Have you ever wondered how unwitting contestants on The Bachelor seem to fall in love with someone they barely know on national television? We have too. As part of Behind Reality, Bustle's series exploring how reality TV gets made, we're talking to people behind the scenes to learn about the emotional toll of making a perfectly addictive unscripted series.
As a show contingent upon maintaining the illusion of fairy tale romance, The Bachelor's appeal has never had much to do with the realities of long-lasting love. Whether you watch for the soap opera theatrics or the sheer fascination of one person dating 30 strangers simultaneously, being a fan requires a willing suspension of disbelief: we know, on some level, that the best way to find a true life partner probably isn't by submitting yourself to less than three months in the reality TV machine. And yet each season, more than two dozen singles file out of lacquered black limousines and into the sprawling Bachelor mansion, apparently all ready to find love and perhaps even get engaged within a few short months. Whether they're sincere or simply in it for the Instagram followers is often up for debate, but at least one contestant always seems to actually fall for the show's lead — hard, hopelessly, and against all odds.
It's an unquestionably strange concept that, between the accelerated timeline and the couples' spotty longevity, makes it almost impossible to believe they weren't just swept up in some producer-curated Cinderella story. But a handful of long-term partnerships have come out of the franchise: of the couples still with their final rose pick, six are either engaged or married. (Bachelors Arie Luyendyk Jr. and Jason Mesnick both wed women they met on the show, but only after changing their minds and choosing their runner-ups). Is it possible, then, that all of us skeptics are clinging too firmly to our instinctive cynicism? Can you actually, truly fall in love on The Bachelor?
According to Dr. Jenn Mann, the host and therapist on VH1's Couples Therapy and author of The Relationship Fix, that depends on your definition of love — a rather subjective and indistinct emotion. "When you say, 'Can you fall in love?' I think that in the way most people define love, yes," she tells Bustle. "As a therapist, I have a little bit of a different standard."
Mann suspects most contestants instead fall into "infatuation," and says that while people can certainly develop strong, legitimate feelings for each other while on the show, time is essential to forging a healthy, "mature love." It generally takes about 18 months, Mann says, to graduate from the so-called honeymoon phase and start figuring out how you function as a long-term couple.
"When these men and women are sheltered from the world at large, all they can do is sit and obsess over this person. Psychologically, that's going to make them want that person more."
Still, there are a number of factors that can intensify or exaggerate that process on The Bachelor. The first relies on what is known in psychology as the scarcity principle, which refers to our tendency to place higher value on something because it's considered rare. In the case of The Bachelor and Bachelorette, that means the lead, from whom contestants receive, and must compete for, limited time and attention.
"When you have someone who's hungry and you put them in front of a buffet of beautiful food with great lighting, it's very titillating," Mann explains. "You have this interesting dynamic where someone is kind of being put on a pedestal. This is the prize, literally. So it probably does make people seem even more appealing."
This is exacerbated by what has been deemed the Bachelor "bubble." Contestants are essentially isolated from the outside world: no phone, no internet, no distractions. In turn, that can — perhaps falsely — heighten any feelings they may be developing. "When these men and women are sheltered from the world at large, all they can do is sit and obsess over this person. Psychologically, that's going to make them want that person more, regardless of whether or not they're actually attracted to them," says Dr. Goali Saedi Bocci, Ph.D, a psychologist and longtime Bachelor fan.
"It was hard because you're trying to be realistic in an unrealistic world."
Then, of course, there are the normal, confusing aspects that come with getting to know someone. In the early stages of dating, both on the show and in real life, we're prone to emphasize commonalities, downplay differences, and project whatever we don't yet know about a person. In other words, we romanticize the relationship, basing our feelings on the idea of someone or the excitement of potential love, at times even when it goes against reality.
"There are a lot of dots, and we kind of fill in the lines based on what we want it to be, what we believe it to be, what we hope it to be," Mann says. "What happens on these shows is that it's expedited. The honeymoon [phase] is even more intense ... The things that you have to deal with in your day-to-day life, like, 'Oh, is he going to plan the date he said he's going to? Is he responsible? Is he a man of his word? You don't know because the producers handle it. So there's so much that you can't learn about a potential partner in these circumstances that you can only learn in the real world."
For Vanessa Grimaldi, who got engaged to Nick Viall during his season of The Bachelor, it was that dichotomy that ultimately led to their breakup just five months after the finale. "It was hard because you're trying to be realistic in an unrealistic world," she reflects. "You're thrown back into real life and you have to figure out, 'OK, who are we as individuals?' ... [Nick and I] were very different, and we tried, and [eventually] we said, it's time for us to walk away from this. And that was OK."
Whether you're on reality television or not, Mann notes, you don't get a full picture of who someone truly is until several years into a relationship: their flaws, their communication style, if those qualities mesh well with your own. But The Bachelor's simulated environment inevitably complicates things. As Jada Yuan outlined for The Cut, the show is formulated to mirror how a typical relationship would progress, "moving from group dates (kind of like hanging out with friends), to one-on-one dates, to more serious one-on-one dates, to meeting the parents (known in show parlance as 'Hometowns'), to taking a weekend away (the 'Overnights,' complete with a 'Fantasy Suite'), and finally ending with a proposal."
