Warning: This post contains spoilers for the Love Is Blind reunion.
Blind love is “not for the faint of heart.” That’s how Giannina Gibelli, a contestant on Netflix’s latest hit reality TV show Love Is Blind, reflected on the show to TIME on Wednesday morning. She was in the airport going through security as she chatted by phone about what had happened in the year-plus since the show wrapped filming. In just a few hours, the answers to viewers’ post-finale questions would be broadcast to the world in a reunion special airing on YouTube: after splitting dramatically at the altar, with Gibelli’s fiancé Damian Powers rejecting her after she said “yes,” the two almost immediately got back together — and are still very much an item, though they’re not married.
“Sometimes it feels like I’m in a dream, because it was so long ago,” she said of the experience of watching the show. “We just feel like such a normal couple now,” she said, noting that it’s “therapeutic” to have the truth out in the open after pretending that they had simply met through mutual friends. “It’s not to say it was butterflies and rainbows from there; there was definitely a lot of backlash in our relationship from [the wedding], but we were really just looking at this and saying, let’s give this a chance without such an intense timeline,” she said.
Like the rest of the engaged couples on Love Is Blind — Lauren and Cameron (still married), Amber and Barnett (still married), Kelly and Kenny (not married), Jessica and Mark (not married) and Diamond and Carlton (not married — although he did give Diamond her ring again on the reunion show), Giannina and Damian first met through the walls of the “pods” the show devised for the purpose of their reality dating experiment. They shared an emotional connection without ever seeing each other, followed by an engagement in which Giannina flipped the script to propose to Damian, then embarked on a romantic getaway to Mexico — before reality hit when they started living together back in Atlanta.
A fan favorite pair from the start, Giannina and Damian’s many fights — about sex, family and communication — were very relatable, but also TV gold. Their wedding, featuring blissful bride Giannina saying “I do” only to be turned down by Damian, was one of the biggest surprise twists in reality TV in recent memory. She ran away, slipping and dirtying her pristine dress in the mud. And when they fought in the empty ceremony room, she seemed to make the split final once and for all.
But as we know now, that’s not where their story ends. Gibelli spoke to TIME both before and after the reunion episode to offer her take on what viewers might have missed. Her love story with Damian may not have gone quite according to plan, but there was plenty to learn along the way. “It’s like love bootcamp,” she said of the show. “You never know what’s going to happen.” And now that the pressure is off, the focus on marriage is off, too. “A couple relationships ago I thought I was going to marry the guy and I didn’t; same with this one. So I’m not going to put marriage out there; whatever happens, happens. We just want to travel and have fun together,” she said.
TIME: In the first few episodes, you’re in the pods having these “dates.” What don’t we, as viewers, see about that part of the experience?
Gibelli: That was actually my favorite part of the whole thing: the experiment. I saw so many transformations and beautiful moments happen where people started to open up more and accepted things about themselves. I really learned you have to love yourself first in order to accept love. You kind of put your heart out to these people and they have to pick it up. That was real.
How long did you spend in the pods, all told?
I wish I knew. Probably 10 to 15 hours a day later on. The first day it was just like 7 minutes per person, a speed round like speed dating. Then it kept getting longer and longer. I felt like I was in there for a year; a lot of people said that. I felt like I was in a time capsule. You lose all sense of time or space.
In the editing, they cut out a lot of those early conversations by necessity. Did you discuss topics like politics, family, finances and career with your partners?
So that’s what goes into marriage, and that’s what made it so real: all those fears and all those emotions [were discussed]. It looks like only one conversation triggers things, but we’d been talking about those details all the time, and seeing how was this gonna work in real life. You agree on stuff, you don’t. I said yes [to his proposal]; he definitely helped me overcome those fears.
There’s a point when Damian’s parents decide they aren’t going to meet you on the show. Did they end up coming to the wedding?
Some family members did show up; they didn’t show it, but they did. I understood the reasons his parents didn’t want to be on the show. There’s so much with your likeness that can be used, and I respected that decision. I knew I was going to love them, because of Damian and because his spirit — he’s the most special person — and his patience and kindness.
So that part was more a rejection of the experiment and the televised nature of it than a rejection of you?
Absolutely. It’s your kid, and you want to protect them. So I totally understand.
Politically, did you have differences with Damian that became a sticking point?
[Laughs] I think we did a really good job of understanding each other’s views and actually respecting them. There’s a lot of things I opened his mind to in that process.
Was he on a different side of the political spectrum from you, though?
It felt like it. But it’s just because it’s something you hold so close to you that you get passionate. I’m a very passionate person. I don’t identify myself politically, but when it comes to activism and things I believe in, it doesn’t matter where it’s coming from for me — it’s just, is it the right thing for humanity?
One of the other standout moments is a fraught conversation you two have about your sex life, in which you note that you’re not satisfied. Did you resolve that complaint before the wedding?
The key is to focus on communication. At the end of the day, it was just, how can I make this better? I was getting married. I know it’s uncomfortable, but I’m just going to say it. He really just — picked it up. He was very confident about it, very passionate about it. You can’t just assume.
Talk me through the experience of the wedding day, of walking down the aisle and making your decision to say “I do.” What did that feel like?
It was very freeing. I had gone through obstacles to get to that point: finding someone, and falling in love with them through a wall, and constantly putting up these barriers and knocking them down with this person. My parents’ divorce was something I always talked about and feared. The fact I was able to overcome that obstacle — no matter what was waiting for me on the other side — gave me a lot of confidence. It kind of looks like a failure, but to me it was a very big success.
And then when we see you running out of the wedding — it’s so dramatic and emotional. What’s it like to look back on that? Are we seeing how it actually happened?
In a sense, yeah. It was a very intense moment. I don’t think they showed all of it; I don’t think everything was exactly how it went down. But the way that I felt, and tried to hold myself — that was all very real. A lot of people call that a dramatic moment, but I call that a very real moment that you have with yourself.
What have you learned?
To really love yourself and be your own best friend. That’s the core of everything. Love is a scary thing, but you’ve got to trust it. It will always treat you right.
How are you and Damian now? When did you get back together?
When we spoke again it was pretty much right after the wedding. I reached out to him; I just wanted to see if he was OK, since we were both so hurt. I know Damian, I got engaged to him. And I reached out to him to see — can we be friends? How did this happen? Let’s not leave things on a sour note. That night we just talked, and talked some more, and never really left each other’s sides.
How did your relationship change when the cameras and the premise of the show were gone?
It felt completely different. We could finally relax and take things at our own pace. It’s funny, though, because whenever we’ve gotten into arguments, we’re like ‘Ah, we’re still just as dramatic!’ So in that sense it’s like, OK, that’s just how we are! But it definitely felt lighter, like a weight had been lifted.
How are you with each other’s families now? Is everything smoothed over?
Right after the show ended I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with his family, and he came to my cousin’s wedding in March where he met my entire extended family. Everyone really loves him; we all get along.
What was your take on the other couples’ outcomes? Any surprises?
The heart wants what it wants sometimes. It’s not always pretty getting there.