Love is so far beyond my realm of expertise.

I am a hopeless romantic. I want big love. I want a love that makes my life bright, shiny and full of joy. I, like every other girl, have watched a lot of Disney movies, have read a lot of Nicolas Sparks books and have seen my grandparents grow old in their marriage beautifully. And I want that.

My college sweetheart and I dated for 3 ½ years. I moved to Massachusetts for him without a second thought after graduating and put my professional life on hold. We moved in together and I’d basically had the wedding planned out in my head. Our colors were lavender and grey and we’d have mason jar centerpieces. It would be a spring wedding and we could honeymoon in Europe because, romance.

The idea that I had of this relationship in my head, however, was a little blurred with the reality of the situation. Because I loved him, and I wanted to love him, forever.

There were red flags throughout those years that this man and myself might not be the best match. But, he was my first love, my “soulmate,” a confident, sexy and athletic musician with a family any girl would be happy to be a part of. And I was happy to be a part of his life, for a long time. But somewhere along our path, things changed.

Our relationship probably should have reached its natural conclusion right before we moved in together. I had this nagging doubt feeling that I couldn’t quite put my finger on and I still can’t. But I loved him. He was my soulmate. We forged onward. We built a home. We adopted a kitten.

I had the recipe for a happy life. The logical next step was an engagement. He’d propose with an amazing ring. Then, we would live happily ever after. I was in love, and even though everything wasn’t perfect, I was okay with that.

I caught him cheating on me via Tinder in February of last year. I remember finding the notifications on his phone in the bed that we shared together. I devoured the words he said, the conversations he was having with strangers as he laid next to me, the betrayal, and I calmly placed his phone back on the nightstand. I wasn’t shattered. I wasn’t devastated. I was relieved. I thought, “Finally finally we can both stop pretending this relationship is a forever thing.”

We were both subconsciously hoping that it would end. Granted, he did the cowardly thing by making it my decision, but that’s a 23-year-old man’s MO. The philosophy goes something like “I don’t want to be a bad dude and break her heart, and everything is fine enough so I’m just going to treat her like crap until she can’t take it anymore.”

If you are in one of these situations and reading this sentence wondering if that’s happening to you, it is. Go. Forget about the marriage. Forget about the mason jar centerpieces. Forget about all the vacations you wanted to take that will never be. Lasting love is not fostered in an environment of doubt and uncertainty.

Since the relationship ended, my life has become a beautiful thing full of opportunity and growth. It is not without rough patches and bad days, but still, I’m happy. I’m smart. I have a great job and good friends. My life is now so much more than when it was filled with a man who half-loved me, a rundown apartment and a broken relationship. I miss my kitten, but I have a lot of pictures and I know my kitten misses me too.

I’ve been attempting to navigate the waters of 21st century dating ever since and I’ve found it to be a disaster. Dating men online has brought some of the worst, and I mean the worst, men into my life. Nobody tells anybody how they really feel. It’s like a big game with a race to the finish line of getting a girl into bed with just the right amount of manipulation and perfectly placed emojis, only so you never have to see her again.

I’ve had tinder stalkers. I’ve been ghosted. I’ve had dates with brilliant successful men it would never have worked with and fellas that moved quickly into stage-five clinger territory. I’ve paid the bill and had the bill paid. I’ve kissed and I’ve dodged kisses. I’ve conspired with restaurant staff on escape plans on some dates and I’ve wondered about what our children would look like during others.

I am not here to play a game. I’m no longer trying to get past the first level, collect brownie points along the way, and BOOM jackpot, man of my dreams and I win. Regardless of how things have been going, what I do know with a certainty is this; the man I am going to marry is out there. Somewhere. And every person I meet and care for during this awkward time in my life is teaching me to be the woman he is going to love forever.

I’m not going to give up. I am not going to let this dating culture jade me. I still am a hopeless romantic. And with each passing douche that doesn’t work out, I’m stronger, more resilient and more confident than I’ve ever been. I am beautiful. I am kind. I am witty. I am funny.

I’ve rediscovered that all I need is me. I make my own life bright, shiny and full of joy and some person is going to love being a part of it someday. I can’t wait. In the meantime I will keep kissing these Tinder frogs, not in the hopes that they turn into my prince charming, but so that I can learn from them what my truest self deserves from a partner. I didn’t know it at the time, but my ex cheating on me is the greatest gift he could have given me.

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