I never thought I’d be unmarried for all of my 20s. Like so many of my peers, I was surprised by how hard—and sometimes fruitless—dating had become. Wasn’t it supposed to be easier than this? Weren’t we supposed to have met someone by now?

Instead, my single—and by single, I simply mean unmarried—friends in San Francisco have ranged between the ages 24 to 40. There’s no magic age when you’re suddenly “ready” to be married, and there’s certainly no guarantee that the person you’re dating now is “the one.” If there’s anything I’ve learned from dating over the last decade, it’s definitely that.

But because the God I serve—albeit in an often stumbling, up-and-down, sometimes trusting, sometimes doubting, sometimes just totally lost and needing him kind of way—is incredibly gracious and good, He’s taught me so much more than that.

Whatever season you’re in: single and loving it, single and struggling, dating, engaged, married, simply trying to be in a relationship with another broken and beautiful human being, I hope these lessons are like guideposts for you.

Dating is a constant lesson in vulnerability.

There is no closeness without risk. This is both the awesome and impossibly hard thing about relationships. You have to bare little pieces of yourself to the other person as you get closer, otherwise, you won’t. And to get a date in the first place, you’re going to have to put yourself out there. Be open to blind dates, try a dating app, ask your married friends for advice and just be open to people who don’t fit your usual “dating profile.”

Things don’t always click right away.

Just because you’re finally “in a relationship” doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly feel perfectly comfortable with this person. I have been so guilty of this. I want to go from “Hi, nice to meet you” to cooking dinner together or just sitting in silence reading our own books side-by-side because we’re just that comfortable with each other. Unfortunately (and fortunately), that’s not how dating works. I’ve learned to appreciate all the different stages of relationships—from the early butterflies to the comfortable nights being “alone together.” They’re all valuable in their own ways.

Your perfect relationship might not lead to marriage.

Enter with expectations of learning, growing and changing, and you’ll find those are much more easily met than specific end-goals like marriage and babies and happily ever after. The truth is: Unless you marry that person, you’re going to break up. This may sound pessimistic but what I really want to share with you is that’s 100 percent OK for a relationship to end. It can be good! Because it’s true what they say: You’re closer to finding your spouse when you’re single than when you’re dating someone that’s not right for you.

Dating and marriage are not going to lead to your happiness.

They’re just not. Relationships are hard. Honestly, sometimes I have wondered if they’re worth it! But then, I’ve quickly been reminded that they are because they force you to change and grow—ideally, with someone you love deeply.

As Gary Thomas shares in his pivotal book Sacred Marriage, relationships are about your holiness, not your happiness. Relationships can be so much fun but even more than that, they’re the best change agents I know. When I’m in my own safe little bubble, it’s all too easy to get comfortable. But when I’m in relationship with people—romantic or otherwise—they act like a mirror, reflecting both the rough and the beautiful parts of me.

Don’t date someone you wouldn’t want to be friends with.

Just because the person looks great on paper or the match seems to “make sense,” it doesn’t mean it will. If you don’t have fun together, if you don’t make each other laugh, if talking is still like pulling teeth several months into the relationship, it’s probably one to let go.

Sharing too much too soon is almost always disastrous.

I’ve learned this the hard way. Whether you share too much too soon or someone is trying to get too close to you too fast, it just doesn’t work. So, repeat this one with me: Take your time.

Grace can never be in short supply.

Give grace to yourself. To your date. To your former dates. As one of my friends recently said, we’re all just messy broken people trying to put the pieces back together. And in the end, we really need each other on the journey back home.

Stop judging yourself for your imperfections and stop looking at your dates through a giant lens of scrutiny. (I’m really talking to myself here!) While it can be tempting to analyze people and relationships in the name of “wisdom,” I’d advocate that we need to give more grace. At least, that’s what I’m trying to remind myself because Lord knows I need to get better at that.

Talk about your exes with dignity.

Remember that even though they’re not the one for you, they’re the one for someone else (and you know, a child of God).

Physical intimacy is not the enemy.

Growing up in a conservative Christian context, I interpreted some people’s teachings and books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye as saying that physical affection would most certainly lead to sex and that sex is the worst possible thing you can do. Actually, maybe that’s what they were saying, but I don’t really see it that way anymore. Speaking from experience, I completely agree that sex before marriage is not a good idea—not to mention unbiblical—but I think we’re approaching it the wrong way.

Instead of being afraid of physical closeness, let’s shift to viewing it through a lens of awe and respect. I adore my married friends who share with me about their sex lives—in appropriate detail, of course—because they’re helping me see that sex can be at once awkward and awesome.

Marriage is not the end all, be all.

Our culture, and the church especially, are often guilty of elevating marriage as the highest goal of life and treating singles as second-class citizens. The truth is that in the Bible, Paul actually touts singleness as a better place to be. Why? Because there is such freedom in being single!

You’re free to be used by God however He calls you, without checking in with a spouse. You’re free to go on adventures. And you’re free to pour into relationships other than just that one. This is not to say that marriage isn’t wonderful, it’s simply to say that maybe we’ve gotten too single-minded (pardon the pun) about marriage, and we need to stop caring quite so much about someone’s “relationship status.”

You have to be OK on your own.

This is the hardest thing: believing that you are enough. Just you, no frills, no one on your arm, no ring on your finger. Dating will not cure your loneliness or your boredom. I am reminded of this over and over again. Now that I’m engaged, I still experience loneliness. Especially in a city this big and in the swirl of social media, it’s easy to feel like everyone else has something better going on.

This is not true. Everyone’s relationships are hard. Everyone’s life is a little rough around the edges; it’s just that they’re only showing you select pieces of themselves and their lives. So, get to know yourself through the process of dating and through time on your own. Go for a walk, take a class, do something that inspires you.

And hey, you may just meet someone wonderful along the way.

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