As journeys go, Ashley Iaconetti and Jared Haibon's was dramatic. Dare we say the most dramatic in Bachelor franchise history?
When former nanny Iaconetti first spied Kaitlyn Bristowe's freshly scorned suitor on the Bachelor in Paradise beach in June 2015, she quickly declared him her soulmate. Never mind the feelings she had just professed months earlier to Bachelor Chris Soules. This was it.
Haibon was, how you say, less convinced. While he found her "really hot", he worried she was too emotional for him, and far too different from the shy, soft-spoken girls he'd gravitated towards in the past.
But any he's-just-not-that-into-you signals the onetime restaurant manager may have given off did little to squelch Iaconetti's determination. After she fended off other hopefuls (bye, Clare Crawley!), she even snagged a card to the fantasy suite where the self-professed virgin speculated she just might do you know what. Instead, she lost her heart. Haibon broke off their romance, hopped the next flight back to Rhode Island and left Iaconetti in what, at times, can feel like her natural state: Crying in front of a camera.
It's a moment he's looked back on more than a few times since he and the journalist and podcast host—turning 33 Mar. 6—starting dating in earnest in early 2018. For real this time, with nary an ABC camera in sight. "It's interesting to think if we left as a couple on Bachelor in Paradise season two if we would still be dating today," the 32-year-old speculated on "Help! I Suck at Dating" that May, the podcast he shares with fellow alum Dean Unglert, "'cause I go back and forth whether we would be."
Gun to his head, he said, he'd guess yes, but at this point it doesn't really matter. Because when he realized his feelings for his best friend were more than platonic—after several years of internally struggling to decide if the love he felt was that type of love—he knew she'd be receiving all of his roses for the foreseeable future. "We see this as, you know, it for us," he explained. "Life partner, marriage, kids, the whole—I mean, I hope so."
And while their journey didn't exactly move at typical Bachelor warp speeds, they've already checked off a few milestones. While in Mexico filming the 2018 season of Bachelor in Paradise—the same site where their relationship began three years earlier—Haibon got down on bended knee with a Neil Lane princess-cut diamond in hand, making good on the vow he had told E! News days earlier at the 2018 iHeartRadio KIIS FM Wango Tango By AT&T: "It feels good to know I'll never go on a first date again."
And with their August 2019 Rhode Island wedding in the books, the two are eyeing the next step in their journey. "We've been trying for three or four months now," he shared during a Feb. 25 appearance on the Clickbait With Bachelor Nation podcast. "This'll be the fourth month that we've actually tried. She has her watch, it tells her when she's ovulating. She's very good at [letting me know] this day, that day, this day, this day. [I'm like], 'Alright that's good, just tell me when.'"
While he's taking the laidback approach, Iaconetti has some definite ideas of how she'd like this process to roll out. "It's really about the gender. Because I want a boy to have another brother or a girl to have a sister. But I also need to have a girl," Iaconetti explained to Us Weekly in 2019. "I think that when you do the math, it equals out to three."
If Haibon is being truly honest, there's a small part of him that always knew he'd get here.
Though he broke things off with Iaconetti twice while they were in Mexico, "It never felt like it was over between us after Paradise," he explained on Iaconetti's YouTube series The Story of Us. (The pair dedicated a 44-minute episode of the show, produced by Married at First Sight and Seven Year Switch's Kinetic Entertainment, to explaining how they made the slow transition from friends to lovers.) That's why, he continued, "I said we were still going to be friends. It just didn't feel over."
After hanging out a few times that summer, Iaconetti invited him to join other franchise alum at a multi-day charity event she was hosting in her Virginia hometown.
There, she says, she was finally in her element after spending the entirety of their Paradise courtship "constantly scared of another girl coming in" and unable to showcase her true self. "I ruled that weekend," she recalled. "I was like total boss woman and Jared wasn't my focal point. It was putting together these two events."
Haibon, meanwhile, was completely keyed in on her. "I was in love," he said of seeing her in such an authentic setting. "You were just so down to earth and easy-going, ambitious and you were working hard that weekend and you looked sexy."
In other words, he realized, it was pretty stupid of him to let her go in the first place. "I was like, 'I'm an idiot,'" he admitted. "This girl is so sexy and sweet and we get along perfectly."
Iaconetti assumed this would be the turning point, especially after he invited her to a Boston event and they "made out real hard." But Haibon wasn't completely convinced he was in it for the right reasons.
Even as he crashed at Iaconetti's L.A. pad and painstakingly put together a Backstreet Boys music video for her birthday, he harbored doubts. "I was in a very confused place and I was being very indecisive. And I felt it was more okay for me to be decisive and say I shouldn't keep you in this grey area, so to speak, where I'm one foot in and one foot out," he explained. "And so I thought it was always best if I said we're better if we're just friends because at least it gives you the opportunity to date other people and not have any expectations of us."
He laid down some harsh, cruel-to-be-kind truths as they both prepared for their second venture on Bachelor's Mexico-based spin-off. "We both decided that we needed to make this decision individually, and that if we went we would be going for other people," he told Huffington Post of their 2016 stint. So he was, frankly, a little frustrated when she tried to block his blossoming romance with Caila Quinn.
"It was really difficult because I felt we were pretty clear on what we were going to do," he explained on The Story of Us. "I was trying to tell you we weren't going to be together because I wanted you to date other people, I wanted you to move on, I wanted you to be happy."
