Earlier this week I went to buy my friend a birthday card. The choice was rather limited because there were rows and rows of cards for Valentine's Day.
I love love. I don't think we need Valentine's Day to remind us to celebrate love, because love in all its wonderful shapes and sizes is worth celebrating every day. However, when you are single, which I was for many years, days like Valentine's Day can loom ominously and highlight what you don't have and what you yearn to celebrate.
My first marriage ended and after I was divorced and had gone through a reasonable period of adjusting to my new single status, I decided I was ready to find love again. I knew myself well enough to know that I was better in a relationship than on my own. Not everyone feels like that, and as someone who loves diversity, I am thankful that some of us want to be married and some of us want to be single.
I was challenged by a lot of well-meaning people during my search for love, who questioned my motives and hinted that it would be better to remain single. I was told that 'God wanted me for himself, he was a jealous God and didn't want to share me with anyone'. That wasn't the God that I knew and loved.
I was challenged with, 'When you're happy being single, God will give you a partner.' But I knew that I was never going to be content or happy being single. I was also asked, 'Why isn't God enough for you?' I looked at the person asking the question and had to stop myself bursting out with the accusation, "Why isn't he enough for you? You're married!' Another person told me I should be married to Jesus.
I was made to feel so guilty about wanting to be married again that I prayed for God to take my desire for a partner away. I pleaded with him to be enough, as people had told me he should be, but the desire didn't go. So I made a deal with myself: I would keep on looking for a husband and if I died single I would admit all those people were right.
But where was I to look? Pubs, clubs, gyms – none of those particularly appealed. Sadly I was also unlikely to find love in my local church as there was a distinct lack of Christian single men. So, with reservations, I started to explore the world of internet dating.
My experiences have been somewhat varied. Some have been surprising, some have been a little scary and some have been downright odd, but there have also been some that have been perfectly lovely.
The surprising ones are usually the ones that occur when you arrive at the agreed meeting place and hear your name being called. You glance around the room looking for the guy, with whom you have shared numerous photos, to discover he isn't in the room because either he posted photos that are 15 years old or he posted one of his cousin. Really? Did he think I wouldn't notice?
The scary ones have been unsettling but not quite to the point that I have had to pepper-spray them or call the police.
The downright odd have been the most interesting. The most striking was the one who thought it was OK to bring his mother – she was lonely and didn't like being left on her own.
I've tried the world of internet dating on and off throughout the past years and on the whole it's been an enjoyable experience, I have made some lovely friends along the way and there are a lot of people looking for love who simply find it difficult to meet someone in more conventional ways. These are some of the lessons I learned.
2. Hope for everything but expect nothing. It's very easy to get carried away on the internet; emotions and feelings grow very quickly and it can be very intense. When you actually meet, those feelings are not always there in person. Be circumspect in what you share and what you give of yourself. Keep conversations light, warm and friendly but hold something back until you meet someone and the relationship develops.
3. Don't take it too seriously. If someone sees your profile but doesn't reply to your message, they are rejecting a photo and a few written words. They don't know you and are not rejecting you. If you take every non-reply as a rejection, you'll be crushed. Proverbs 4:23 tells us to 'Guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life'. When you are entering the world of internet dating, appreciate the wisdom and truth of those words.
4. Be open to those outside your specifications – ie shorter, taller, older, younger, closer or further away. You may be surprised at how someone who didn't meet your criteria can light up your life with their sense of humour and emotional intelligence.
5. Be honest about who you are. We all want someone to fall in love with the real us, not a false impression. Write a realistic profile, don't say you love climbing mountains, when all you do is walk up the hill to the local take-away. Post current photos, otherwise when you meet it will quickly become obvious that you posted a 20-year-old photo of yourself when you were 30 lbs lighter and had all your hair.
6. Be wise, be safe. Always tell someone where you are going and who you are meeting, even if you feel embarrassed. If you don't want to tell your family or friends, tell your minister.
I can smile at my internet dating experiences but there was real pain during those years. At times it felt as if my life had stopped. I felt I couldn't function unless there was a significant other in my life. I needed a soul mate.
Paul Tournier, a doctor and pastoral counsellor, said: 'Most people spend their whole lives indefinitely preparing to live.' When I read that quote I realised that I had been living a half-life. I had been waiting for someone to come into my life to make my life complete. I began to understand that there is no one human person who can fulfil us completely, who can fulfil that deep intimate connection within us that we need and desire.
I believe that God created us for relationship, with a desire for deep, intimate connection. We were shaped to be loved and to love. And God doesn't create that need within us and leave us wanting. He provides a way to meet that need.
In the Celtic tradition there is an expression describing a unique friendship,anam cara. Anam is the Irish word for soul and cara is the word for friend. Your 'anam cara' is your 'soul friend', to whom you are joined in a bond that nothing can break. The anam cara provides a satisfaction for longings of the human heart, but there exists a longing within us which can never be completely met by any one person.
I recognise now the longing I had was the longing that only the Creator God can fill. He is our true anam cara, our true soul mate, and it is our deep intimate connection with him that will give us the love we need to live life in all its fullness and to thrive. It is God's love that completes us.
A couple of years ago I was married. We met on a dating sight. Internet dating worked for us and we thank God it did, we love being married. But what also works for us is that we both recognise that our anam cara is not each other but the God who is love – and that is what fulfils us and gives us life.
Mandy Bayton is The Cinnamon Network adviser for Wales and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @mandyebayton