pop culture, vocation

What the Bachelorette Finale Taught Me About Enduring Vulnerabilities, Conflict Management, and Relationship Scripts

I have not been following the Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise very closely in recent years. For one, people on that show are now younger than me. Please don’t complain about not finding the love of your life when you’re 22. You’re 22. Go live a little first, keep meeting people in real life, figure out who you are outside anyone else, and take a break from dating like crazy. You will be fine. I’m much happier single at 27 then I was dating the man I thought I was going to marry at 22. It gets better.

For two, it’s just unnatural. I’m all about getting married quickly when you’ve found the right person, but 6 weeks from meeting to engagement!? While one of you is dating other people!? Not real.

For three, I’ve had softball games. I’m not good at softball, but I’m committed to my team, so softball is my priority when I have Monday nights off.

But softball ended, I was off, and my girls wanted to watch it. With little background knowledge except that Peter is from my college town of Madison, WI, Bryan is a bit of a pompous person,  and Rachel is the greatest thing since sliced bread because the show is all about her, I watched.

Because I had just finished The Relationship Cure by research Dr. John Gottman, I did some psychoanalysis that thing like none other. Contestant Peter Kraus and Rachel Lindsey had a very emotional good-bye after not being able to solve an enduring conflict in their short-lived relationship: he wanted to propose only once and saw it as leading to marriage; she wanted a proposal at the end of the show.

Peter wanted to hold off a proposal because it meant so much to him, but this hit on her enduring vulnerability: staying in the girlfriend phase when you want to be married. The videos of the interview is here and here.

The thing that drove me crazy in their conversation is Rachel both complimented and attacked Peter’s desire to want to take his time. And when Peter states he feels attacked, Rachel says, “Why do you feel attacked? I’m just talking about what happened. I haven’t attacked you.”

The words are OK, but her tone reeks of condescension and are quite belittling. Worse, her face reads as full of contempt. As well laid out in this article about psychologist Paul Ekman and Gottman, contempt is a small sneer, and watching Rachel’s lips, she temporarily sneers at Peter when saying these words.

As Gottman lays out in his research, 4 behaviors in conflicts lead to divorce:

  1. defensiveness
  2. stonewalling (silence)
  3. criticism
  4. contempt

In an interview with Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, Gottman says,

“You would think that criticism would be the worst….But if I speak from a superior plane, that’s far more damaging, and contempt is any statement made from a higher level. A lot of the time it’s an insult: ‘You are a bitch. You’re scum.’ It’s trying to put that person on a lower plane than you. It’s hierarchical.”

In reaction to Rachel asking why he feels attack, Peter says, “I don’t know. I can’t speak to it at this point.” Aka he is stonewalling, being silent instead of revealing his true feelings. For one, national television really isn’t the place to do it, but if Rachel would have led the conversation with a genuine question of “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was making you feel attacked. How am I doing that?” his answer would have been much different.

And when Chris Harrison asked about Peter’s comment about being with him or living a life of mediocrity, Peter apologizes (which read as quite sincere), and Rachel makes the very defensive and unnecessarily mean side comment of “I’m living my best life.”

As I said, throughout the conversation, Rachel also both praises and attacks Peter’s need for more time. Though the complaint that he did not feel as invested as she wants is valid, Rachel criticizes Peter’s character instead of complaining about the behavior of not proposing or not giving her enough assurance of his commitment to her.

I think if Rachel hadn’t had the experience of dating someone for 5 years without a proposal, she might not have been so hard on Peter since it was an enduring vulnerability. Plus, looking at other Bachelor/Bachelorette couples, it’s not like engagement means marriage.

As Gottman lays out in his book The Relationship Cure, enduring vulnerabilities is a term coined by UCLA psychologist Tom Bradbury to describe events in our lives with a powerful negative impact whose influence is impossible to shake. A break-up is a great example along with assault, death, divorce, marital problems, failing at school or being fired from work, hazing, abandonment, illness, surviving war, etc. These enduring vulnerabilities undermine our ability to trust ourselves and each other.

