From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
SEAN LOWE IS READY TO SHED THE "BACHELOR" LABEL—AS SOON AS HE CAN set a wedding date. But even though he found love on the show, the Dallas-based fitness model and entrepreneur, 29, was initially "skeptical" about being the series's leading man. "It felt wrong to date so many women," says Lowe, who was sent home brokenhearted as a contestant on Emily Maynard's season of The Bachelorette in 2012. But the journey to true love wasn't all roses and kisses for Lowe, who admits, "It killed me to send people home that were so emotionally invested. Breaking hearts was the worst part."

Lowe's season may have ended with a romantic proposal (he got down on bended knee last November to propose to graphic designer Catherine Giudici in Thailand), but it also had its fair share of fights and confrontation, most of which were initiated by the season's resident bad girl Tierra LiCausi. Alienating the ladies with her persistent made-for-TV injuries and aggressive pursuit of Lowe, she was the perfect villainess. "She's not an evil person, but she can't get along with her peers," he says. When the drama—(Hypothermia scares! Fights about eyebrows!)—seemed to be derailing his chance at finding a real partner through the show, he questioned the entire process. "It was a roller-coaster ride," he says. "There were moments when I didn't think it would work out."

It was his close connection with Giudici, 27, that kept him going. "Once my relationship with Catherine progressed, I stopped doubting everything," says Lowe. After he proposed to her with a 3.15 carat Neil Lane ring, they continued their relationship in secret while the show aired for the rest of the country. Unable to go out in public, they had fun with low-key (and indoor) dates. "I've talked to Bachelors in the past who say that part is really difficult, because if you're locked in the house with someone for a weekend, it doesn't matter how much you love them, sometimes you're going to get on each other's nerves," Lowe says. "But that never really happened with us. We loved every minute of it."

Now that they've been able to step out in public, they've had to get used to being in the public eye. First Lowe was hailed as "The Virgin Bachelor" on tabloid covers, an epithet that resulted from his own admission that he was a "born-again virgin" following a decision he made to abstain from sex until marriage. (Giudici, for one, says she "honors" his beliefs.) Then, with Lowe's appearance as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, came relentless tabloid stories that the pair were fighting over their temporary move to L.A. and his friendship with Dancing pro Peta Murgatroyd. "Over Already!" screamed one tabloid headline.

Dealing with that has taken a thick skin, says Lowe, but they are up for the challenge. "We laugh it off," he says of the negative news coverage. "The magazines certainly don't have any insights into our relationship." As for the jealousy claims? "I knew the rumors would start flying no matter what partner I got," says Lowe of his pairing with Murgatroyd. "Catherine knows the real deal, and she's friends with Peta. They get along great."

While everything is currently rosy for the nascent couple, Lowe does admit a post-Bachelor lifestyle has taken some adjustment. "It's very weird to be recognized," he says. "I don't care for the fame aspect." And the biggest challenge, he says, "is the lack of a routine. I used to have a very set schedule. These days every day is different and hectic." Still, he doesn't rule out a future in front of the camera. "One thing I've learned throughout this process is that as soon as I plan out my future, things change. I'm just going to take every day as it comes. Catherine has the same mentality." In fact the pair credit their go-with-the-flow routine for keeping them "sane" amidst the constant attention. "My favorite time of day is after dancing, in the evening," says Lowe. "Catherine and I cuddle on the couch together and watch reruns of Friends. We may be living in Hollywood, but we have a very low-key life."

As for wedding plans? Lowe, who has confirmed he will tie the knot with Catherine on national television, says there's no date set ... yet. "We talk about it all the time," he says. "But things are so crazy right now, we're going to wait until things calm down to come up with a game plan." (Right now they're looking at sometime in 2013. Once they agree on one, "Catherine is going to handle most of the wedding plans; I'll take care of the honeymoon," Lowe says.)

One thing is for sure—this soon-to-be-former Bachelor says he won't fall victim to any franchise curse. "I went into this with an open heart, genuinely seeking someone," Lowe says. "If you don't have the right mentality, I could see how you could get sidetracked. You do get a lot of attention and start to feel like the whole marriage thing may not be the best idea. But for those guys, their hearts weren't in the right place to begin with." Naysayers, look elsewhere, says Lowe: His priority is and always will be his future wife. "I know this is meant to be," he says. "And I promise you, I'll never be with more than one woman again for the rest of my life!"