Why We Tune Into The Bachelorette: Romance & Lessons Learned

One of the most important news events of the summer just transpired: Bryan is The One!!!

Yup, the long-awaited finale of The Bachelorette just aired. After a seemingly endless, suspenseful season, Rachel said goodbye to 30 men until Bryan stood alone. Bryan, the one to whom she always gave the first rose at every ceremony. At long last, love, commitment, and courage prevailed. Rachel and Bryan are happily, nay, joyfully engaged.

If you’re a fan, you understand. If you’re not, you might ask, What? Really? You’re watching The Bachelorette?!?

Heck yeah!!

For years, I too remained skeptical while my two sisters breathlessly followed and discussed this reality series, both The Bachelor (21 shows to date) and The Bachelorette (now 13 shows). During our annual summer fortnights together, they’d tune in, and after a few short minutes, I’d reach my limit for banal, creepy, or idiotic television.

And then… with my sisters’ encouragement, I tuned into the most recent season of The Bachelor, which aired this past winter. I was pleasantly surprised by the intelligence, sensitivity, sincerity, and verbal/emotional expressiveness of Bachelor Nick Viall, and the captivating story that unfolded, ending with his proposal, and the lovely Vanessa saying, “Yes.”

Mostly, I said “Yes” to Rachel, who ultimately made it to “the final four.” Sassy, smart, and beautiful, she stole my heart the minute she met Nick, who swooned appropriately. Indeed, when she was voted off the island, I was mystified. And yet, everything happens for a reason: she was meant to be the next Bachelorette, where she got to rule her own roost, and choose her mate from a bevy of boys to men.

If you’re not familiar with this franchise, let me lay it out for you; even if you’re in the know, here’s a handy review:

The premise: A very eligible Bachelor or Bachelorette is presented with a field of 25 or 30 “contestants” who vie for his or her heart. Each week, there are individual and group dates, and a “rose ceremony,” during which the Bachelor/Bachelorette hands roses to the suitors he/she wants to get to know better, and bidding farewell to the ones who don’t make the cut. Eventually the field is pared down to The One, and hopefully, a mutually agreed upon proposal occurs on bended knee, with a giant ring paid for by the television network.

The logistics: Each season’s show is shot over the course of a couple months and then it’s aired in 13 brilliantly (and no doubt, arduously) edited, two-hour, weekly episodes that take the viewer on a story arc full of colorful personalities, twists and turns, and memorable moments of humor, heart, drama, and suspense.

Why it works: To ramp up the romance and intrigue, the show takes the cast and crew to various interesting and luxurious locations around the U.S.—and for this installment, gorgeous places around Europe. Filming on location adds to the carefree, exciting, romantic vibe, which can’t help but spark feelings of love between the eligible one and the suitors. Being in exciting, unfamiliar surroundings also makes it possible for the Bachelors and Bachelorettes to compartmentalize their relationships and ride the rollercoaster of fantasy courting, as in, “Today I’m in love with Eric in Denmark; a couple days ago, I was in love with Peter in Norway; in few days, I’ll be in love with Bryan again in Switzerland. It’s amazing and all good!” What a fabulous ride—for them and for us!! We become loyal viewers due to the vicarious pleasure we experience, thanks to the feel-good chemistry of oxytocin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and testosterone/estrogen triggered in our brains. It’s like a good romance novel come to life!

What we learn: For many viewers, this series is an informative, revealing field study of relationships, courtship, emotions, communication, and gender differences. This installment, with Rachel as The Bachelorette, has been particularly captivating for a vast cohort of women, who like Rachel, have struggled to find The One and instead are repeatedly disappointed by men who fail to step up and put a ring on it.

For Rachel, Peter was That Guy. Even he himself knew that he would be heartbroken to lose the woman he loved, simply due to his inability to propose by the show’s deadline. After she walked away for the final time, he tearfully muttered, “What’s wrong with me?”

What’s wrong with Peter? Let us count the ways, with compassion, no judgment, because actually, there is nothing wrong with Peter. In fact, there are many things that are so right. What’s wrong was the timing.  Here’s an analysis:

Developmentally—Peter was simply not ready to make the leap of faith that marriage requires. This lack of readiness could be due to youth, inexperience, and/or temperament.

Temperamentally—Peter, by his own admission, is cautious. Proposing after a handful of dates is an impulsive move based on a gigantic leap of faith that this commitment will stand the test of time. That kind of move is for the bold, not the cautious. Typical of someone who is cautious, Peter sincerely wanted to pursue a relationship with Rachel, excited about the future and looking forward to their bond deepening, but he couldn’t be 100% certain they would make it to the altar. To be true to himself and the value he places on an engagement, he simply couldn’t propose marriage within the two-month time frame, during which he was one of many suitors, with very little opportunity to spend quality time her.

