‘The Bachelor’ is again embroiled in controversy. This time over gaslighting

A man in a suit, looking serious, stands in an opulently decorated foyer.
At center stage of “The Bachelor” Season 26 is Clayton Echard, a former football player.
(Craig Sjodin / ABC)

After its first season with a Black lead was rocked by scandal — and criticism of its ongoing diversity missteps — ABC’s “The Bachelor” was poised to retreat to its comfort zone this season: fun-filled dates, exotic locations and an upbeat white lead.

At center stage in Season 26 is Clayton Echard, a former football player adored by kids, puppies and the group of eligible bachelorettes competing for his affections. The Midwestern medical sales rep with the toothy smile marked a dramatic shift from the brooding Matt James, whose 2021 search for love was marred by an uproar over photographs of a contestant taken at an antebellum-South-themed party — a controversy that eventually ensnared the show’s veteran host, Chris Harrison, who exited the franchise last June.

As he narrowed his choices to three women, Echard indicated that he favored Virginia-based wedding videographer Susie Evans.


“I think I may be falling in love with all three of these women,” he said as the show shifted to Iceland in advance of the two-part finale, which begins Monday. “I also might already be in love with Susie.”

After pledging ‘real change’ amid last year’s protests, ABC and owner Walt Disney Co. stayed silent as a firestorm over race consumed its reality-TV flagship.

March 12, 2021

Echard’s path to happily-ever-after appeared clear — until it wasn’t. Instead of a blissful romantic finish, “The Bachelor” has again erupted into a firestorm that some Bachelor Nation devotees say is the most volcanic and messy in the show’s 20-year run. Echard, who was named as the Bachelor over a field of Black finalists from the last season of “The Bachelorette,” has spent the last several days in damage-control mode after being slammed by fans with accusations of gaslighting and narcissism.

The controversy has fueled new questions about the long-running franchise’s ability to maintain its rose-colored fantasy of romantic love in the face of changing mores and dating rituals.

“In the 20-plus years that I have watched ‘The Bachelor’ franchise, this truly was the most dramatic episode ever,” said Diane Castro, a corporate communications executive, following last week’s episode. “Seeing Clayton drop his mask on national television opened the door for a discussion on gaslighting and narcissism.”

In the “Fantasy Suites” episode, Echard was given the opportunity to spend an intimate overnight date with Evans, nurse Gabby Windey and flight instructor Rachel Recchia. Despite his deeper feelings for Evans, he also declared his love to both Windey and Recchia during their respective dates, and had sex with both of them. Leaving his overnight date with Windey, Echard called out to her, “I am falling in love and it feels so good!”

Agonized by visions of Echard having sex with her competitors, Evans said she always felt sex should only be part of a committed relationship, and that it would be a “very hard boundary to cross” if Echard had been intimate with the two other women. When he admitted during the third and last date that he had slept with Windey and Recchia, Evans told him she felt she could not move forward in the relationship.


Echard pleaded with Evans: “I am the most in love with you.” But Evans, while “confused,” stood her ground. Echard then became agitated over her unwillingness to work it out with him in the fantasy suite. “In my eyes, you’ve invalidated everything we had,” he said, and angrily dismissed her, walking her to a waiting limo.

Three women in evening gowns. Two hold roses. The one in the center, without a rose, looks shocked.
Gabby Windey, from left, Rachel Recchia and Susie Evans in “The Bachelor.”
(Craig Sjodin / ABC)

The episode sparked immediate reaction. Relationship and communication expert Rachel DeAlto, who has been a regular viewer of “The Bachelor,” said she started yelling at her television while watching the tense encounter.

“What Clayton did was 100% gaslighting, and I don’t throw that term around often,” said DeAlto, author of “How to Connect with Anyone Anywhere (Even If It Scares You).” “He took absolutely no responsibility for his actions. Yes, Susie could have communicated her feelings about intimacy better. But for him to turn it completely on her and make it her responsibility was totally wrong. He made her feel like it was entirely her fault in a way that made her question herself.”

The star also came under intense fire in the “Women Tell All” episode, reuniting most of the female contestants. Many complained about how Echard ignored their warnings and kept making out with Shanae Ankney, who had fought with several of them and seemed to be manipulating him.

“I think you’re confusing love and lust,” contestant Sierra Jackson told Echard. “I think you need to figure those two out and really realize what it takes to be a married man, and I don’t think you’re there yet. I think eventually you will get there, but I do not think now or on this journey that you were there yet.”


Later, addressing how he told three women he was in love with them, Jackson said, “I want to know exactly: Who are you to act a certain way and treat these women a certain way and subject them to this kind of behavior of yours and what did they do to deserve it?”

A subdued Echard said he did not act “with bad intentions.” He said in later interviews that he wished that he had handled his conversation with Evans better, and that he was trying to learn from the experience.

Despite the outcry, Echard had defenders among relationship experts as well.

Tuesday’s season finale caps a landmark season of ‘The Bachelorette.’ But the choice of the next Bachelor has left Black fans disappointed.

Dec. 21, 2021

“It is unreasonable that people are giving him a hard time for getting upset,” said Monica O’Neal, a licensed clinical psychologist. “Who wouldn’t be upset? This person who you actually had strong feelings for and who has said they have strong feelings for you is saying, ‘You slept with these other women so I don’t want you anymore. I’m done.’ And they get up and leave. It is the most basic human emotion and most authentic thing we saw in that episode.”

Relationship therapist Jaime Bronstein added: “Ninety-nine percent of the people who sign up for this show know what happens. They know there are fantasy suites. This was Clayton’s journey and Susie was making up her own story. She’s judging him, and that’s sad. He was doing the best he could. I believe him.”

DeAlto and others said “The Bachelor” is probably not the best example to follow when looking at what makes a healthy relationship.

“Most people who sign up for it don’t really realize what they’re in for until they’re in it,” DeAlto said. “They need someone on the show helping them to work through the communication. But that probably would not make good TV.”