Luke & Hannah’s ‘Bachelorette’ Relationship Is Toxic — But Experts Say There Are Pros & Cons To Seeing It On TV

If you’ve been watching The Bachelorette this season, you’re probably all too familiar with the tumultuous relationship between Bachelorette Hannah Brown and the season’s “villain,” Luke Parker (referred to on the show and hereafter as Luke P.). The pair had an intense connection from the start: on night one, Hannah gave Luke P. the highly coveted first impression rose — which is a significant gesture when you consider that the last four Bachelorettes have all gotten engaged to the recipients of their first impression roses. Later, on the very first group date, in front of a live audience, Luke P. told Hannah he was falling in love with her.

However, Hannah’s relationship with Luke P. quickly became complicated as other, less romantic facets of his personality rose to the surface. At first, Luke P.’s “villainous” behavior was pretty par for the course for the franchise: He was an early frontrunner who, in typical frontrunner fashion, started to become aggressive about getting more and more time with Hannah — usually to the detriment of the other men in the house. Then, as is typically the case, Luke P.’s negative standing with the other men started to create drama that spilled over into everyone’s relationships with Hannah, including his own.

But as viewers have watched Hannah and Luke P. navigate through their various conflicts this season, it’s become clear that he’s not just another run-of-the-mill villain. For one, his “villainous” behavior goes far beyond the norm. Unlike, say, notorious villain Chad Johnson of JoJo Fletcher’s season, Luke P. hasn’t just been rude and aggressive: he’s also exhibited more serious behavior like sex-shaming and gaslighting. For another, it’s unusual that the villain of the season makes it all the way to the fantasy suites. While most seasons’ villains seem to be kept around longer by production for the sake of drama, they’re usually dumped before hometowns roll around. Hannah’s insistence in giving Luke more chances — at least until he was sent home during fantasy suites — meant that for better or for worse, at least some part of their connection was real and worth fighting for.

But does Luke P.’s behavior toward Hannah cross the line from unhealthy to emotionally abusive? And if so, how might seeing a potentially toxic relationship on TV affect viewers? Bustle spoke to experts to find out.

Is Luke P.’s Bachelorette Behavior Emotional Abuse?

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It’s important to note that, since we’re watching a reality TV show, we’re only seeing a version of Luke P. — one that has been heavily edited by producers — so even analysis from licensed experts must be taken with a grain of salt. But regardless of how complete or incomplete our picture of Luke P. might be, the fact remains that he’s displayed some seriously questionable behavior, and it’s worthwhile to put that behavior into context for viewers.

Let’s go back to the beginning: Luke P.’s initial declaration of love for Hannah. According to Merriam Sarcia Saunders, LMFT, Adjunct Professor of Counseling Psychology in Dominican University’s graduate program, this public gesture of affection — regardless of Luke’s intentions — was an early red flag.

“[At that stage, Hannah] is likely vulnerable, concerned perhaps that none of her suitors will wind up liking her, perhaps having feelings of being undeserving, not worth the honor of being the Bachelorette,” Saunders tells Bustle, and Hannah says as much during her interviews from these episodes. Given that, Luke’s confession of falling in love with Hannah this early likely felt like a reassurance. But whether Luke said this intentionally to curry favor with Hannah in front of the other men or he simply felt the need to confess his feelings this early in a public forum, Saunders notes that it’s a warning sign. Even if his feelings were sincere, Saunders says, “then the red flag might be concern that he may not truly understand himself, his feelings, and what a genuine relationship looks like if he is able to make such an early proclamation.”

Just a few weeks after this declaration came the first drastic turning point in Luke P. and Hannah’s relationship: On a group date in Rhode Island, Luke P. got into an altercation with Luke S. during a rugby match and proceeded to assure Hannah that it was “self-defense” and that he was an innocent victim in the situation, despite every other person who witnessed what happened telling her otherwise. (For what it’s worth, footage of the fight appears to show Luke P. running into and tackling Luke S. in the background of the video, but it’s unclear if Luke S. was running at Luke P. with intentions of tackling him first.)

After this incident, it seemed like a downward spiral of conflict for weeks: conflict between Hannah and Luke P., between Hannah and the other men, and of course between Luke P. and the other men. Hannah, tired of all her relationships focusing on the drama with Luke P., pleaded with him and the other contestants to “stay in their lane,” which they sort of managed to do — that is, until Hannah’s one-on-one date in Latvia with Garrett Powell.