Peter assured Rachel he would be committed, but her level of trust was so influenced by her ex that words were not enough. Thus, the conflict of not proposing was not just about not proposing but also her enduring vulnerability of being in a long-term relationship without marriage in sight.

I think these two could have gotten through their conflict of him not being ready to propose, if they were in a real situation and not the artificial situation of The Bachelorette. However, for them to last, they would need to learn to resolve conflicts better. Rachel would have to drop her feelings of superiority and try to understand where Peter was coming from, and Peter would need to call out her actions that made him shut down and become more defensive.

I wish Rachel and Bryan the best, and I’m confident Peter will find a lovely woman who will love how seriously he takes engagement and marriage. But most of all, I’m grateful for the Bachelorette finale for re-emphasizing that I can work on my future relationship now even though I’m quite single.

How?

After a dating disappointment early this year, I was blessed to have my good friend Cece empathetically listen to me. When I bemoaned that I was going to be single forever, she called me out. “You know that’s not true,” she said. Despite my major letdown, I had to agree with her. I know I am closer than ever to finding a meaningful and healthy romantic relationship even though I’ve been single for years.

How do I know? I have good relationships with my friends, family, co-workers, and even strangers. Even when things hit a rough spot, I’m in a habit of dialoguing in a constructive manner. As therapist Dr. John Van Epp would say, I have healthy relationship scripts in my non-romantic relationships, and these scripts will carry over into my romantic relationship when I find one.

In Van Epp’s book How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk, he writes how our non-romantic relationships eventually influence our romantic ones. Our interactions with strangers, co-workers, friends, family, and even our previous romantic partners usually fall into specific patterns. Van Epp likens these “relationship scripts” to a river.

As he writes in his book,

“the constant flow of new experiences followed within the banks of those scripts, reinforcing their already formed paths. Over time, subtle changes modified the patterns of these scripts by simply exaggerating or diminishing certain features, while still keeping their basic form… major changes in your scripts require extensive reconstruction. Patterns will replicate unless a new course is charted.”

Van Epp writes that our relationship scripts that ultimately impact our marriage can be divided into three categories: peripheral others, meaningful others, and romantic others.

1 – Peripheral Others

Whenever I talk about my lack of a love life to my mother, she almost always says, “Well, isn’t there a nice doctor at work you can date?” My mother is right in that as an ER nurse at a teaching hospital, I am surrounded by young, attractive doctors, medical students, and a variety of medical professionals. Unfortunately, I find many of them undateable because of how they treat who Van Epp calls “peripheral others.”

Peripheral others are strangers, acquaintances, employees under our command, and anyone else that we share a minimal degree of closeness with. We feel emotionally distant from our peripheral others because we don’t know them well and tend to feel superior to them.

But this distant feeling is very similar to how we feel in an argument or otherwise feel emotionally distant. Van Epp writes that in this state, we can expect to treat our significant other and be treated by our significant other like our peripheral others are treated.

As Van Epp writes, “look very closely at the ways your partner treats all other people. It may be just a matter of time before you are treated the same.” Some of my colleagues can be extremely impolite and impatient with patients and even co-workers. I’m used to seemingly rude exchanges in emergency situations where short and direct communication is vital. That’s one thing. But a number of seemingly eligible “Dr. McDreamy” types at work show a persistent pattern of disrespectful behavior, and I know that this behavior would eventually be directed towards me in a long-term relationship.

Some of the doctors I work with are astoundingly compassionate, even when they are stressed or working with particularly difficult patients. The empathy shown these small interactions gives me a glimpse into how I could be expected to be treated in a romantic relationship, even in emotionally distant and difficult times. A consistently compassionate person is the only kind of doctor I could date.

