James, 29, celebrated his girlfriend's special day on Instagram Sunday with a carousel of sweet shots of the couple since they first met on The Bachelor in late 2020.
"Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you - Deuteronomy 31:6," the former Bachelor lead wrote in the caption.
"Happy Birthday to my emergency contact @rachaelkirkconnell ❤️🥳🎂," he added. "I love you."
It's been a tumultuous year for the couple, who met on season 25 of the ABC reality show. Though they did not get engaged during the finale, the two decided to pursue a relationship until racially insensitive photos of Kirkconnell at an antebellum plantation-themed college party in 2018 resurfaced online while the season aired.
"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 said. "Taking a moment away from the spotlight's been really good for us. It's been a lot better."
"I'm following the lead of everybody else," James added, regarding his approach to being in a relationship. "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 noted.
The following month, Kirkconnell told Extra that "it was a bit of a journey" to get their relationship back on track, but felt they were "in a really good place" at the time.
"We've had a lot of love come our way, but I like to think that even though people have been super, super nice, we just like to focus on each other and put all of that aside and let that outside noise stay a little more quiet these days," she told the outlet. "So it's been good though, we've been good."
Craig Sjodin/ABC via Getty Matt James and Rachael Kirkconnell
James echoed Kirkconnell's sentiments, adding, "The importance has always been to seek authenticity ... and that is what drew me to Rachael and to go at our own pace — [and] not fall victim to other people's expectations. That's kind of what we continue to do, and it's working for us."
Now, James has Kirkconnell's support as he competes on another ABC reality series, Dancing with the Stars. He told PEOPLE prior to the season 30 premiere that his girlfriend has even helped him rehearse: "She's been keeping me in shape!"