Things only escalated when Hannah and Garrett, following alleged “Latvian tradition,” bungee jumped together naked during their one-on-one date. Upon learning this detail from Garrett, Luke P. becomes noticeably upset and uncomfortable, and later presses Hannah for more information about the date. During their conversation, he says he felt “cheated on,” described her behavior as “a slap in the face,” and indirectly referred to what she did on her date with Garrett as “a boneheaded mistake.”

Obvious sex-shaming aside, the really problematic behavior in this situation happens later, when Hannah pays Luke P. a special visit to explain to him how what he said made her feel. When confronted, Luke P. backpedals and tells Hannah that she must have simply “misunderstood” what he meant in their earlier conversation and even accuses her of “twisting [his] words.” It’s in this moment that we see an example of a particularly insidious emotionally abusive behavior: gaslighting, or the act of making someone doubt their own perception of reality.

“There’s a difference between toxic or unhealthy behavior and abusive behavior,” Rachel Wright, MA, LMFT, and co-founder of Wright Wellness Center, tells Bustle. “While all abusive behavior is clearly toxic and unhealthy, not all toxic and unhealthy behavior is abuse — and that’s important to point out… [Luke P.’s] behavior is problematic because he is controlling and manipulating [Hannah], while making her question her own reality and sense of self.”

It’s pretty obvious to viewers that Hannah isn’t buying Luke P.’s “you misunderstood me” excuse, and for a moment, it seems that Hannah is finally ready to pull the trigger and send Luke P. packing — but he somehow manages to sweet-talk his way back into the running once again. This actually further speaks to how toxic their relationship is: despite logically knowing he isn’t a healthy partner for her, Hannah continues to give Luke P. chance after chance, presumably because she’s so confused by the extreme dissonance between her initial feelings for him and his current behavior.

Where Does Luke P.’s Behavior Cross The Line?

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Fast forward to the fantasy suites episode. During the evening portion of the date, Luke P. expresses to Hannah that he has concerns about her being sexually intimate on the overnight dates with the other men, and that he “doesn’t feel that’s something she should be doing.” He even goes so far as to say he would remove himself from the show if she were to tell him she had had sex with another man. When Hannah becomes angry at Luke P. for (yet again) trying to exert control over her body and her decisions, he backpedals to say that he is “willing to do or work through anything” even if she had a “slip up” and slept with one or more of the other men.

Eventually, after some arguing back and forth, Hannah says that she “finally [has] clarity” and does not want Luke P. to be her husband, and asks him to leave more than once. What follows is a drawn out struggle to get him to leave, in which he does everything from refusing to get up without getting a chance to “share a few words,” to claiming Hannah “owes” him time to “share [his] heart.” Hannah tells him that she doesn’t owe him anything and says she’s already “bent over backwards for [their] relationship.”

Finally, after one last insistence from Hannah, Luke P. gets up and starts to let Hannah walk him out — but not before trying to explain himself one last time by saying Hannah doesn't actually have the clarity she claims before getting in the car to leave. After asking Hannah if he could “pray over her” before leaving (and her refusing this request), Luke P. finally gets in the car to leave… except he isn’t actually leaving quite yet. At the end of the episode, ABC teased that Luke P. returns next week (presumably to beg for another chance), even though Hannah is clearly upset by his presence and asked him to leave.

So what about Luke P.’s refusal to leave is problematic? Per the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the official definition of domestic abuse, which can be physical, emotional, or both, is “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.” According to Wright, in the context of Luke P. and Hannah’s relationship, his refusal to leave is particularly concerning because it fits into a larger pattern of troubling behavior.

“By not respecting her wishes, combined with the other things that create the pattern, it would fall under abusive,” Wright says. “However, if that were the only incident, not listening to someone is not abuse. It's because of his pattern of behavior and the other things going on that him sitting still and refusing to get up was his attempt at maintaining control and power over her.”

How Can Producers Responsibly Handle Toxic Behavior On The Show?

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If Luke P.’s treatment of Hannah constitutes emotional abuse, why is it being shown on reality TV with no disclaimers, PSAs, or trigger warnings? The answer is simple: because emotional abuse isn’t as black-and-white as physical abuse, it’s easier to get away with showing it on reality TV.

“Because there are different types of emotional abuse, it can be more covert,” Dr. Rachel Allyn, PhD, licensed relationship and sex therapist of Allbodies, tells Bustle. “It can be manipulative, and thus confusing when you want to label it for what it is. Somebody getting punched is pretty black and white, but emotional abuse is nuanced with different shades of gray.”

