she had received throughout the show, answering the letters one by one, hoping to share her experiences in order to better another woman's life. “I give out my numbers, my email, because you just never know what someone is going through and how a little conversation can help change it," she says.
Castro and DeNino on their wedding day
Last summer, Castro decided to take her message even further through an event she organized called "Women Inspiring Women." There, a panel of women spoke to a crowd about navigating their multidimensional lives and careers, including motherhood, as well as leaving abusive relationships. “It was amazing to see all these women wanting to help and uplift each other," she says. “I love to continue to share my story because I just never know how it can impact another woman to get out of a relationship that she feels trapped in."
Looking to the future, this former reality star is focused on giving back. After the devastation of Hurricane Maria, Castro, who is of Puerto Rican descent, traveled to the country to do relief work with Family Services Network of New York. She and the team brought everything from food to solar lights to furniture, and visited nursing homes and families to help individually where she could. Castro sys she plans to continue speaking out to help women in abusive relationships know they are not alone. “A lot of women and young girls feel like they can't talk to their moms because they feel they are being judged, so, you keep the abuse under the rug," she says. “That was my life. I got bullied as a child and I never really spoke about it, I would just kind of deal with it. I want women to know they can get out."
Additionally, Castro has just signed on to become a mentor to young women in order to help build confidence and feel empowered.
When asked if she believes in the Married at First Sight experiment and whether or not it can be successful in the future, Castro says that because contestants are getting paid for their participation, it's more complicated that simply matching chemistry. “I think it became about the money, because from seasons 2 to 4 there have been no successful marriages," says Castro, underscoring that intentions are everything. “I just don't think the show is really out for the best interest of people in terms of falling in love. There should be [stricter] background checks. I put my life in their hands and thought this would be the perfect ending to my story. But my story is awesome now. Everything happens for a reason."
"There are no good men out there," yet another woman my age declared. At 50, I was freshly divorced after two decades of marriage and motherhood. My unhappy marriage had shattered my faith in men and romantic relationships. Based on my ex-husband's opinion of my sexual appeal, I was afraid my naked body would cause future lovers to run screaming from the room. Rather gleefully, I announced to my girlfriends that I was done with men, and sex, forever.
For the first year, I got tangled in my sheets alone every night, overjoyed to have the bed and my body to myself. I felt liberated by divorce—free to be me, skip showering, and make dinner for one. But it bothered me when women decried the scarcity of men, because I'd known so many good ones—college boyfriends, my brother, my best friend from business school, etc. The first of many naked truths gradually crept up on me: I was not going to find my juju again through self-help and yoga. The feminist in me didn't want to admit it, but going for too long without men was akin to starvation.
I didn't want another husband. But I needed men, a lot of them.
The universe signaled its approval by sending Mr. Blue Eyes to me at an airport. He was 29 and perhaps the sexiest man I'd ever kissed. Being with him convinced me, pretty decisively, that men were going to heal me, even though men had destroyed me many times before. I became the female incarnation of a divorced, clichéd older man: I bought a sports car, revamped my wardrobe, and took younger lovers. "I want five boyfriends," I told my best friend KC after that first tryst ended. "Sweet, cute, smart, nice. Enough that I won't get too attached to one." My message from the frontlines of divorce at 50 is that to restore your confidence as a woman, especially in the wake of a crushing breakup, try dating outside your comfort zone, expanding your dating pool to include partners you might never have considered before. It may not be the recipe for a lasting union, but in terms of rebuilding your self-esteem, it can work wonders.
The first thing I noticed—and liked—about dating younger men is that they didn't want to marry me or make babies with me. And I didn't want that either. Frankly, I didn't even want them to spend the night. Since I'd been 11, I'd been taught to seek out and value men who wanted commitment. To my surprise, I found it refreshing, even more authentic, to be valued not for my potential as a mate, but instead for my body, intelligence, life-experience and sexuality.
And the sex! I quickly realized that—warning, blanket stereotype coming—men under 40 are more straightforward and adventurous than older men, maybe since they were raised with the Internet. You hear so often about the scourge of crude, sexist online pornography; and I agree that the depersonalization of women as sexual playthings is deeply destructive to all genders. However, from sexting to foreplay, I found younger men uniquely enthusiastic about getting naked and enjoying sex. Every younger man found my most erotic zones faster than any man my age ever had, with a lack of hesitation men over 50 seemed unable to fathom.
Also, about my big fear of getting naked in front of a younger man? Completely unfounded. I started to shake when Airport Boy took off my sundress in our hotel room. Had he ever seen a woman my age nude? How could I stand to be skin-to-skin with a body far more perfect than mine? I had given birth to eight-pound, full-fucking-term babies. I'd nursed them, too, and at times by breasts looked (from my view at least) like wet paper towels. "You have a spectacular body," he told me instead, running his hand over the cellulite on my stomach that I despised. That night I learned that younger men who seek older women accept our physical flaws—they don't expect perfection in someone 20 years their senior. These men taught me to see my body through a positive, decidedly male lens, to focus on the pretty parts (and we all have them) rather than the flaws that we all have too, whether you're 19, 29 or 59.
I even found the pillow talk lighter, easier and more intellectually stimulating, because a younger man's world view differs so vastly from the pressures of my 20-something kids, annual colonoscopies, 401K balance and mortgage payments. They have simple financial problems, like "Can I borrow a few quarters for the parking meter outside?" or "Do you have any advice on consolidating my student loans?"
Everything feels simpler with younger men. Men under 40 seem less threatened by assertive women; they grew up with them. They like cheap beer instead of expensive wine. They don't snore (as much). Leftovers a 55-year-old would scoff at look good to them. Their erections NEVER last more than four hours. Their hard-ons end the old-fashioned way and 45 minutes later they are ready for more.
But what I enjoy most about younger men is not the sex, or the cliché that they make me feel young again—because they don't. Younger men make me feel old, and to my delight, I like that. I feel valuable around younger men, precisely because I am wiser and more experienced in life, love and between the sheets.
I know I'll never end up with one for good. The naked truth is we don't have enough in common to last. One recently put it exactly right when he told me, "I love this, but there's always gonna be a glass ceiling between us." That lack of permanence, the improbability of commitment and "forever," doesn't mean I can't pick up a tip or two about self-esteem, and enjoy the magic of human connection with younger men. And vice versa. The experience can enrich us both, making us better partners for people our own ages down the road.
*My viewpoint is from the perspective of a heterosexual woman, because I am one. But change the gender identification and/or sexual orientation to whatever works for you and let me know if the same advice holds true. Thank you.