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3 Relationship Lessons from "The Bachelorette"

What can we learn from this long-running dating experiment?

Key points

  • Reality shows focused on finding love, like "The Bachelorette," have appeal in our current culture.
  • While the show's format and methods for finding a spouse are non-conventional, there are things we can learn.
  • We can strengthen our own relationship realities though conscious commitment, connection, and communication.

Last Monday night, to escape the summer heat, I skipped a walk and tuned in to the steamy ABC reality show, "The Bachelorette." As always, the episode was replete with Barbie World trimmings including mansions, exotic dates, trendy “fits,” and a cast of perfectly toned, attractive contestants. The current Bachelorette, Charity Lawson, controls who she invites on either solo or group dates and who she eliminates.

Charity, who hails from Georgia, was a past participant on "The Bachelor," coming in fourth and leaving heartbroken. This time, Charity gets to choose her future husband from a pool of 25 eligible men competing to “win” her heart. In the end, we expect that Charity will decide on her “Prince Charming,” hand him the “final rose,” and tearfully nod “yes” when he gets down on one, sandy knee in Fiji to propose. The appeal of a princess love story remains strong in our culture.

The current 20th season has over 1.9 million viewers. While the ratings have declined in recent years, the show remains popular with female audiences ages 18-45. Even my 84-year-old mother watches the show on Monday nights and offers her Tuesday morning commentary.

I was most interested in this season because Charity is a 27-year-old child and family therapist, with a master’s degree in mental health counseling. Why would Charity join the show (twice) in pursuit of a husband? Did she research the success of this dating game?

As of this 2023 season, nine of the 47 contestant couples for both the "Bachelor" and "Bachelorette" shows are still together, with a 19 percent success rate. Accordingly, 81 percent of the matches do not last. Trista Rehn, the first bachelorette, has the longest-term success, with a 20-year marriage to firefighter Ryan Sutter. There are no Bachelor Nation divorces to date. Instead, the couples ended their relationships (and returned the provided diamonds) before heading down the aisle. (One of the “rules” is that the couple must return the engagement ring if they break up before two years).

There are several other rules, including strict non-disclosure agreements. During filming, cell phones, social media, news, TV, magazines, and even music are not allowed. All participants agree to be filmed at every moment, and sometimes taping lasts until 3 or 4 am.

Only the starring Bachelor/Bachelorettes are paid. The other contestants are unpaid—yet apparently willing to leave their jobs and homes, purchase the required wardrobes, cut off all communications with work, family, and friends, and cope with the polyamorous nature of the format. As many contestants have reported, the process is emotionally taxing. For most, their stated motivation is love, although some may seek potential fame and notoriety.

Each week, Charity must decide who to send home. In the dejected limo rides, we listen to grieving testimonials about the heartache. It feels voyeuristic as the cameras zoom in on intimate, intense, tear-filled moments of rejection. I was happy to learn that there is an in-house psychologist who completes screening prior to the show and offers counseling during filming and/or after participants are eliminated.

While this is a non-conventional, some might say “crazy,” experiment in finding a spouse, I argue that there are some things we can learn about relationships from "The Bachelorette":

1. Commitment

This type of committed pursuit to finding love is rare. Even though the odds are stacked in favor of severe heartache, the participants remain committed to the match-making mission, some leaving jobs and families for up to nine weeks.

It is not the norm for couples to take time away from their everyday lives to focus solely on building their relationship. I wonder what our own relationships would be like if we did this, even for one week a year. What if we all committed fully to growing our relationships through uninterrupted, dedicated time together with no cell phones, usual distractions, or stressors?

I encourage everyone to commit to making their significant relationships a priority. I’d love to see a trend toward couples vacation retreats and couples therapy groups in communities. (Maybe Charity can champion this.)

2. Connection

The show demonstrates how much we crave deep, honest connections. In my practice, I see disconnection (to self, others, and purpose) at the root of many mental health issues. The research shows that the quality of our long-term relationships is a key determinant of our happiness and longevity.

The process of falling in love on the show appears real. With Charity and other past contestants, we see what falling in love looks like with all the giddy, flirty, playful, and romantic moments. This stage of a relationship is what many couples long to recreate, or find through an affair, when relationships feel stagnant.

My advice to couples is to watch and learn. Consciously connect. Dates don’t have to be extravagant but they can be fun, thoughtful, and creative. Bring romance back into your relationship in small ways. A candlelight picnic does not have to be in Fiji. Follow the show's example—put away your phones, plan adventurous dates, and be fully present with the one you love.

3. Communication

Honest, open, and clear communication is essential to long-term relationships. Charity appears to reflect, allow, and express her emotions and desires.

I suggest committed partners schedule time (at least once a week) to allow for uninterrupted conversations. I call these discussions “Dream Dates” because they are not a time to talk about parenting, chores, or work. Instead, share your dreams for the future, revelations about yourself, feelings about your relationship, and commitments to change past dysfunction.

Share from the heart. Discuss values and visions for the future. Share what you admire most in your mate and create the space to ask for what you need from each other.

After the Final Rose

We do not know how Charity’s love life will fare long term, but I think we can be inspired by her commitment, connection, and communication skills to improve our own relationship reality.

More from Cheralyn Leeby Ph.D., LMFT
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