A Look at Toxic Communication in The Bachelorette
Bachelor Nation has had a lot to say about the contentious exchange between Greg Grippo and Katie Thurston on the penultimate episode of The Bachelorette — but something big and important is missing from the conversation. I think Greg, and the show itself, is misusing the term “emotional vulnerability” and clouding the true tenor of his communication — frantic, manipulative, and controlling — even though I fully believe he didn’t mean for it to be.
Greg’s behavior during this episode prior to exciting the show has thus far been termed:
· Incompatible communication styles
· Too harsh
· That of a petulant child
While all of these may be true, they stop short of capturing why his behavior and communication pattern was problematic. Given that millions of people watch this show, my fear in framing the situation as simply “bullshit” is that viewers may interpret this as simply juicy television drama. It is not — it is bigger than that. Greg’s treatment of Katie was toxic, and I think this needs to be identified as such. If not, this will be a missed opportunity for critical conversation about healthy communication in intimate relationships — or any relationship for that matter.
So, let’s look at what went down.
Greg’s feelings of anger, fear, and perceived abandonment were completely valid. Everyone has a right to their feelings. Katie was operating in Bachelorette Mode after their hometown date, which meant trying to perform the mental calculus of being responsive to Greg, her clear favorite from the beginning, and weighing her other ongoing relationships. Greg, who had just told his mom that Katie was his soulmate, understandably wanted her to be in Soulmate Mode with him, and he felt let down by Katie’s failure to reciprocate the intensity of his love and certainty toward their relationship in that moment.
I don’t have a problem with his feelings — it’s what he did with his feelings that did not sit well with me. I think Greg’s interactions with Katie is an example of what can happen when operating from a place of open, unhealed wounds. What this says to me is that Greg, despite his many great qualities, has a lot of growing to do to be ready for an intimate relationship.
“Why do you think I might be upset?”
The conversation raised a red flag for me as soon as Greg entered Katie’s room and sat down on the couch. Katie observed that he seemed upset, to which Greg said, “Well, why do you think that might be? Why do you think I might be upset?”
My arm hair stood on end as soon as I heard those words. This is a classic manipulation tactic for expressing that something is wrong but places the burden on the other person to identify why that might be. This tactic immediately creates an asymmetrical power dynamic and places one person in a position of knowledge and the other in a position of guessing. The goal of this tactic is to try and catch the other person in expressing a wrong-doing so they might see it for themselves without having to engage in any sticky back and forth. If Greg was upset, he should do the difficult work of communicating these feelings and opening a dialogue.
I fully appreciated that Katie aptly used the term “gaslighting” in the final episode to describe Greg’s behavior, but I don’t think the show held space to really talk about why this is such a problematic practice. Gaslighting is cited as a potential indicator of emotional abuse in relationships, and this key point was missing from the final episode.
“I’ve never been this vulnerable with someone before.”
Greg emphasized to Katie that she had filled a hole in his heart and that he had never poured his heart out to anyone like that. He re-visited this point a couple times and seemed to be seeking a specific reaction from Katie but couldn’t articulate what that was. This is a complex situation because emotional vulnerability, particularly among men, is a positive thing. My point here is not to condemn Greg for his vulnerability, but to ask whether there is perhaps more to the concept of vulnerability than he demonstrated.
I appreciated Greg’s vulnerability in his ability to communicate such raw and powerful feelings to Katie. Where he went wrong is expecting Katie to do something with that outpouring. I don’t think emotional vulnerability is the messiness of pouring ourselves out onto other people expecting they will create something clean and coherent in return. As important and beautiful as those expressions are, that’s not the job of a life partner. The partner can listen, ask questions, and provide love and support, but emotional vulnerability does not necessarily entail the partner giving you what you want in return. Greg seemed to conflate these two things in his mind — I was vulnerable, so therefore I get something from Katie in return. Vulnerability is the bravery of self-expression without expecting those expressions to compel or control another.
“I deserve more than what I’ve been given.”
I think everyone deserves fundamental pillars of equality, human rights, physical, emotional, and psychological safety, love, acceptance, self-actualization, and the ability to make a fruitful life for oneself (through education, work, or other passions). If these core principles are violated, they deserve to be rectified. Beyond that, I think life gives us an array of gifts to savor and challenges from which to grow even stronger. If Greg felt he was being fundamentally mistreated or violated by Katie (which I don’t think he was) then yes, he’s certainly in the right to advocate for himself as deserving better treatment. But if he wasn’t getting what he wanted from her, I think that sucks, I think it is painful, but that has nothing to do with being deserving.
No matter how deserving we think we are, we’re never entitled to always get what we want.
Why does this matter?
My goal here isn’t to vilify Greg or write him off as an asshole. I don’t think he’s a bad guy and I don’t think he meant to mistreat anyone. My goal is to thoughtfully examine where Greg’s behavior might be coming from and identify why his communication style is problematic.
Greg and Katie indeed shared a powerful bond over the tremendous losses they experienced at young ages and other challenges from their upbringing. I think the intensity of his anger and his fear of losing Katie and the healing she provided overpowered his ability to communicate, listen, and see anything else in those moments. But this doesn’t mean we should ignore toxic communication patterns when they happen just because it occurs on a reality tv show. In fact, that may be an ideal time to start talking about it. This is a show we watch with our friends, our family, our significant others, and it can be an opportunity to talk about difficult topics.
My hope is to continue to make space for and speak up about toxic behavior as we observe it, whether on national tv, at work, or in our personal lives. That is extremely difficult, uncomfortable work. But we can’t afford not to do it.