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What to Learn From Matt James' Season of 'The Bachelor'

He's now sharing "critical conversations" with Rachael.
matt james bachelor season finale looking serious
ABC / Craig Sjodin
Esther Lee - Senior Editor, The Knot
by Esther Lee
Esther Lee - Senior Editor, The Knot
Esther Lee
Senior Editor
  • Oversees all news and trending content at The Knot.
  • Defines new terms for the wedding industry.
  • Thrives in interviews both for her stories and in reverse, for the brand.
Updated May 05, 2021
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The finale for Matt James' Bachelor season aired in March, and for reasons unlike any previous franchise ending before, the theme of Season 25 was centered, rather pointedly, on racism and foundational relationship values. In the season finale, which aired in mid-March, James delivered his final rose to graphic designer Rachael Kirkconnell, but the relationship fell apart soon after the taping. 

Due to a fundamental difference in values, the couple initially separated. They've since reconciled (as confirmed by Kirkconnell in a recent interview), while James maintains they're working through their relationship. "I think the best way to put it is that we can have critical conversations about being in this relationship and what I need in a partner—especially if that woman isn't Black—to understand what comes with me and my life and being Black," he told WSJ. Magazine in May 2021. "It's on people who care about being allies to do the work to be truly antiracist. And I think it's unfair to leave people without the ability to unlearn and be better." 

What Was the Controversy?

If anything, Matt's season of the franchise unearthed deeper questions about relationship values and learnings from the franchise in general. In February 2021, viewers  discovered Rachael's past participation in antebellum parties just a few years before her reality television stint. James was tapped as ABC's first-ever Black Bachelor in May 2020, at the height of racial unrest in the country, and Kirkconnell's participation alone left the couple in questionable territory. The hurtful nature of attending such themed parties is correlated to inherent values. "If you don't understand that something like that is problematic in 2018, there's a lot of me that you won't understand," James said of Kirkconnell's resurfaced photos. "I stepped back and let her do the work she's committed to doing."

Though Rachael has addressed the scandal and apologized, even more controversy was incited when franchise host Chris Harrison defended the finalist in February. "This moment has sparked critical conversation and reporting, raised important questions, and resulted in inspiring displays of solidarity from The Bachelor nation," James responded in a statement. "It has also pushed me to reevaluate and process what my experience on The Bachelor represents, not just for me, but for all of the contestants of color, especially the Black contestants of this season and seasons past, and for you, the viewers at home… My greatest prayer is that this is an inflection point that results in real institutional change for the better." 

Following the season finale, James elaborated on his sentiments surrounding his then-split from Kirkconnell. "Anytime I'm in a relationship with somebody, it's because marriage is the ultimate goal," he said. "And, when you find out things like I did, that deters you from the ultimate goal because, [as] I stated during After the Final Rose, there are just things that you might not understand what it means to be with someone like me." In April, James confirmed he was seeing Kirkconnell again as she continues to educate herself on systemic racism. 

Numerous relationship experts have weighed in on why foundational issues matter most in a relationship, and what to learn from Matt James and Rachael Kirkconnell's story. "Everyone has a hard time predicting what the future holds in their relationship. One reason is we focus on what we hope will happen, rather than what is most likely to happen," explains behavioral and relationship expert Dr. Gary Lewandowski. "We think with our hearts rather than our head. However, as psychologists are fond of saying: 'The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.' People are reluctant to change. In Matt's case, his partner's past behaviors also run contrary to his identity, something he is also unlikely to change." Below, more experts weigh in on foundational values and how to identify them in a partner. 

bachelor season winner matt james rachael kirkconnell
ABC / Craig Sjodin

What Are Foundational Values?

Influenced by geography, family, culture, friends and even education, foundational values are formed over years of relational interaction and shaped generally by exposure. As you and your partner are ever-evolving, your values are often core to who you are despite external, evolving circumstances. Some relationship values listed by experts include respect, responsibility, loyalty, honesty, dependability and more. 

"Our family provides us with our roots, and serves as a model for how we approach our romantic relationships as adults," elaborates Dr. Lewandowski, author of Stronger Than You Think: The 10 Blind Spots that Undermine Your Relationship… And How to See Past Them. "We also choose our friends because they're a lot like us. The result is that our family and friends' beliefs are often the same as our own. Over short periods of time, we may be able to stifle expressing those values. But over longer periods of time, that becomes increasingly difficult. Differences in foundational values are a recipe for constant conflict."

