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Three Disturbing New Developments on ABC's "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette"

A case study in how to create an unsustainable relationship.

In the first chapter of my recently published book, Marriage, for Equals: The Successful Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples, I invented an imaginary panel of unethical psychological consultants who advise the producers of ABC's TV shows "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" on how to manipulate people into false feelings of love. I describe a disturbing array of psychological principles and biological forces in the "cocaine-rush" phase of new relationships that may compel us to fall in love with people who are unlikely to sustain a healthy marriage to anyone.

My purpose in engaging in this exercise (that is, projecting the hypothetical thought patterns of a panel of unethical psychological consultants) was not to challenge the show's ability to entertain us. People will still watch it, in the same way that one person is driven to say, "Whew, what a bad smell…here, smell this," and the other person is driven to obligingly lower his or her nose to the foul-smelling object. Rather, my purpose was to dispel any illusion that what is manufactured on The Bachelor is anything like "love," by laying bare the show's manipulative elements. The cards are stacked so that almost anyone on the show would experience the feeling of falling in love.

The show is ultimately very successful in achieving its goal, which does not appear to be the creation of lasting love relationships, but the facilitation of endlessly entertaining scenarios generated by colliding chemically-altered people together. The psychological and emotional fallout of these collisions does not seem to be a serious concern to the network or a reason to scale back the show's manipulations.

I once thought that the show would fade away after its initial launch in 2002 because I lost my own taste for watching it after the first few seasons, but when I tuned back into the two most recent cycles of the show (in 2011), it soon became apparent that the show's producers have become increasingly unrestrained in advancing their agenda.

In fact, I was disturbed to witness three additional manipulative elements in the script of the show. The first is the increased tendency for the host to plant foolish ideas that seem to be (more often than not) swallowed whole by the bachelor or bachelorette. For instance, in the 2011 seasons of "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," one of the "stock" lines issued by host Chris Harrison in the very first show of the season, after the bachelor and bachelorette have just laid eyes on their respective pools of contestants, is: "Do you think your future wife (or husband) is in that room?"

Essentially, the thrust of this statement is that after just clapping eyes on a set of attractive strangers, one ought to be mentally projecting toward a decision that will be legally and emotionally binding for the rest of one's life (even when two people divorce, continuing legal and emotional ties often have a significant effect on both partners for the rest of their lives).

This emotionally manipulative statement, a form of psychological priming, is paired with an effort to convince the bachelor or bachelorette that the path to true love requires one to "trust one's feelings." Both of the 2011 cycle lead contestants (Bradley Womack and Ashley Hebert) swallowed this faulty logic entirely, both uttering versions of the statement, "Last time I was on the show, I held back from trusting my feelings. This time, I don't want to have any regrets because life is too short, so I'm going to put myself out there and trust what I feel no matter what."

During the second episode of the season, Ashley Hebert, a contestant with a significant family history of alcoholism who characterizes herself as a "storybook-romance kind of girl," says, "After this week of dating, I can say that I think my husband is standing in this room." She announces just prior to the second rose ceremony, "I feel strongly that this is working and that my husband is in this room." (Of course, it soon became clear that her judgment was dangerously impaired, as she had fallen head over heels for a sadistic man who appeared devoid of a conscience).

The second unfortunate new development in more recent seasons is the staging of narcissistic fantasies that quickly become subsumed into the "love story." It's as though the contestants have been selected by the Make-A-Wish Foundation for the fulfillment of whatever grandiose fantasies they may have, usually something on the theme of performing for thousands of people or having dinner in the middle of the Bellagio fountain, which "no one has ever done before."

As the 2011 season's bachelorette, Ashley Hebert, said, "I live in a fairytale… I'm going to be dancing in front of 2,000 people… I seriously got the chills." From this admission, it is but a hop, skip, and a jump for someone to feel, "This must be love because I feel so amazing when I'm with [insert whoever happens to be on the narcissistically stimulating date]."

The third disturbing new development is what I would call "the trauma pitch." That is, there seems to be an unchecked expectation that contestants reveal their deepest traumas during their first one-on-one conversations with the bachelor or bachelorette. As a professional counselor, I find it very disturbing to watch contestants open up about alcoholic parents, brain hemorrhages, the deaths of their beloved first spouses, and other traumas of similar depth to another person they have just met (and an anonymous viewing audience of 10 million people).

Due to limited and unpredictable access to the bachelor or bachelorette, there is intense pressure to "make a pitch"—that is, to form a sound bite about how one's deepest trauma has taught them some valuable life lesson, usually some variant of one of these three or four themes…

"The experience of [insert horrible trauma that the bachelor/bachelorette and audience have no right to know] has taught me to... never take life for granted/make the most out of every day/tell the people I care about that I love them more often/make the most out of the chances I'm given."

On the basis of this trauma pitch, a person's character is weighed and judged (by the bachelor or bachelorette and the huge, anonymous viewing audience). What a terrible model for the development of trust and appropriate timing of self-disclosures in an intimate relationship!

For the show's producers, there is no apparent downside to all of the emotional suffering that they are creating. After all, the shrapnel of a disastrous "love" collision from this season's show may become next season's star, in a "rebound" relationship scenario that endlessly repeats itself. Can there be anything more emotionally dangerous, and less romantic, than a show that predictably fails to result in sustainable love matches?

The only thing that actually appears real in the show is the emotional devastation and gut-wrenching pain of the heartbroken and emotionally-damaged contestants. Is it any surprise that Mike Fleiss, the real-life producer of "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," also produced two re-makes of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?" Given the intense manipulation of contestants and the unpredictable emotional carnage that ensues, the show has elements of a horror flick.

This is not to say that true love does not exist. Love can and does work, but what is widely portrayed by the media is not love, but rather examples of unsustainable collisions. It's easy for us to be fooled because we tend to believe the cultural lore (promoted so widely in the media) that explosively positive feelings are the mark of true love.

In reality, such feelings suggest three possibilities, only one of which is true love (alternatively, you could end up heartbroken or trapped in the nightmare of an abusive relationship). Ultimately, "The Bachelor" (or "The Bachelorette") is a case study of how to create an unsustainable relationship.