The first time I thought I was in love was my sophomore year in high school. He was a chocolate boy wonder who’d walk me to and from school and make me mixtapes of love songs we’d slow kiss and touch by. I was 20 the first time I knew I was in love, and so devastated by the end of the relationship that I thought about ending my life. I’ve been sifting through my love stories after a conversation with a friend about what defines true love and the fact that she, at 39, has never been in love.

Never been in love? How could that be? I was utterly confused by the notion of someone being fully grown, with a full life, having never felt the joys and pains that come with rising and falling in love. Kara was a go-getter, a woman I admired because of her no-nonsense approach to life and her keen sense of adventure. Because I’m not of the opinion that women who don’t date often (or who haven’t married by a certain age) need “fixing,” I assumed her limited dating and relationship experiences were of her own choosing. And maybe in a way they were.

As we shared what we’d been taught (through vision and action) about love, I realized Kara’s ideas on the subject were vastly different from mine. My parents grew up in a small town. They knew each other from knee-high; they courted and married shortly after my mother turned 18. They stayed married for almost 40 years. This was the love story of all the women I grew up watching. I now realize how witnessing those relationships colored my ideas about love.

For me, being in love was an expectation, a guarantee even. And while the women of my mother’s generation did make huge sacrifices for love and the families love created, they never seemed overly burdened or traumatized by the experience of loving the men in their lives. I learned through action and example that there was far more to be gained than lost in love.

Kara’s ideas about love are vastly different. She watched her mother struggle profoundly with her father and many men after him. Kara’s mother made bad choices in lovers, and always seemed to be begging the man she loved to stay and love her back. As her mother aged, and the bitterness from those experiences turned into conversations with Kara, Kara learned to fear love rather than embrace it.

In response to what she saw and was told, Kara built a wall around herself. She admittedly poured her energy into her books, and made up her mind that boys didn’t like her because she was smarter and more driven than them. And for that reason, she didn’t need to acquiesce to their selfish and shallow whims. Besides, her mother taught her that men can’t be trusted, that all men are dogs, and that she’d never meet her goals if she got too attached to one.

Kara’s thinking (through her mother’s negativity) turned into an awkwardness with men that she still struggles with at nearly 40. She now understands the root of her issues with men, but wonders if it’s too late. Her story is more common than I could ever have imagined.

Like Candice, who’s 41 and has also never found love. Candice, another stunning and successful woman, is still, like Kara, trying to figure out the love factor. She realizes that she doesn’t socialize outside of work often, and that not meeting men definitely narrows her chances of finding love with one. She says most of her crushes have been guys she’s worked with, and that since her teenage years, the men she’s been interested in have never been interested in her.

One of her biggest crushes came in her late teens, and she admits that he was extremely mean to her (the way many teenage boys tend to be), which shaped her self-esteem. She’s never been in a long-term relationship. “I think after all these bad or missed experiences, I developed a belief that there is no one out there for me,” she admits. “I also developed an insecurity that I am just not the girl/woman that guys go for.” Candice, too, yearns for the experience of loving and being loved.

What Kara and Candice have in common is, possibly, an inability to be open to receiving love. Both women have been told that they seem intimidating and unapproachable. Both have counted themselves out as being worthy of desire or a love than can build instead of destroy. As with anything in life, we’ll never receive what we don’t feel we deserve or is possible. In everything, especially love, thoughts become things. I’m encouraged that both women are willing to do the work to change their experiences with love. Now comes the work.

Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and solider of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.