"Our environment, under which we were formally raised, sets our core foundation, whether we accept it or otherwise," says relationship coach Anita Kanti of Anita K Solutions, a clinical psychologist and author of Behaving Bravely

In the case of Matt and Rachael, their belief systems were already altered, opening a schism of differences to navigate ahead. "I believe there is a foundational disconnect here that will most likely creep up on the pair in the long-term," suggests Maria Sullivan, vice president of Dating.com. "The show could've distracted [Matt] from some of the clear red flags that [viewers] have picked up on… [and] it could've been easier for her to brush certain undesirable aspects about her beliefs under the rug. Until the cameras were gone. It may not even be his fault that he's missing certain signs. Ultimately, when in the everyday swing of things, that's when the couple will determine whether or not these differences will turn out to be irreconcilable."

How to Prioritize Foundational Values With Your Partner

Most relationships won't play out over a few months of reality television, allowing couples to prioritize their values privately. Whether you're engaged, married or single, foundational values are worth exploring within yourself and within your relationship. 

"The values you look for in a partner should be the same ones you look for in a best friend," explains Dr. Lewandowski. "It should be someone who you like as a person, you can trust, and enjoy spending time with. This person cares about what's best for you, shares many of your interests, is fun, and is someone with whom you're comfortable being yourself." Here's how to deduce and seek out shared values with your partner.

Talk It Out

As experts say, communication is key. "The solution is to talk things out. Ask about their views on marriage, kids, parenting, handling money, dealing with family obligations, and expectations from a romantic partner," says Dr. Lewandowski. "It's easier said than done because the number one taboo topic in relationships is (ironically and somewhat tragically) the relationship itself. People fear 'the relationship talk' because it can result in finding out information that threatens the relationship. It's a Catch-22."

Ways to broach the topic include asking direct questions or sharing ideal hypothetical relationship scenarios. You could also observe another relationship and go from there. "Open and honest communication in relationships is crucial, so being upfront about any concerns and how you feel is best," notes Dr. Lewandowski. 

See Where You Align

Once you open up the conversation, validating your priorities and seeing where you overlap are the next steps. "For example, if your family is your top priority, validating that with your current or future partner will need to be stressed regarding your dedicated commitment," says Kanti. "Values need to be prioritized in your life to avoid misunderstandings leading to unhappiness. Being authentic and in tune with your values is vital because it determines what means most to you."

Identify Any Areas of Friction

While there are times to agree to disagree, differences stemming from foundational values are blatantly a different issue. "Friction early on can indicate misalignment of values. As much as we're all on our best behavior early in relationships, our values are hard to hide," adds Dr. Lewandowski. "You have to look for potential differences, which is difficult. Early in relationships, we're flooded with the excitement and passion of falling in love. It doesn't leave a lot of room for critically evaluating what seems like minor issues. However, research shows that the problems that eventually lead a couple to divorce have been present in the relationship since the beginning."

In Matt and Rachael's case, the sheer emotions of filming may have concealed opportunities to dig deeper. "If you have any questions about a person's beliefs in any way, shape or form, what you need to do is be upfront and clear about it," says Sullivan. "It is so important to take this seriously before settling into any long-term commitment to ensure your partner is able to fulfill your emotional and foundational needs."

Remember: Some Values Are Irreconcilable

"A person who celebrates something that you believe is undeniably wrong is a clear sign," adds Sullivan. "It's one Matt likely would have picked up on if in a more authentic, 'everyday' setting." When there are stark differences in values in a relationship, couples often hold firm to what they believe. This, then, could result in eventual arguments. 

"The friction you feel is your inability to sway from your own beliefs, and it's something you need to listen to in order to feel fulfilled in your own life," notes Sullivan. "When this feeling comes up in a relationship, take the time to understand what topic or action of your partners may have caused it. Anything that you feel that strongly about needs to be shared or respected by your partner for it to last."

Matt James' Bachelor season is available for streaming on Hulu. In place of Chris Harrison, former NFL player and the creator of Uncomfortable Conversations With A Black Man, Emmanuel Acho, hosted the After the Final Rose event. Acho's questions were lauded for being thoughtfully crafted and direct. 

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