03/21/2014 06:07 pm ET Updated May 21, 2014

On the Hard Work of Finding Love: 3 Things I Learned on the Way to My Mr. Right

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My boyfriend proposed this past Christmas morning. The proposal was as deeply thoughtful and sweet as the man who offered it. On his knee next to the Christmas tree, he asked one beautifully shocking question: "Will you marry me Cara Jones?"

I stopped breathing.

"Marry... Maaaaarry...Marr-eeee?" I repeated the words in my head. Me??!!

I have been single for the better part of the last 15 years. Whenever my friends have gotten engaged, I met the news with joy, a tad bit of envy and much curiosity. How, when it was so hard for me to meet a kind, attractive and available man, could it have happened to so many of them?

To me, their rings were sparkly reminders that they were chosen members of a marriage club I felt inexplicably shut out of. While I knew I could get by just fine on my own, I had a deep desire to share my life with someone. I online dated, I speed-dated, I went on set-ups. Nothing worked.

I have no answers for why people fall in love when and how they do. Paths to romantic bliss are as different as the people who walk them. I can only say that, for me, the following experiences facilitated my journey to the love I've always wanted.

1. Investing in Self-Work: I went to my first therapy appointment 10 years ago. As I sat in a squeaky leather chair across from a bearded therapist whose name I can't remember, I spontaneously broke into tears. What has my life come to? I thought. Despite some relationship frustrations, I had never thought of myself as angry or sad or in need of such work. I left the excruciating 50-minute session and decided therapy was for other people.

It took a few years and a few much better therapists for me to soften my outlook. In my thirties, I decided that investing in my own healing and growth might be one of the best uses of my single years. I explored various therapeutic endeavors including the The Diamond Approach, the Hoffman Process and other trainings in the fields of life coaching, yoga and meditation. In the course of all this, I have challenged myself to work through the pain of childhood loneliness, the shock of repeated heartbreaks, the weight of others' expectations for my life. As I cleared the emotional fog of my anger and sadness, I began to be able to feel something I hadn't in so long: deep inner joy.

A year before I met my fiancé, I figured I'd have a better shot attracting the right partner with that joy than any catchy on-line dating profile. I stopped dating and poured all that energy into work and adventures that made for one of the best years of my life.

2. Seeing Through Pattern Blindness: I really didn't experience heartbreak until my mid-twenties. It was the sleep-depriving, heart-gutting variety. Over the next decade, there were six more. While each man was very different in age, history and profession, it took me much longer than I'd like to admit to realize what they all had in common: they were all unavailable for a committed relationship. I tried to convince myself: surely once #3 moves to the U.S. things will change... or when #5 gets the job he wants he'll be ready. At the time, I hadn't realized that it was my own fear of commitment that was attracting me to these men who couldn't commit. Last March, when my awareness of this pattern had reached an all-time high, I went out with the first commitment-ready man I've ever really dated. He is now the love of my life.

3. Re-wiring for Happiness: I recently watched a neighbor, who had lived in the same San Francisco basement for 25 years, move out. He spent a week filling a giant U-Haul truck with old metal art installations, appliances in need of fixing, tattered furniture and boxes upon boxes of non-working stuff. This neighbor, I learned, didn't know where he was going to move. Still, he was taking everything with him, even if most of it didn't work anymore.

I was proud to have moved in with my boyfriend last year with a fraction of the number of boxes that neighbor had. But I can now see that I was still carrying remnants of similarly outdated, excess baggage. It came in the form of old hurts and expectations that romantic relationships just didn't work for me. Those expectations, like the contents my neighbor's U-Haul, felt comfortingly familiar. Romantic happiness, on the other hand, was a stranger I didn't know if I could trust.

When my boyfriend proposed, I was still working out my relationship to those old expectations. I asked myself in the continued slow-motion shock that set in after his question: "Is he sure? Can I trust this? Might he change his mind?"

The man I love kneeled there, unwavering.

When I started breathing again, I experienced a truly triumphant moment. This personal victory wasn't about a ring or a wedding or being chosen. It was about my hard-won ability to at last look happiness in the eye and, with a whole-heart and many tears, say yes.