United Kingdom

Marrying a man I had never met ruined my love life

Halfway through her marriage ceremony to a man she had never set eyes on before, Emma Rathbone was struck by a singular realisation. 

'It suddenly hit me that if we didn't work, I would be a divorcee for life,' she recalls.

Obvious on paper, you may think — and in this case an altogether more likely outcome given that she had chosen to wed a complete stranger.

Five years on, Emma is indeed a divorcee — or will be once she and her estranged husband, James Ord-Hume, get around to the paperwork.

Both were among the first participants in the very first series of Channel 4's Married At First Sight.

Now in its sixth year and on air again, the show's unique selling point is sending down the aisle couples who have never previously clapped eyes on each other but have been matched by 'experts'. 

Emma Rathbone (pictured) and her estrangers husband James Ord-Hume were among the first participants in the very first series of Channel 4's Married At First Sight

They then have six weeks to decide whether to make a go of the marriage or separate.

Unsurprisingly, critics have long felt that the show cheapens the institution of marriage, despite attempts by programme makers to cast it as a 'ground-breaking social experiment' to see whether science could help couples find lasting love.

The answer to that question would seem to be a resounding 'no', given that none of the 12 couples who have taken part in the past four series is still together.

In total, the relationship between Emma, a 38-year-old hotel manager from London, and university administrator James Ord-Hume, now 39, lasted a mere eight-and-a-half months from the moment they set eyes on each other on their wedding day.

However, its legacy has lasted much longer — certainly for Emma, who remains single, and confides that she has struggled to shrug off the stigma of her decision to take part in the show.

'A lot of men have been put off when they find out,' she says. 'There's definitely a stigma there and some have refused to meet me after they've found out.

'Sometimes I feel I can't win. If I am open about it, some men don't give me a chance, but keeping it secret until further down the line can be damaging too. I had no idea about the long-term effects. When you are taking part, you are not thinking about ten years down the line.'

Five years on, with 40 not far off and her biological clock ticking, Emma has now registered with a fertility clinic 'just in case' and plans to use a sperm donor in a bid to ensure she realises her long-held dream of motherhood — something she admits she never would have predicted.

'It wasn't my life goal to be single and childless at 38,' she says. 'The older you become, you kind of feel like you're being left on the shelf.

'This wasn't in the plan, but I am where I am and I am trying to make the best of it.'

You have to admire her candour and lack of self-pity, but it is certainly a timely warning of the perils of placing your personal life in the public domain. 

As Emma points out, the reality of TV catch-up services and repeats, not to mention the internet, means that her part in the show is impossible to escape.

The show's unique selling point is sending down the aisle couples who have never previously see each other. Pictured: Emma and James on their wedding day

The pair were among thousands to apply to take part in the first series of the show in 2014

'I still get people coming up to me in the street asking me about it to this day,' she says.

Emma and James were among thousands to apply to take part in the first series in 2014, lured by the promise of a gold-plated matchmaking service, including having your DNA sampled, being extensively interviewed by a psychologist and taking a test of 500 questions.

The one thing absent, of course, is the guarantee of physical attraction. But Emma insists that, far from seeing it as a gimmick, she was intrigued by the idea.

'I had already tried lots of other ways of meeting men — internet dating, being fixed up by friends — and none of them had worked,' she says. 'Admittedly, this was a bit wild, but I was looking for love and I thought this could be my chance. That's why I did it.'

Not everyone was impressed. Emma's parents, Elizabeth and Roger, who run a plant and machinery firm from their home in Cheshire, took a while to warm up to the idea of their daughter marrying a stranger, and Roger declined to attend the February 2015 wedding, though he came round to James after meeting him.

At first, the match looked promising. Emma and James hit it off and chose to remain married beyond the initial six-week deadline set by Channel 4, after which they would have to fund their own divorce if the marriage didn't work out.

The couple had some good times, including a mini-break to Barcelona, Sunday lunches with Emma's family and days out to Brighton.

Yet there was no getting away from the fact that James and Emma simply did not fancy each other.

'There's no algorithm for chemistry,' as Emma wryly puts it now, and after a heart-to-heart in November 2015 the couple decided to separate.

'It was very amicable, which helped, and both of us still had our own flats,' she says. Nonetheless, the experience was undoubtedly bruising.

'It wasn't a game for me. I had hoped to find a husband and the father of my children, and now I had to face the fact that, however amicable, I would always have a failed marriage behind me,' she says.

What she didn't envisage was the extent to which taking part in the show would loom over her life once she started dating again.

