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In my life, there is something special that can happen on a Friday night at one of my girlfriends’ homes. The smell of fresh appetizers and baked goods from the oven overflows the room. The noise of laughter and joy is as strong as the gin and tonics you are drinking all together.

The night goes on; the food and drinks keep coming. You all share the updates of your lives; process your fears, insecurities, hopes, and dreams. You process the highs and lows of dating, the stress of your careers, and everything in between. You bring your heart, your true self, and lay it open to women who love and challenge you.

No one woman has the same experience of being single, dating, marriage, or divorce. We all bring so many different experiences to our life story. However, there is something powerful when we can bring our most real, vulnerable self in a way that allows us to learn from each other. It’s in the spirit of these kinds of intimate conversations that I decided to ask some of my closest girlfriends who are in their thirties to share some of the hard-won life lessons they wish they’d known in their twenties. So, make yourself a G&T—or just some tea—and join us for the heart-to-heart and wisdom that only experience brings.

Happiness in life does not start and end with marriage

“We all grew up on the feel-good Disney movies that suggested that anything other than ‘happily ever after’ was not normal. All through my twenties, I saw marriage as the ultimate jackpot, the winning lottery number; once you got married you had fully arrived in life. Everything would be easy now that you found your special person, your lobster.

This is a false mindset that I think many well-intentioned women do not realize they have bought into. While I am not married, I wish I knew the danger of this narrative years ago. I think it would have saved my heart from painful, upsetting breakups, and I think I would have made better choices in terms of the types of men I dated.” —Emily, 36

“My life has gone very differently than I ever imagined. I lived in a community with other women at the age of 22 and stayed for six years. I eventually left, realizing my time there was neither emotionally healthy or safe for me. With no college degree or prospects, I moved back to my parents to adjust and build a new life. Eventually I found work which turned into a full time career in ministry. I found a new rhythm of work, friends, going out, and eventually dating.

Fast forward to the present. I just turned 35 this year. I am still single and currently not dating anyone. While the desire of my heart is for marriage and family someday, there is a deep shift in my spirit about these things, even if I do not have them right now.” —Katelynn, 35

Knowing yourself and trusting yourself is vitally important to finding a healthy relationship

“Ten years ago, I was totally unaware of how little I loved myself. I saw my worth and value as much (or as little) as the man I was dating paid attention to me. When I eventually realized this wasn’t a healthy relationship for me, I had to face the difficult work of untangling myself from a man who did not treat me well. However, the more important lesson was the inner work I had to do on myself.

I had to learn what it meant to understand my worth and value just the way I was. I had to learn to love myself just the way I was. I went to counseling to understand why I stayed too long in a relationship that was not good for me. Ten years ago I had no idea who I was as a woman, a unique person. I wish I knew back then what I know now, but now I know better so I can do better.” —Meghan, 36

“I have realized over time that I can trust myself to know when it feels right to date or not date. Sometimes I think women feel this pressure to always say ‘yes’ to dates or force themselves to use online dating, because that’s what everyone else is doing or people tell you it’s the only way you will meet someone.

I am realizing that living my best life right now may not include a significant other, and that is okay. I can have a rich, beautiful life right here and now. I have realized that if I don’t feel ready or called to do online dating I don’t need to force myself out of fear of not finding someone.

I can trust myself, my heart, and know I am right where I am supposed to be.” —Katelynn, 35

Counseling can be a great tool to strengthen yourself and your dating life

“As a very type-A and extroverted person, I go after life with a lot of enthusiasm and energy. Several years ago, my counselor helped me understand how to channel my personality to navigate dating in a healthier way (without changing who I am). She called it ‘leaning back vs. leaning forward.’

Leaning back is a healthy, self-aware, and intentional way a woman lives her own life. She pursues her dreams and creative pursuits. She lives a rich, abundant life. She has strong friendships and makes time to be with those she loves. She is focused on living her best life, without becoming consumed with dating or meeting the right guy. On the other hand, leaning forward is when her energy comes forward too much towards a man, focusing all her time and energy on him. This looks like spending all her time with him, getting skittish when he doesn’t respond right away to texts or calls, focusing all her mental energy on him, and making her life all about him.

I came to realize my excitement and eagerness in a new relationship was leaning forward too much. In some cases, that led to the relationship ending. I had to learn the hard way but from this insight I have tremendously grown.

I have learned how to be confident in myself and my own life without becoming overly obsessed with a man in my life. The internal shift has changed how I look at my life as a single woman, and taught me how better to relate to men.” —Sara, 31

“To be healthy in a relationship, we have to be healthy by ourselves first; this is something I have not always believed. I used to think being in a relationship with a man would fulfill or fix the things I didn’t love about myself. I quickly learned that is one of the easiest ways to start a relationship off on the wrong note.

By doing my own deep soul work with a therapist, I’ve been able to more clearly reject the lie that a relationship will give me all I need. Each and every one of us is worth the inner transformation that can happen in counseling and therapy, regardless of whether a romantic relationship comes at the end of it.” —Patty, 35