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I spent all of my twenties and nearly half of my thirties as an unmarried woman floating among a few aimless relationships but mostly on my own. My experiences ranged from the no-time-for-dating working girl to the nearly engaged “I took the ring back” breakup text recipient. It’s safe for you all to consider me thoroughly versed on the joys and sufferings of an unattached person.

Today, I write this as a happily married woman. But I still recall a handful of quippy responses I crafted in defense to the dreaded “Why aren’t you married?” interrogation. How many months I spent longing for unrequited love. How much time I spent investing in relationships with men who were not right for me. What I realize now is just how much energy I wasted on the wrong things when I was single and looking. Here are a few of the many lessons I learned (the hard way).

01. Don’t let other people dictate how you feel.

Everyone wants to feel desired and loved. But when years passed without a meaningful relationship in my life, there were times when self-doubt took its toll. I often questioned whether there was someone truly out there for me.

Usually, it was the opinion of others or the act of comparing myself that caused me to lose hope. Everyone has an opinion. Some wanted to get involved, from giving advice to setting me up on dates—my personal favorite was when a priest friend arranged a blind date for me (sorry, Fr. Bob, we didn’t make it past a follow-up phone call).

Then there was my well-intentioned grandmother. “I hope you get married before I die,” my grandmother often repeated throughout my single years. “I’m holding out so that you live longer,” I would retort. She even went so far as to mail me my wedding gift years before I had met my husband. In the event that she did die before my walk down the aisle, the check ensured I was given what all my married cousins had been gifted. (Yes, you read that right).

I eventually learned to always consider the source when getting advice. If ever it felt a bit much, I reminded myself that people just wanted to be helpful. Most importantly, I discovered that I cannot allow others to dictate how I feel or my journey.

02. Don’t compare your life to those around you.

Holding out for the right one can feel discouraging at times, particularly when everyone around you seems to be falling in love. During one season, I had all three roommates get engaged. I was in ten weddings before I got married. During much of this time, I was not even dating someone.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Spending energy comparing what others have to what we lack becomes a black hole, sucking the joy from our souls. You are not defined by your relationship status. Being single does not make you less of a healthy or happy person. Your life should not be on hold because you haven’t walked down the aisle yet. I wish I had embraced these truths more.

03. When you see a major red flag, move on. Immediately.

Do not stray from the things that you value most or accept that which you cannot tolerate. I dated more than one man who did not agree with my deeply held religious beliefs and practices. During my last breakup, my ex-boyfriend challenged me, “What if you really believed that there was someone who could be all that you needed?” That was a turning point for me. He was right; I needed to not only believe but also hold out for that.

There were behaviors, signs, and hurtful words spoken to me from men that I dated, but I often rationalized these red flags. I let my desire to fix things dictate my relationships, feeling that we could work through every issue together. A man’s years of learned behavior or bad habits never disappeared because of anything that I did or said. You must ask yourself whether you can completely accept the person as they are now. If you feel unhappy or unfulfilled in a dating relationship, marriage will never, in any way, improve the relationship.

Being in a bad relationship is far worse than being single. In the end, I prolonged doomed relationships, trying to make incompatible things work instead of taking the action required: saying goodbye. Make the decision to preserve your own happiness, and do what is required when you see red flags—take action in the moment, and move on.

04. Real love isn’t the same thing as instant chemistry.

Before I met my husband, my relationships were driven by emotion, attraction, and my subconscious desire to fix someone’s brokenness. My framework for developing healthy relationships was skewed. This explains why it took so long for me to recognize true love.

I spent the first part of my relationship with my husband questioning if I felt chemistry. As I waited for some type of earth-shattering cinematic experience, love softly won my heart in the form of a man I did not expect. I hardly knew how to respond to a love that was so unwavering from a man who shared my same values and beliefs, with characteristics that were so well-suited to mine.

When you’re looking for a life partner, think outside of your type. Your love story will be different than any other love story you have ever heard. Allow yourself the joy of being surprised by love. 

05. Focus on becoming the person you want to be.

Instead of trying to fix bad relationships or pining after the wrong men, I wish I had invested more of my time in becoming a better version of myself. Had I focused more energy on becoming the person I wanted to be, I may have matured in areas that still need growth.

Since being married, I have discovered firsthand how we bring our wounds into our relationships, and they affect us and our partner. Our unresolved conflicts can be land mines in the landscape of our relationship. It’s not easy to face your fears, pain, or past, but greatness is never developed through avoidance or preoccupation.

An investment in yourself is never wasted—it enriches your life and the lives around you, and it will increase the gift that you will be to your future spouse.

06. The ‘right’ timing isn’t what you have in mind.

There were times in my life that I felt “ready” for a relationship, yet nothing ever panned out during those times. It was frustrating. When was it going to be my time?

At the end of 2009, my world unraveled as my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. At the same time, the stars aligned for me to meet my future husband. Believe me, this is not how I wanted my love story to play out. This was not a period in my life where I felt “ready” for a relationship. But even in the early stages of dating, my now-husband never hesitated to show up to support me in whatever way I needed. He journeyed with me through the most sacred and painful time of my life—my mom battling cancer, moving to hospice, and eventually dying—all within nine months.

Love rarely happens the way we plan it. Continuing to hope for love, in whatever package it comes in, was what prepared me to accept this man for who he was. Trust that everything will shake out imperfectly and beautifully. Maybe you will be ready, maybe you won’t. But keeping a sharp eye and a hopeful heart, even at inopportune times, will serve you well.

It can be hard to believe that things will work out when you’re navigating the single life, but you can choose to use the time to help yourself rather than doubt yourself. Don’t invest energy in areas that will lead you away from your heart’s desire. Embrace the life you have, and enjoy it!

Photo Credit: Rachel Haslam Photography