The first hurdle came when she uploaded her profile on to two online dating sites in March 2016.

'You're asked to put if you're single or divorced. I didn't really want to describe myself as a divorcee as then it leads to a million questions. It's hard enough meeting people online as it is, so I just said single,' she says.

'But that leads to the tricky question of when exactly you do tell people. You want to build up rapport, but people feel you have let them down by not being open with them. It's not an easy thing to put out there: 'Oh, by the way, I married a stranger on TV.'

'I got caught out quite early on when I was on a date and I was recognised by someone walking past who came up and said, 'You're that girl who got married on TV.'

'My date was a bit dumbstruck and asked why I hadn't told him. I said I'd been coming to it but he was clearly put out. We went on another date but it was a bit awkward and after that he ceased contact.'

Another prospective date cancelled before they'd even met after his sister spotted Emma's profile picture and told him who she was.

'He messaged me saying there was no point in meeting as we'd got off to a bad start, that I'd lied to him from the beginning. It was a bit upsetting. He didn't even know me,' says Emma.

One prospective match sent her a message cancelling their meeting while Emma was already waiting for him.

'I told him I was already in the pub and he said, 'I've just seen who you are online and I don't think it's worth it, so I'm not bothering.'

'Then he blocked me from contacting him again.'

In those relationships that did last beyond a few dates, Emma says that she struggled to reveal her back story.

'I saw one guy for two months and never told him. In the end, we split up because we wanted different things — he didn't want kids, I did — but it was lingering in the back of my mind when I was with him.'

One man to whom she decided to reveal the truth on the third date spent the rest of the evening Googling her while she sat paralysed with embarrassment. Again, it didn't go anywhere.

Of course, such are the murky waters of the modern dating game that it is impossible to predict whether the dates would have worked out regardless, but Emma knows that her unorthodox relationship CV has not helped.

'I have spoken to a couple of other girls who were on the show as well and they have found the same thing — that it hangs over you,' she says.

Meanwhile, she has had to watch as, one after another, her friends have married and started families. As the youngest of six, Emma has found herself the only child not to have settled down.

'I'm the only sibling in the family who has gone a bit AWOL. At Christmas, you do get asked, 'Still single?' '

You certainly can't accuse Emma, who in the flesh is sparky and fun, of not trying.

Her valiant attempts to meet a life partner will sound familiar to many single thirtysomething women in particular.

Apart from online dating, she has determinedly attempted to meet people locally by joining sports clubs and even organising neighbourhood socials.

'It's not for want of trying,' she says. 'I've had some good dates and I've had men who have wanted to take things further — but I am fussy and I won't settle.

'It has definitely been a hard road. And Covid has made things especially difficult.'

She is now planning to visit a fertility clinic in the new year and start the process of becoming a single mother with donor sperm.

'It's daunting, of course, but children are something I've wanted for a long time, and while this is no guarantee, if it doesn't work out then at least I can tell myself I tried.'

She admits her parents have mixed feelings. 'They are not particularly happy about it, but I said to them it's either this or potentially I don't have any at all.

'If I don't do it and I wait and Mr Right never comes along, then it could mean I've missed my chance for ever.' 

Men, of course, are not afflicted with the same time pressures around procreation, so it is perhaps poignant that James is the one to have found lasting love again, having apparently been able to shake off his appearance on the show.

He is now engaged to a new partner, although he and Emma will need to get divorced officially before he can marry her.

'We just didn't get around to it. Life happened and as it didn't stop me from going on dates and as I've not really been in a position to get married again, there hasn't been that urgency. I guess James will need to get around to it though.'

Since the couple have no joint assets, it should at least be relatively straightforward. The pair remain friends, exchanging messages on WhatsApp and meeting for the occasional drink.

'We were actually meant to go out a while ago, but I got tied up with work, so a couple of my mates met up with him instead,' she says.

Emma has even met James's fiancee. 'She was very relaxed,' she says. 'She knew that James and I weren't madly in love with each other.'

The million-dollar question, of course, is where Emma's life would be if she had not taken part in this 'ground-breaking experiment'. Would she have found the long-term happiness she yearns for?

'It's impossible to know, isn't it? But it's hard not to wonder if that was my chance,' she says.

It's a chance that, astonishingly, many others still seem willing to take: 7,000 people applied to take part in the latest series, which is on TV at the moment.

We are yet to discover what becomes of the latest batch of hopefuls. Given past form, bookmakers would put long odds on longevity.

Emma has a warning for anyone else thinking of applying to take part.

'Think carefully,' she says. 'And be prepared for what might come next.'

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