Since I was a little girl, like so many others, I’d had dreams of a fairy tale wedding. But when I was still unmarried at age 30, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d missed my window.

I was in an “on and off” relationship at the time and thought that I was ready and waiting for a marriage that was slow in arrival. If it didn’t happen soon, I’d feel like something was wrong. Or worse: I’d feel like something was wrong with me.

As a child, I developed some abandonment issues while being raised by struggling immigrant parents in an affluent Washington D.C. suburb. I learned that success was measured by material gains, career upward mobility, and getting married by 28. When none of those happened, I didn’t handle it well. On the outside, I appeared strong and fearless. On the inside, I still felt anxiety and anger. Even as a youth, I learned to mask my emotions with everyday stressors, carry around insecurity like an invisible satchel, and fall out of practice on self-love.

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Illustration by Brittany England

By my mid-20s, I reached a point where the thought, “your whole life is a transition,” sunk in, and I panicked at the reality that I was still single. It didn’t help that most of my same-age friends had gotten married and disappeared seamlessly into that life. So, at 30, I chose to move to another city for the very first time in my life.

Looking back on those years, I wish I hadn’t taken my issues with me — or at least spent the time to deal with them head-on instead of suppressing them.

Not surprisingly, they rose to the surface during my first committed relationship. The little, unheard girl inside me would rear her ugly head in triggered, emotional conversations. I used defensive, accusatory words to get my adult needs met, like “I never do that” or “you always do that!”

I felt safe to speak my mind because I felt like I was in a trusting, loving relationship. Love doesn’t keep score. It just lets you… be. I was healing in the growing pains as I was gently shown a mirror to my soul.

However, despite wanting love, I wasn’t ready for marriage. And like the first tester pancake that doesn’t make the stack, it was ugly and unusable, but it did teach me a lot.

No matter how romantic it might sound, forget the “you complete me” approach to relationships. If you enter a relationship whole and self-aware, it helps to better prepare you for the complexities ahead and the teamwork needed to succeed with a partner, who quite frankly is coming to the table with issues of their own.

Here are 3 lessons that surfaced as I navigated the self-awareness road:

1. Finding love means first finding and loving yourself

Age 21 might be when you start to feel like an adult, but the truth is, you have a lot more self-exploring to do. Explore your nooks and crannies. Develop your passions and a deeper purpose besides your current job that can change. What you want in your 20s can completely change once you hit your 30s, as I discovered.

If you’ve hit your mid-20s and already feel like you missed a marriage deadline, free yourself of that pressure and pursue some new goals instead. When you’re not laser-focused on marriage as a goal, you’ll have room to find other areas of fulfillment while still positioning yourself for the person of your dreams to cross your path.

Let go of the “who,” “how,” and “when.” Instead, stay open to the discovery that comes with loving yourself and developing your standards.

2. Peak personal swag kicks in once you hit your 30s

Your 30s are about really hitting your stride. Even if everything in your life isn’t perfect, your experience and confidence have grown, and you’re more comfortable in your own skin. You don’t need to prove yourself to anyone, especially the singleness police.

As a single at this age, you’re not a failure — you’re free to make choices on your own terms. This is also the time when you can develop your deeper identity. The caterpillar-like identity of a 20-something is exchanged for wings and a higher perspective.

And when you’ve made your growth transformation, you’re better suited to embrace differences between yourself and a potential partner.

3. Patience has a way of making things better

You’ve no doubt heard the saying, “Good things come to those who wait.” Well, it’s absolutely true. The best parts of life can really be appreciated when you’ve put in the time and let the important stuff develop. Take food, for example. Microwaving a meal will do the trick, and you can certainly eat quicker. But the flavors and textures really pop like they’re supposed to when you let it simmer in heat for a while.

Waiting also helps you develop gratitude and a deeper happiness that doesn’t just come when you’re granted your wish immediately — or when “the culture” says it’s time. Meghan Markle didn’t marry Prince Harry when she was at the height of her acting career, and he was still young and sowing his wild oats. They met in their 30s when they were mature and ready to fully love each other. They both knew what they wanted and what they didn’t want. Knowledge like that can only come from being patient and waiting for the right season.

At the end of the day, if you want to get married, your plans (or dreams) can become real, but only on your maturity’s timetable. Maturity is ultimately a better prerequisite for marriage than age is. And if it takes a little longer to happen than you thought it would, it doesn’t always mean that something’s wrong.

Embrace the time. Be patient. Because you deserve to fully enjoy your happily-ever-after.

Brandy Pan is a personal growth writer and mentor. She shares tips on how to soothe anxious-irritated moods and flare-up symptoms, through greater mind-body awareness. Check out her body balance quiz and informational weekly blog for healthy and happy lifestyle advice.