Bachelor Matt James Explains to Rachael Kirkconnell 'Why We Can't Be in a Relationship' Anymore
During Monday night's Bachelor finale, audiences saw Matt James sit down with Rachael Kirkconnell in the wake of her racially insensitive photos
Following Monday's Bachelor finale, James, 29, and Kirkconnell, 24, sat down with host Emmanuel Acho for the After the Final Rose special, where they reflected on their past relationship, which came to an end in the wake of her resurfaced and racially insensitive photos from 2018.
For more on Matt James' season finale of The Bachelor, listen below to the episode of PEOPLE Every Day.
At the conclusion of James' Bachelor journey, the real estate broker ended things with Michelle Young and chose to be with Kirkconnell, though he did not propose.
"It felt like an extended honeymoon period," James told Acho of his first few weeks with Kirkconnell once cameras stopped rolling. "It was super, it was great. Initially, it started out how you would imagine."
But as their love story was playing out on camera, the resurfaced photos of Kirkconnell — in which she attended an antebellum plantation-themed college party — emerged on social media.
Although James, the franchise's first Black Bachelor, initially "dismissed them as rumors" and hoped they weren't true, after finding out that they were, "it just makes you question everything," he told Acho.
In February, Acho was tapped after longtime host Chris Harrison said that he was "stepping aside" from the ABC franchise following his widely criticized interview with former Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay, during which he came to Kirkconnell's defense. Each facing swift backlash, both Harrison and Kirkconnell publicly apologized for their respective comments and actions.
For James, when Kirkconnell "spoke out and publicly acknowledged that she would do better and she apologized, is when I was finally able to take a check on myself and see where I was at," he told Acho on ATFR. "And I wasn't okay, because it was in that moment and the conversation that I had that Rachael might not understand what it means to be Black in America."
When Acho asked where things currently stand with Kirkconnell, James confirmed that the former couple is no longer together, sharing that he is giving Kirkconnell space and time to continue learning and growing.
"As Rachael acknowledged in her apology, there's a lot of work that needs to be done. I have to take a step back and allow her to put in that work," said James. "And I'm looking forward to seeing her put in that work."
While he acknowledged that their split was "as tough as you could imagine. And it's heartbreaking," he added: "If you don't understand that something like that is problematic in 2018, there's a lot of me that you won't understand. And it's as simple as that."
Before the pair was brought out on stage together, Acho also sat down one-to-one with Kirkconnell, who addressed the scandal.
Looking back at one of the photos — in which Kirkconnell was dressed in an antebellum-style dress — she said she saw "someone who was living in this ignorance without even like, thinking about who it would be hurting. You know, I never once asked myself at any point like, 'What's the tradition behind this? What does this represent? Why do we wear those dresses?'"
"I'm not going to sit here and say that I didn't know any better because I could've easily asked myself those questions," she continued. "You know, I never took the time to make that connection, 'cause if I would've taken the time, I easily could've understood what was wrong with it," said Kirkconnell, who admitted that there is "no excuse" for her ignorance.
Reflecting on her breakup with James, Kirkconnell said she was "confused" and "blindsided." But once her "initial reaction went away," she thought about how strong she believed their relationship was.
"So for him to end things, he must've been very, very hurt by everything," Kirkconnell told Acho, 30. "It was hard because I lost the love of my life, but in the process of that, I hurt him while doing so," she added, admitting: "I love him so much and I always will. And I do feel like I finally do know what real love feels like."
Finally, the moment came when the exes embraced one another for the first time since splitting.
Sitting side-by-side on the ATFR couch, Kirkconnell began by apologizing to James and telling him she understood his perspective in ending things.
"I really just want to take the time to say I'm really sorry and once I really tried to put myself into your shoes as much as I could, I really do think that our relationship was very strong and the love that we shared was very real, so for you to end things, I realize that that must've been really hard for you as well to where you must've been hurting," she told James. "And I'm just wanting to say I'm really sorry for not understanding that initially and that I'm really sorry that I hurt you."
Seeing Kirkconnell torn up — over both hurting and losing him — James called it "heartbreaking" and "devastating."
When asked what he wanted to share with Kirkconnell, James took a long pause before she grabbed his hand and he revealed what was on his heart.
"The most disappointing thing for me was having to explain to you why what I saw was problematic and why I was so upset," he told Kirkconnell. "And that's why it was problematic, because when I'm in a relationship, it means that I'm committed to that person — and commitment for me when I'm dating someone is on track to get married."
"And so when I questioned our relationship, it was on the context of you not fully understanding my Blackness," he told a tearful Kirkconnell, "and what it means to be a Black man in America. And what it would mean for our kids when I saw those things that were floating around the internet."
He went on to say that "it broke my heart, because this is the last conversation I thought we'd be having. I didn't sign up to have this conversation. And I knew that I had to take a step back for you to put in that work that you outlined that you needed to do. And that's something you gotta do on your own."
James added: "And that's why we can't be in a relationship."
For Kirkconnell, she explained that "the only reason" she went on the show was for James — "and that includes every single part of you," she told him. "And that obviously includes you being a Black man."
Admitting she's "never experienced a love like this," an emotional Kirkconnell shared, "I don't see anyone else out there for me. At this point I just don't see how I can have these same feelings for someone else."
But for James, the door to relationship reconciliation seemed to be closed at this stage.
"The feelings that I have for you don't go away overnight," he told her. "And seeing you like this hurts. But then I ask myself, like, I don't want to be emotionally responsible for those tears 'cause it's like, the work and the reconciliation that needs to be done is work that I can't do for you. And I know that you're capable of doing it."
Despite parting ways, James said that the "last thing" he wants is for people to be "calling to have" Kirkconnell "canceled" or calling her out for things.
Instead, he wants people to call her "in" and for Kirkconnell to do the work she is committed to doing, "because that's the best thing that could come out of this." James added that the work is "something that she's gotta do on her own."
As Acho pointed out that the ATFR special could be the last time that Kirkconnell could speak to James, she tearfully shared her gratitude for the role that he played in her life.
"Since day one, all I want is for you to be happy," a tearful Kirkconnell said. "And I just want what's best for you and I am sorry. I thank God for ever putting you in my life to begin with."
She concluded: "I'll always be thankful for, you know, everything that we shared and the time that we did have together."
Hearing those words, James told Kirkconnell, "I don't know if it'll ever not hurt hearing those things."