Simply put, emotional abuse can be extremely tricky to recognize, particularly for the person on the receiving end of it. One way producers could help mitigate any lasting emotional damage to the lead would be to ensure that he or she has access to proper mental health resources, such as a therapist. Although Amy Kaufman’s book, Bachelor Nation, reveals that there is a therapist on set, it’s unclear what the relationship between the therapist and the lead looks like. Are sessions mandatory or by request only? Does the therapist offer genuine insight into contestants’ behavior, or simply act as a sounding board for the lead to vent to? (Bustle reached out to ABC for comment, but did not hear back by the time of publication.)

“As a psychotherapist, I would love to be on set,” Wright says. “I would love to be able to help Hannah talk through her process and figure out what is going on herself. It’s not helping her to have the other guys or frankly anyone else tell her that what Luke P. is doing is bad. She needs to be able to talk through it and not just be in the vacuum of herself, the producers, and the guys.”

While it’s unrealistic to assume that ABC would do something as drastic as giving Luke P. the boot during production for his actions, that doesn’t mean the network doesn’t still have a responsibility — both to Hannah and the viewers — to make it clear that this behavior is neither normal nor OK. One possible solution? Being more transparent with the lead during filming about contestants’ true nature, or perhaps even showing him or her unedited footage of important moments that could offer a truer insight into someone’s character.

“As a therapist and a viewer, I always wonder if producers show, or think about showing, actual [unedited] footage to the Bachelor or Bachelorette — especially in situations where someone is behaving one way to those in the house, and differently toward him/her,” Saunders says. “If the end goal is to truly help someone find a life partner, wouldn’t they feel obligated to enlighten? I imagine their true goal is drama and viewership, and so yes, repeated themes seem to be keeping the most controversial figure around as long as possible.”

What Does It Mean For Viewers To Witness This Behavior On Reality TV?

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According to Wright, Luke P. has exhibited behaviors resembling 10 out of the 19 examples of emotional abuse per the National Domestic Violence Hotline, such as criticizing Hannah and her choices, being controlling of her and her other relationships, and displaying violence when angry (although this is mostly directed at the other men, not Hannah). We know that this behavior has affected Hannah and all the men in the house. But how does seeing this damaging relationship behavior play out on TV affect viewers?

“As we can become very emotionally involved in a reality TV show — something that is intentionally manipulating our emotions with music and editing — we can start to feel we are living this relationship along with the characters on the show,” Saunders says. “This can be very triggering for people, even if they aren’t aware of it. They may re-experience their own toxic involvement, become moody, irritable, fearful, mistrusting — and not understand why. They may feel physiological symptoms manifested by their psychological reactions to what they view, but not know that is the cause.”

There’s no denying that the media we consume has an impact on us, and anyone who’s lived through an emotionally abusive relationship may find it difficult or even traumatic to watch Luke P. and Hannah’s relationship unfold. On the flip side, however, it might be even more dangerous to show this kind of relationship to viewers who have never experienced a toxic relationship, and thus might view Luke P.’s emotionally abusive behavior as “normal.”

“For other viewers who may not have experienced a toxic relationship themselves, they will react according to their personal context as they view the show,” Saunders says. "Some will feel exactly how the producers want them to feel toward any given scene. They will think Luke P. is a villain. Others — perhaps viewers who strongly relate to Luke P’s faith — might feel he is grossly misunderstood and not see manipulation whatsoever.”

Without the proper tools to contextualize Luke P.’s behavior, viewers may walk away from this season thinking that it’s OK or normal to lie to, talk down to, or manipulate a romantic partner. The one silver lining? There’s a chance that all the Luke P. drama will foster conversation about healthy versus unhealthy relationships — even among those who may not recognize toxic or emotionally abusive behavior for what it is.

“Seeing a toxic relationship play out on reality TV, especially on a show like The Bachelorette can potentially be a positive thing for people watching — however, it’s happening at Hannah’s expense, which isn’t okay,” Wright says. “I’ve had multiple listeners of [my husband’s and my Bachelor recap podcast The Wright Reasons] DM me on Instagram saying things like, ‘Thank you for breaking down Luke P.’s behavior because I realized that I wasn’t the crazy one in my last relationship.’ So, while, of course, this is not OK to have on TV, I’m glad that it’s creating a dialogue around abuse, because many people think that abuse is only physical and that is not true at all.”

The Bachelor franchise is, first and foremost, a television show whose goal is to provide entertainment and garner viewership, so it’s unlikely that contestants like Luke P. who create tons of drama will be asked to leave the show, no matter how vile their behavior. At the very least, ABC should be willing to “name and shame” emotional abuse that happens on the show — even if it’s just via pre-episode PSA from Chris Harrison — so it’s clear to viewers that they recognize and denounce the behavior. Until then, remember to watch not just with your eyes, but with your gut, too.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.

Ed note: This piece initially misidentified the location of the rugby date. It has been corrected.