The whole raison d'être of the Bachelor franchise is love.
We celebrated when Jared Haibon finally realized that, yes, that's what he had with close pal Ashley Iaconetti, rooted for favorites like Raven Gates and Adam Gottschalk to get a second stab at it on Bachelor in Paradise. Hell, we even hoped that Peter Weber would figure ish out and close out this past season with one special lady in mind.
But few people have felt the full weight of Bachelor Nation's hopes and dreams quite like Ben Higgins.
Heartbroken when his engagement to final rose recipient Lauren Bushnell unraveled, he took another stab at finding companionship on Winter Games only to declare he wasn't quite ready to put himself out there. He liked the idea of finding his forever person, something the Indiana native had hoped to accomplish by the age of 25 like most of his pals back home. But he truly had no idea how to do it.
"Life's been a little crazy for me, and it took me a while to get my mind and heart back in the place to start dating again," he explained to E! News. "But I'm starting to, and I think that's the best step. I didn't know how to start, and I'm starting."
As with all great romances, it began exactly as you'd expect: sliding into some DMs.
Admittedly, the beloved former lead, celebrating his 31st birthday today, is among the least likely members of Bachelor Nation to go trolling for connections on the 'gram. And that's not what he was doing that Nashville visit back in the spring of 2018. He was just trying to score a little hockey info. Looking to see who the Predators were taking on, he was searching through Instagram when he came across a photo of recent University of Mississippi grad Jessica Clarke at the game with her dad.
"I saw this picture and I said, 'Holy cow. This girl is gorgeous,'" he shared on a February 2019 episode of he and Iaconetti's iHeartRadio's Almost Famous podcast.
He just wasn't quite ready to shoot his shot.
It wasn't until that November that he reached out to the 24-year-old—"I said something along the lines of, 'Don't ask too much about how I saw your profile. I can explain later but if you're single, please message back,'"—And boy did he score.
Some 16 months in, the devoutly religious pair don't intend to cohabitate or even share the same city until they're engaged, but Higgins told Us Weekly that will "definitely" happen at some point this year. "We're great. It's fun. It's just healthy....I think she would say the same," he said. "I'm a better version of myself, a more free version of myself than I've been in a while."
Fittingly, for a man once so heartbroken he declared that dating felt "like a chore", their initial interactions were more low-pressure than your standard dinner-and-a-movie arrangements.
With Clarke in Nashville and the podcaster and co-founder of the Generous Coffee charity based in Denver, they connected over the phone and lengthy Facebook chats. "Long-distance has its benefits because it forces us to be intentional with our time," he explained to Us Weekly. And they did just that, covering ground such as their shared Christian faith and commitment to charity.
A crash course in their individual histories was touched on as well, the confounder of SweatNET Nashville and SweatNET Denver not being one of the millions who tuned in to watch Higgins romance 28 aspiring brides back in 2016.
And while their one mutual connection, Wells Adams, admittedly knew little about his fellow Ole Miss alum, he offered up a stamp of approval anyway. "When I first started talking to Jess, I texted Wells because I saw that we both followed her and I asked what do you know about this Jessica Clarke girl?" he said on Almost Famous. "And he goes I know she's beautiful and if you're talking to her, you're a lucky guy."
Which, Higgins was well aware. He just wasn't sure if he wanted to share his good fortune with the rest of the world.
Even after spilling in a January 2019 episode, that "I've started dating again," he was, in fact, seeing one person in particular, he wasn't prepared to spill beyond that. "The reason that I just didn't want to put out names yet is because at some level I didn't even really mean to slip up," he said days later. It wasn't as if he wanted to hide Clarke away, he just knew better than most how much fans like to dissect public relationships for sport. He and Bushnell's split wasn't the most Googled of 2017 for nothing.
"I had a hard time accepting the idea that the public would view and judge a relationship I could pursue," he wrote in a blog post reflecting on his stint on The Bachelor Winter Games. "Being scrutinized takes a huge toll on a couple."
It took all of a month for him to realize what they had built was strong enough to withstand a bit of attention.
Because in Clarke, he noted in a November Live Original interview with Duck Dynasty alum Sadie Robertson, he'd found a person with "an ability and a desire to empathize in all situations, a kindness and consideration really wanting me to be my best. Also, a joy in all circumstances." Not to mention someone he found to be, "smoking hot."
She, in turn, appreciates his humility and a selflessness she hadn't found in previous relationships. "He leads those around him well, always putting their needs and considerations above his own," she told Robertson. "I saw that right away, and the more I get to know him, the more I see it's true."
So when Clarke said she'd prefer not to make the 1,100-mile move to Denver without a shiny new accessory on her left hand, he applauded her stance. "Jess is really wise, and so she wants to make sure that we're taking the right steps the right time. So before she'd really moved to Denver, we need to be engaged," he told Us Weekly this past summer. (Though up until social distancing became an imperative, the two were enjoying their trip around the country as part of the Bachelor Live on Stage Tour.) "And I think that's smart. I think that's wise. And so those are steps that we're talking about and figuring out how we can best do that."
Because at this point, as he mentioned, it's a matter of when, not if.
That much was made all the more clear during Iaconetti and Haibon's August vows. Not when Clarke nailed her first entree into Bachelor Nation, though that was comforting for them both, but when his cohost made her way down the aisle.
"I don't know if I looked over and said it to her but I was pretty emotional right away when it came to the wedding. Ashley walked down and Jared saw her…and it hit me that this is the moment she has been waiting for and this is a miracle coming true," he later explained on the podcast. "I started crying, I started crying pretty good and Jess looked up at me and she took my hand and just squeezed it and just sat and looked forward."
In that moment he realized, "This is a girl that loves me. This girl loves me. She's in it with me no matter thick and thin so that was sweet."
So, yeah, it's taken a half decade more or so than he'd hoped, but he knows he's found the person he'll be giving roses (and peonies, tulips and whatever other blooms she might fancy) for the rest of his life.
Calling their union "the real thing," he told Us Weekly last August, "I don't think I'd be dating anybody if I didn't see it being a part of the future. So at this point I'm 30, I'm ready, I'm excited about it."
Same, Ben. Hard same.