Maybe two "I love you's" aren't better than one? Ben Higgins and Lauren Bushnell welcomed viewers into their post-Bachelor lives this week with the series premiere of Ben & Lauren: Happily Ever After, and psychotherapist and relationship expert Rhonda Richards-Smith tells Us Weekly exclusively whether she thinks the couple have the tools to move past their lingering tension — most of it stemming from Higgins' once strong feelings for JoJo Fletcher.
Ben & Lauren's premiere, which aired on Freeform Tuesday, October 11, focused on the pair's drama over whether to attend Fletcher's After the Final Rose, with Bushnell, 26, telling the camera that she is tired of having her Bachelor season 20 rival associated with them. (Higgins famously informed both Bushnell and runner-up Fletcher that he loved them before proposing to the flight attendant in his March finale.) Bushnell said being at ATFR wasn't her "idea of fun," and after Higgins, 28, offered advice to newly engaged Fletcher and Jordan Rodgers from the audience, he bickered with his fiancée over her feedback.
Richards-Smith tells Us that Bushnell — who was reluctant during the episode to make lunch plans with Fletcher, 25, and Rodgers, 28 — appears "quite eager to cut the cord from The Bachelor altogether." If so, "Lauren should convey this to Ben as soon as possible," so they can "continue to build their relationship in the limelight," according to Richards-Smith.
"Lauren's approach to expressing her thoughts and feelings to Ben is quite indirect," she continues. "This kind of testing can be common early on in relationships; however, it's a habit that should be avoided whenever possible."
That said, the couples counselor does not think the flight attendant is necessarily in the wrong to balk at having Fletcher remain in their lives: "Lauren has every right to want JoJo completely out of the picture when it comes to her relationship with Ben. While Ben and Lauren share a connection with JoJo because of The Bachelor, they are no longer obligated to be a part of each other's lives."
Richards-Smith also has questions about Ben's concern that Lauren didn't like his comments to Fletcher and Rodgers. "The conversation that Ben and Lauren had about his speech leads me to believe that there are some very heavy emotions in play that the couple have yet to address," she explains.
"Does Ben feel the need to walk on eggshells with Lauren to avoid conflict? Is Lauren concerned that Ben may regret his decision?" the expert asks. "These are tough conversations that can anchor their relationship and give them a better idea of how they can improve their partnership moving forward."
However, she is encouraged that Higgins and Bushnell started couples counseling last week, which the psychotherapist feels is "demonstrating that they are committed to one another and are willing to do the work necessary to make their love last." She also encourages all couples, especially those who met on reality TV, to "commit to unplugging from social media, blogs and phones on a regular basis."
"Hopefully, Ben and Lauren's decision to engage in couples counseling is preemptive in nature and will equip them with the tools they need to have a healthy, loving and satisfying relationship," Richards-Smith concludes.
Tell Us: How do you think Ben Higgins and Lauren Bushnell are faring as a couple?
Ben & Lauren: Happily Ever After? airs on Freeform Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET. To learn more about Rhonda Richards-Smith, click here.
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