His message was grim—"I had our mutual friends telling me that he is never going to like you, that I am just obsessed, just infatuated and that you are never going to see me as anything more than a friend," she said—but it forced her to deal with the true reality of the situation. "We talked out every single emotion that we had that summer," she said, even touching on his short-lived romance with Quinn and a dalliance with Wells Adams she failed to get off the ground. "And that kicked off about a solid year of friendship."
For more than 12 months, the pair hung out platonically—no steamy make out sessions, no text messages about how lucky he was to have her in his life. (Both of which happened in the lead up to season three of Paradise.) Noted Iaconetti, "This was the time that I really stopped thinking that Jared was a marriage option."
She began viewing Haibon's withdrawn moods around her as a sign that, actually, he didn't like spending time with her at all, friendship or otherwise.
But to hear Haibon tell it, he was closed off because he simply didn't know how to handle the situation. No matter how many times they swapped friendly I love yous, he simply couldn't let himself take the chance that there was something more. "If we were going to cross that friendship boundary, there's no going back," he said. "And so if I even had, like, a two percent doubt about our relationship and what it could potentially be, then I probably shouldn't do it, because I don't want to risk losing you as a friend."
He describes what happens next as the kick in the pants he so desperately needed. Really, it was more the classic move of not realizing how much you truly value someone until you're afraid you could lose them.
Either way, when Iaconetti began romancing Kevin Wendt, the firefighter and The Bachelorette Canada winner she met on The Bachelor Winter Games in 2017, Haibon panicked.
In that moment, Haibon said he realized, "You need to do something or you're going to lose the best thing that ever happened to you. Right or wrong, I've got to say something."
Because he was well aware it was a little bit wrong. Wendt had properly wooed Iaconetti and continued to do so after filming wrapped. And hadn't this been the type of self-assured partner Haibon had always pushed her to pursue? "I did a lot of self-reflection and trying to figure out what I want, what I should do," he admitted. "If I should do anything. Do I say anything? It's so unfair for me to say something. God, it's so unfair. Ashley goes on a show, finds another guy and now I'm going to say something? What kind of a--hole does that?"
Answer: the guy who makes the most of an opportunity. Because long before Iaconetti flew to Vermont and met a firefighter, she and Haibon had planned a January getaway to St. Lucia with her sister Lauren Iaconetti and their close pals Jade and Tanner Tolbert. But even as they romped around another type of paradise, he was too nervous to make a move until a chat with Tanner, his self-dubbed "fairy godfather" set him straight.
"He said something that really resonated with me and thank God he said it," explained Haibon. "Tanner said, 'It's more unfair to Ashley if you don't say anything. Because you need to give her the opportunity to let her know how you feel and let her make up her own mind."
For Iaconetti, his confessional, which took place aboard an ocean float, was the rom-com situation she'd always been waiting for. But once the guy made the grand gesture to get the girl, even planting a passionate kiss on her before she boarded her flight home, she wasn't content to embrace the happily ever after and let the credits roll.
"Bottom line is, I left and I thought, okay, well, that's everything I've ever wanted, but I'm definitely going to continue dating this other guy because I do like him," summed up Iaconetti. "He's pursued me. He's really liked me. He's been all in the entire time. And I deserve to pursue somebody else and for somebody else to pursue me after all this time. And that's what we're going to do."
Back in Wendt's arms, though, she had to admit something felt off. Shortly after he missed out on her 30th birthday celebration due to work commitments, she decided to break things off. "It sounds a little harsh but it's just that lack of magic," she explained to cohost Ben Higgins on their iHeartRadio's The Ben and Ashley I Almost Famous Podcast. (Wendt made a guest cameo.) "We get along very well, but there's just a little something missing and you can't really pinpoint what it is. That's just how I feel."
Haibon, meanwhile, was doing his best to bewitch, spending three days writing a letter detailing the "emotional rollercoaster" of their relationship and revealing he worried letting her go "could end up being the biggest mistake of my life." In one poignant passion, he shared all the traits that made him fall for Iaconetti.
"I love how you actually took the time to watch the original Superman because you knew how much that would mean to me. I love watching football with you, even though the Giants suck. I love how you actually like making me coffee in the morning. I love how sweet and kind you are to my family and friends. I love that you made me that Matchbox 20 music video for my birthday. And I love that you call me Cory Matthews," he penned, summing up his thoughts with a simple sentence: "I just wanted to let you know that I'll still be here and I'll still be thinking of you."
Now that he's got his girl, Haibon hasn't let up. He gushed to E! News about their fantasy suite-like May 2018 getaway to Hawaii and how spending "pretty much every minute" of six straight days together made him realize he was ready to make a forever kind of leap. "When I left her for the first time I was just like, 'I don't want to leave you,'" he noted. "That was a big moment for me when I said this is life long, life partner stuff."
But he saves his most romantic thoughts for his gal. "He's written me other letters and filled my apartment with flowers," Iaconetti gushed of their courtship. "He tells me every day that he's the luckiest man alive."
Naturally, Iaconetti responds in kind. "I love him very much," she said on her podcast. "He is my person. He is my soulmate."
And though the two had already long since sealed their forever, they admit to feeling even more cemented in the year-and-a-half since their dream vows. Take their first married Thanksgiving, spent with both of their families at their sides. "It's really just funny to be at dinner tables and be like, 'You're married and you're married and we're married,'" she shared with ET. "It's a whole different feel."
Nothing like getting the happily ever after you always dreamed about.
(Originally published May 23, 2018 at 4 p.m. PT)