Intellectually—Peter is analytical. He thinks things through, sees both sides, and assesses risk. He is optimistic when he envisions a future with Rachel, but he is also a realist, knowing that it takes time and experience to build a strong foundation—

Emotionally—he’s frustrated because he wants to be able to propose, in order to keep the woman he loves and see the relationship through. But to be true to himself, he needs more time and experience to be certain about the wisdom of such a serious and significant step.

Verbally—he can’t always find the words to express his thoughts and emotions, but that doesn’t diminish their existence. As he put it, “Sometimes things don’t have to be said to be felt.”

It’s all about timing: Peter is a great guy who will likely make a good husband— some day. This conclusion is based on the following idea (perhaps a gross generalization, but represented in many anecdotal observations, stories, comedy bits, and now brain imaging): for men, it’s all about timing. Whereas women tend to look at each prospect and wonder whether he’s The One, men don’t contemplate the possibilities until the day they realize they want to be married. Then they marry the one they are currently with—or the one they find after feeling ready. Until then, it doesn’t really cross their minds—unless a current girlfriend is dropping hints or she (or his family) is applying pressure, which many men resist mightily. So for Peter, the timing simply wasn’t right.

What’s wrong with Rachel? Even more fascinating, Rachel found herself asking the same question: “What’s wrong with me?” As in, “Why am I so attracted to someone who clearly isn’t ready or able to want what I want, which is to be engaged to be married?”

As she admitted during the finale tonight, her relationship with Peter reminded her of a previous long-term relationship, which, much to her dismay, never resulted in marriage. Her life-changing epiphany: “I’m attracted to the excitement of gambling on complicated relationships.” This includes trying to convince the guy to be certain, to go all in, and to give his heart fully in spite of his ambivalence. This could be due to a number of reasons, including holding back to protect himself from being hurt if it goes sour, or holding out for something “better”, or holding off because developmentally, the timing is off for him (see previous point). 

What took her so long to come around to Bryan? Sure, he always got the first rose, but she remained hesitant.  As she kept admitting throughout this journey, she felt the powerful chemistry and undeniable compatibility between her and Bryan, but she didn’t trust it. It was too much of a fairy tale, and fairy tales aren’t true. She was struck by how Bryan kept saying “all the right things,” but she kept looking for the smoke and mirrors that were surely hiding despicable, ugly truths.

Peter provided her with the gift of contrast. As cautious and ambivalent as Peter was, Bryan was bold and confident of his love for Rachel and the connection between them. This made Rachel keenly aware of her habit of hoping ambivalence would turn to certainty, instead of trusting the certainty that was right under her nose. As she says to Bryan in the final scene, she kept “trying to find cracks in what is actually a solid foundation,” and finally came to trust their bond as a mature, fearless, committed love.

Did Rachel make the wrong decision in saying goodbye to Peter? Should she have been more patient with this sensible, realistic man and given their relationship a real shot? Is she kidding herself that the love between her and the impulsive, romantic Bryan is real? Toward the end, this was her greatest fear—that she might say goodbye to the man who would’ve been the best husband of all. But in fact, she, and every one of her suitors, played their roles to perfection, everyone being right where they were supposed to be on their individual journeys. Indeed, if you subscribe to the idea of soul mates, you might surmise that several of her suitors were kindred souls, playing out their roles for their mutual growth, as well as contributing to the growth of so many of us who tuned in for the ride.

Did she make the right decision in saying “yes” to Bryan? After 21 seasons of The Bachelor, only 3 couples are still together, including the most recent season’s Nick and Vanessa, for whom time has yet to tell. From the 12 prior seasons of The Bachelorette, only 5 couples are still together. And of that total of 8 couples, only 3 have walked down the aisle! This means that the odds are against Rachel and Bryan. And for sure, after a strangely artificial and whirlwind two-month courtship, they still need to do the hard work (and the fun) of building a stronger foundation, learning more about each other, and negotiating a fulfilling partnership, which will involve all the mundane and unromantic aspects of forging a life together, including shared decision-making, resolving disputes fairly, cleaning the bathroom, paying bills, weathering hardships, and keeping the pantry stocked.

After all, love isn’t about continually being swept off your feet. It’s about continually putting in the time and the energy to make it work, deciding everyday that you are committed to making it work, and bringing your best self to the table.

Do they have what it takes? Time will tell. But after seeing Rachel and Bryan together at last, I’m aglow with vicarious romance, and therefore hopeful that we’ll watch them live happily ever after. 

Read here for more on why we watch this show.

Read here for more on the fairy tale side of it.

Read here and here for more on the science of love and romance.

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