I’m curious how Rachel treats peripheral others based on her contempt towards Peter. Peter, however, was able to treat her with kindness and respect despite feeling hurt.

2 – Meaningful Others

I probably should have known my crush would probably not end well when his close friends consistently agreed when I said he was one of the worst communicators I had ever met. “That’s him,” one of his best buddies said, laughing.

As Van Epp writes, “If peripheral relationships crack open a window to peer into the values and character of a partner, then significant relationships bust down the door.” These significant relationships are what he calls our “meaningful others,” our friends, family, and anyone else we have a substantial relationship with.

I admired how my crush consistently made time for his family despite his hectic work schedule. I too can be a horrible texter, so I forgave his forgetfulness which I chalked up to being busy. Yet, I found it odd that he rarely went out of his way to make time for his friends.

Family is almost always a meaningful relationship and can sometimes a complicated one, but we have a lot of freedom when it comes to friends. We tend to be friends with people that resemble us in some way. Van Epp suggests looking closely at a potential significant other’s friends since as the cliché goes, “birds of a feather flock together.” Our friends reveal our character and uncover how we can expect to be treated when the initial excitement of a new relationship fades.

I truly liked my crush’s friends, which made me like him even more. His friends were kind, fun, respectful, and had similar beliefs to my own. But as Van Epp writes, “If your partner does not treat friends in ways that you admire, then what makes you think your partner will do this with you?” My crush’s tendency to put work ahead of his friends and forgetfulness in responding would have become a major issue long term, and it’s probably a blessing in disguise that things never worked out.

For the Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise, I see why they have hometown dates. But for dysfunctional families, it may be better to meet friends or relatives that the contestant feels close to.

3 – Romantic Others

Something about a romantic one liner in a movie makes me swoon. A line like “you complete me” sounds great in a Hollywood movie but can spell disaster in a real-life relationship. Though Hollywood teaches us that true love can make someone change, evidence shows otherwise. Van Epp cites various research to conclude, “the dramatic changes that occur with a new relationship usually revert back to the prerelationship state by the end of the first year of marriage.”

However, Van Epp cautions against judging your significant other solely on their dating past. I’m not alone in the fact that discussing past relationships makes me cringe. Despite being a strong, confident woman, I’ve historically been a bit of a doormat in relationships. A lot of that behavior was tied to some unhealthy non-romantic relationships, and I’ve had to work through those insecurities. I would hate for my future significant other to base dating me just on my past romantic relationships!

Too, some of us just haven’t had a relationship yet. I have good friends in their mid and late twenties who are absolute catches who have never had an “official” boyfriend. Things just always fell apart before they defined their relationship or the guy had commitment issues. Judging a person based on their past relationships or lack thereof can be counterproductive and give us an incomplete mental image of our partner. Yes, our past romantic relationships can provide insight into how we act in a potential new one, but it’s not the only way we act. Carefully observing our behaviors in non-romantic relationships give us greater insight into how we and our significant other act when the initial thrill of romance wears off.

Watching that interaction between Rachel and Peter should not be our only perception of their character. Unfortunately, it was mine since I only watched the finale, but I would hope for the sake of her future marriage, Rachel does not fight as she did with Peter in all situations.

Cece cited my amazing relationships with my friends and family as proof of a bright romantic future ahead, and my girls last night feel just as confident about me finding someone as we do about Peter. Gottman has taught me that how and why we fight matters. Van Epp and his commentary on relationship scripts has taught me just how right Cece is.

It’s easier to fight cruelly and write people off early than to argue with the other’s person’s point of view in mind and give an opportunity to repair a relationship. It’s easier to swipe right on a dating app or flirt with a cute guy at a bar than to treat a disrespectful patient with kindness or engage a bubbly cashier when I just don’t want to talk to people. But consistently doing the latter for both will be infinitely more helpful years after I meet my special someone.

Thanks, Bachelorette, of all the things possible for re-teaching me that how I act as a single person is important for my marriage.

 

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