Matt James and Rachael Kirkconnell on Overcoming 'Difficult' Time in Their Romance: We're 'Better'

"Relationships that are prospering are what I kind of fix my eyes on and hope to emulate," Matt James said

Matt James and Rachael Kirkconnell are in a good place in their relationship, but the pair worked hard to get to where they are today.

At the 2021 ESPY Awards on Saturday, the Bachelor Nation couple told PEOPLE (the TV Show!) correspondent Sandra Vergara about the obstacles they've overcome together and the criticism they have received along the way.

"I will say that, you know, of course it was difficult in the moment, but just being able to step back and work on our relationship to assess," Kirkconnell, 24, said. "Taking a moment away from the spotlight's been really good for us. It's been a lot better."

Asked about whether they have any relationship advice, James joked that he doesn't "think anyone needs to listen" to his "tips" on romance.

Rachael Kirkconnell and Matt James
Rachael Kirkconnell and Matt James. Michael Loccisano/Getty

"I'm following the lead of everybody else," James, 29, continued. "You know, I think that I look to people who have been where I'm trying to get to. Rachael's parents have been in a relationship for a long time. They've been married for probably about as long as I've been alive."

"So, you know, relationships that are prospering are what I kind of fix my eyes on and hope to emulate," he added.

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James and Kirkconnell fell in love on his Bachelor season, which aired earlier this year. Offscreen, Kirkconnell came under fire for her past racist actions, including being in attendance for an Antebellum-themed fraternity formal while in college.

After controversially defending Kirkconnell, longtime Bachelor host Chris Harrison took a temporary leave of absence from hosting the franchise. Harrison, 49, officially exited his role in June.

Matt James and Rachael Kirkconnell. Craig Sjodin/ABC via Getty

Though James picked Kirkconnell in the end, he said during March's After the Final Rose special that they couldn't "be in a relationship" and that she needed to "put in that work" to better understand how her past behavior was wrong. (Kirkconnell issued an apology on Instagram in February.)

After the pair sparked reconciliation rumors following their public breakup, James told PEOPLE in April that he was "pursuing" a relationship with Kirkconnell. The following month, James said that Kirkconnell gave him an "ultimatum."

"She was like, 'If you're going to make this work, let's do it. But, if you're not going to make it work, I'm going to let you do your own thing,'" he recalled on the Pomp podcast. "That's really all I needed."

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