We’re entering the holiday season, which is both good and bad. Good, because we get rockin’ things like pumpkin pie, Christmas lights and carols, Jesus’ birthday, and a fresh start in a new year; bad, because we get awkward holiday parties, probing questions about our love life (or lack thereof), and the fear of entering another year with no change in our relationship status.

As if that’s not dismal enough, we then get to top it all off with Valentine’s Day, where we’re reminded for the fourth time in a few short months that—guess what—we just may be terminally single.

I’ve always wanted to be married, but I’m still single at 44 years old. In assessing my situation in recent years, I’ve had to own up to a lot of foolishness in my dating history. It’s been a process of discovery that’s forced me to make some changes in the way I approach dating and the pursuit of marriage. Luckily for you, it also makes me a cautionary tale so you can learn from my mistakes.

In honor of the holidays and in light of all I’ve learned, I bring you a list of some of the key principles I’ve discovered in my dating journey.

Changed Assumptions

Your approach to dating may be all wrong. Perhaps you’re waiting for “The One,” you’re expecting someone to be plopped in your lap with little to no effort on your part, you assume you’ll hang out with someone for a few years and “see where it goes,” or you have an ideal “type” that you’re holding out for.

It’s time to change your assumptions about dating and realize that finding a life partner isn’t a mystical experience where the stars align and a light shines down from heaven. Dating is getting to know healthy but flawed people who share your values and esteem for marriage. Any number of folks could fit this bill; start looking for them.

Prayers for Guidance

Too many of us jump into dating in our own strength, assuming that our looks, smarts and/or winsome personalities will carry us through. But today’s dating culture is a flat-out mess, with hookups, “friendlationships” and self-centered priorities dominating the landscape.

If you want a relationship that goes the distance, it’s time to get on your knees. Ask God boldly for wisdom in the process. Pray for your future mate, even if you’re not dating yet. Put your heart on the line, and listen to what God says. He’s the only one who knows what’s best for you and actually has the power to do something about it.

Friends Who Love You

Dating can’t be done in a vacuum. It’s a community project. Surround yourself with a tribe of folks who are for you and your relationship future. Be open to setups from wise and discerning friends who know you well. Listen to advice—even honest rebuke. If you want to get married someday, say so. Don’t be ashamed to voice your desire to others, and let them help you get there.

Grown-Up Choices

Dating isn’t for dummies. It’s for grown-ups. If you haven’t grown up yet, you shouldn’t be dating. Now’s the time to get a full-time job, tackle your crippling debt, move out of your parents’ house, and take ownership of your responsibilities and choices.

Counseling Sessions

Don’t be afraid to get professional help when you need it. Baggage from your past, as well as current addictions and unhealthy behaviors, need to be met head-on. Find a professional counselor or pastor who can help you start processing and healing. Cycles of behavior and sin can be broken, but they don’t just go away.

New Connections

Think you’ve met every single person in your known world? Then it’s time to expand your world. Join a committee at church. Volunteer somewhere. Try out a new small group. Go to that party hosted by a friend of a friend of a friend. Give online dating a shot. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut; getting out of a rut takes effort and risk. But the risk may pay off. At the very least, you’ll make new friends and gain a few new experiences.

Willingness to Ask (or Accept)

Speaking of risks, and lest we forget, getting a date actually involves asking someone out (or accepting an ask). Are you actively considering potential people in your sphere? Are you willing to give someone a chance whom maybe you’ve written off before?

Remember, this is a date, not a marriage proposal. This isn’t about serial dating or being a player, either; this is about getting to know a variety of quality people. By making a bold ask and seeing what happens, you’re setting yourself apart from about 80 percent of your peers. Go for it.

Realistic Standards

Should you date just anyone? No. That’s a waste of time. But so is hanging on to your unrealistic list of 50 must-haves. To move into relationship with someone, you both need five things: a serious relationship with God that actually affects the way you think and live; evidence of growth in this faith—no stagnation or stall-outs; the maturity and ability to move a relationship to an end goal of marriage, a humble and teachable spirit; and a general alignment of priorities in life. Everything else is negotiable to start.

Healed Relationships

Before entering a healthy relationship, you may need to heal some other ones or dump them altogether. Still bitter toward your parents? It’s time to forgive them. Stuck in a go-nowhere relationship? Cut the cord. Pining after the guy who clearly isn’t into you? Let him go. Be relationally whole and free to look ahead with confidence and joy.

Trusted Mentors

Face it; you don’t know it all. You need people in your life to tell you what’s what. You need mentors. You also need accountability. Find mature people of the same sex (or couples) who love Jesus and are willing to tell it to you straight. Example: if you’re dating someone and all three of your mentors think he or she is a bona fide loser or leech, break off the relationship—no questions asked. When we’re into someone, we lose objectivity fast. Your mentors shouldn’t let you get away with it.

Healthy Views of Marriage

For the Christian, the ultimate goal of dating is marriage. Otherwise you’re just doing decades of pizza dates and hangouts. Lame. Date with purpose and a healthy view of marriage. Avoid these two extremes: 1) treating marriage haphazardly like a plan B or C, where it’s nothing more than a capstone to be tacked on at your convenience and according to your expectations, or 2) looking to marriage as the be-all, end all, the thing that will solve all your problems and complete you. Marriage comes with its own set of problems. But it’s also pretty awesome. Honor it at all costs (Hebrews 13:4).

Belief in a Sovereign and Good God

This is my favorite, because it’s what I cling to when I’m tempted to shake my fist at God, throw in the towel and eat three pints of Ben and Jerry’s. God’s in control. He’s not wringing His hands, wondering what to do about your love life. He’s not limited in His ability to match you with someone amazing. Best of all, He loves you unconditionally, regardless of your past mistakes and missteps. He’s a God of fresh starts and surprising stories. He is a relational God and the Creator of all relationships. He’s got this. Put your story in His hands, do your part in crafting it, and see what happens. You won’t regret it.

Now grab a Pumpkin Spice Latte and get started. Happy dating!