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.
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.
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.
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.
WRITTEN BYBelisa Silva