However, there are certain elements that make it exceedingly challenging to envision how you and your partner might transition from reality TV to the real world, no matter how rational you try to be about it. You spend many of your dates in awkward, unnatural group scenarios, you have to make out in front of a horde of cameras — sometimes mere feet away from the mass of other people your significant other is also dating — and you're constantly being whisked off for mega-romantic, movie-grade getaways, many of which involve adrenaline-raising situations like mountain climbing and bungee jumping that, through a psychological phenomenon called the excitation-transfer theory, can mimic the feeling of falling in love.
"It was interesting watching [Ben Higgins and Lauren Bushnell's spinoff, Ben & Lauren: Happily Ever After?], because when you see Ben's home after the fact, coming out of living in these mega-mansions, he had a very modest home," Bocci recalls. "At the end of the day, they are all ordinary people. They're not all billionaires. They're not able to have these extravagant lives. So a lot of the time people will fall in love with the idea of this lifestyle, but then reality sinks in."
With all of those obstacles stacked against you, does that mean it's impossible to find real, organic love on The Bachelor? Not necessarily. In fact, being on the show can make you more open to and ready for it than you would have been otherwise, even if you end up getting your heart broken.
"[Being so disconnected] gave me time to hit pause, look in the mirror, and self-reflect. It was almost like a therapy session," says Jason Tartick, who was eliminated during Week 9 of Becca Kufrin's Bachelorette season, but began dating Season 11 Bachelorette Kaitlyn Bristowe a few months later. When you feel comfortable with your past and can take ownership of your own missteps, he continues, "it allows you to be in a much more free and open mindset to find someone. So when I got off the show and it didn't work out with Becca, I felt like within a short time I was going to find someone, and it was going to be very meaningful because of how much better I felt about myself and communicating [what I wanted]."
"It honestly felt in some ways better than dating in the real world."
For some contestants, the show's setup can actually feel more straightforward than navigating the murky waters of texting, dating apps, and situationships. You're trying on relationships in the same way you might on Tinder, but you're being forced to do it face-to-face, and with producers consistently prodding you to discuss your feelings, which can make both parties be more accountable and up-front.
"It honestly felt in some ways better than dating in the real world, because at least you knew how many people [the Bachelor] was dating, you knew the timeline, you knew how to manage your expectations, and every conversation you had propelled the relationship forward," says Jacqueline Trumbull, who in a rare occurrence for the franchise chose to leave Arie Luyendyk's Bachelor season in Week 7 after the two determined their relationship wasn't on the same level as some of the others. There's less confusion than, say, getting ghosted in real life, she adds. "You know he's dating other people, and that he [may have] stronger connections. There's not as much mystery there."
You still have to gauge how serious the other person is about you, and what their intentions are. But The Bachelor is dependent upon the believability of its love story, and so despite its many baited antics, it does ultimately have to cast at least some people who might be a good fit for the lead, and who are truly looking for their life partner. It would be naive to think there isn't any behind-the-scenes manipulation happening, whether contestants register it or not, but producers have already done half the grunt work when it comes to finding a match, and you basically have a team of live-in life and dating coaches. With that in mind, it seems equally improbable to not fall in love if you stick around long enough, or, at minimum, feel like you might be getting there.
From its inception, The Bachelor was not about creating real, sustainable romance. It was about convincing America, for a few months at a time, that love can be found on television — or at least piquing viewers' interest enough to tune in to such a social experiment. The concept was spawned from the belief that people were hungry for a show about relationships — something creator Mike Fleiss had sniffed out from the short-lived success of his gimmicky 2000 special Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, on which 50 women competed in a pageant for a three-carat ring, a Caribbean honeymoon, and an on-the-spot TV wedding to a wealthy mystery man, later revealed to be real estate developer Rick Rockwell.
It ended in scandal (and an annulment), but the ratings were sky-high, and Fleiss saw it as an opportunity to commodify the public's apparent curiosity with flash-fried love. So he softened the shock value, upped the schmaltz, and sold it to ABC.
Across nearly 40 seasons total of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, the format has remained relatively fixed, but the presentation has changed dramatically. Early seasons were relatively laid back: some women made their grand limo entrances in slacks and a snazzy top, there was hardly any infighting within the cast, and there was no promise of Instagram fame tempting contestants to act out — or to call into question whether they were there for the "right reasons." The first-ever Bachelor, Alex Michel, didn't even propose to his winner: he got down on one knee, presented her with the final rose, and simply asked that they keep seeing each other. It is only over time that The Bachelor has morphed into the fanciful, mascara-teared spectacle it is today.
That some couples have been able to find genuine, abiding love on a show that was never designed for it, then, is happenstance. Throw enough kindling into a pit of gasoline, light a match, and something is bound to spark; whether it stays burning is more reliant on time, chance, and how committed you are to tending to the fire. Both Mann and Bocci agree that, through a kismet mix of luck and circumstance, you can absolutely fall in love on The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. But doing so is the exception, not the rule.