I don’t like to talk about relationships very often. In particular because I feel like I’m the least qualified to do so. I have been in all of 2 two-year-long relationships, and dated maybe 3 or 4 others, so I don’t exactly have a storehouse of experience for my 26 (going on 27) years of human existence when it comes to having a relationship, much less a successful one.

However in the past 4 years, I have had the opportunity not only to observe extensively the relationships of others, but, surprisingly enough, observe myself and how I approach relationships from an objective standpoint. And not just the regular questions of: What do I look for in a man? What attracts me? What turns me off? Why him?’ I’ve also asked questions like: ‘Who do I want to be in a relationship? How would one play out? What’s my entry strategy and my long-term strategy? How would I make this a success if it became serious? Does it have the potential for success at all? What does success even look like to me?’

Needless to say, I have learnt quite a lot. I’m still figuring out a lot of those questions for myself, but I thought I’d share the generally applicable insight I’ve gained:

Don’t judge a book by its cover. And when I say that I’m not just talking about the wolves in sheep’s clothing. I’m talking about understanding that what looks good/fits all the criteria you have in a partner may very well not be for you. It could be because you don’t actually know what you want/need, so your criteria are all screwy, or it could be that they are exactly everything you need and want, but are still just not for you. I have made so many male friends in these past four years who are everything (or nearly everything) I’d want in a partner and yet when it all boils down to it, I really can’t see myself actually being with them. I truly believe that you cannot NOT be attracted to friends of the opposite sex on some level – you had to see something in them you liked/were attracted to to even begin a friendship. Don’t take attraction to what seems like the perfect guy on paper so seriously. Maybe all you’re meant to be is just friends, and that’s completely fine. Don’t start doodling names and hearts prematurely.

But yes, also the wolves in sheep’s clothing thing too lol. Not everyone who says they’re Christian or that they believe in the same things you do actually does. Everyone is trying to put their best foot forward, and frankly doing their utmost to keep you interested. Actions still speak louder than words. Get to know someone before you jump into a commitment with them. And not just their vices – get to know their habits, mannerisms, leanings, and tendencies – get to know them inside out and decide if these are things you could live with. Go beyond the superficial ‘what do you do in your spare time?’ questions and the physical features. As one blogger so wisely put it, ‘Are you attracted to her or her contour?’ These are things you just have to know, and you can only do that if you actually spend time getting to know them and ask.

Set your own boundaries. I cannot stress this enough, especially being celibate. You cannot leave your care in someone else’s hands or trust that someone has the same boundaries as you do. If you don’t want to kiss on the first date, take control of that. If you’re not comfortable with a certain line of conversation, end it. And it’s not enough to communicate your boundaries, you have to enforce and reinforce them. Because no one is responsible for your boundaries but you. People will do what they want, and as much as you possibly can, you have to protect yourself. I have been in too many compromising situations because I was fuzzy on communicating, enforcing and reinforcing what my boundaries were.

Figure out who they are. And respect that. Dating is a great way to get to know who someone is, but we have the tendency to try and change people. If someone tells you who they are, believe them. There is always room for communication and compromise, but if he didn’t stop flirting with other women after you pointed out 5 times how it bothered you, he isn’t going to stop after you say I do. If she loves to travel and explore, you can expect that the prospect of being a stay-at-home mom might possibly make her miserable.

Date with purpose. Not everyone and everything is worth your time. There should be a trajectory towards a commitment. If you’re not looking for commitment, don’t waste your time, energy, or emotions.

Don’t throw your heart away. How easily we fall into this habit. Meet McDreamy who attends Bible Study or the Hottie next door and already we are planning out our lives together and what we’ll name our first three kids (triplets preferably). That is throwing you heart away. Maybe they catch it, maybe they don’t – but chances are that when something  is thrown haphazardly, someone gets hurt. There is a reason the Bible warns us to guard our hearts – everything in our lives is sourced there, and it’s such a delicate thing to treat without care. As cliche as it sounds, don’t fall into love – I don’t know why we’d ever choose to do that because there has never been a single time in all of history when falling didn’t hurt. Instead, look left, right, left again, then walk cautiously and purposely into it. There’s no rush.

Learn to be vulnerable. It’s OK to leave your heart out on the table if he/she is worth it to you. And no, not as bait lol. You have to be OK with being vulnerable. We’ve experienced so much hurt and been sold the idea that vulnerability is weakness. ‘God forbid he/she knows how I feel about them – they’ll laugh or take advantage of it’… tbh that should be the line of thought of a middle school teenager and not someone in adulthood. He/she is not going to know you’re into them unless you tell them – and frankly we are well past the age of ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ games. Communicating how you feel doesn’t make you weak, it makes you wise and mature, and ensures you don’t waste your time with assumptions. By leaving your heart on the table – having open and honest conversations about how you feel and why – instead of just shoving it in someone’s hands, you give them the choice of whether or not they want to take it. And if they don’t, you can pick it right up and move right along, no harm or foul.

Carry emotions lightly. I cannot stress this one enough. I’ve learnt to hold onto like/love/feelings that masquerade as love lightly. Enjoy it. Revel in it. But give yourself room to breathe. Don’t let your emotions control you or drive your actions. Practice self-control. Don’t bury yourself in someone else’s emotions or bury them in yours. Communicate your feelings and fears and doubts and insecurities and passions. Don’t hold them in. But also don’t expect the other person to adhere to those emotions or even understand them. Your feelings are yours and not everyone can or will share them. Own them, but don’t let them own you.

Understand that love is neither conventional nor does it always look the way we expect it to. As much as you have standards that you should uphold, rid yourself of expectations, and learn to compromise.

And finally, enjoy the journey. Enjoy getting to know new people. Enjoy what can sometimes be an emotional rollercoaster! Don’t let trip ups get you down, and trust that you will find what you’re looking for – and God’s best for you.