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L.A. Affairs: I finally figured out why my marriages kept failing

Illustration of a heart-shaped lock, and the "secrets" to opening it, including flowers, a baseball cap and kisses.
Here are my rules for finding — and keeping — the perfect mate.
(Illustration by Taylor McManus / For The Times)

During my first marriage, I kept forgetting my anniversary. The second time around, I got married the day before my birthday so I wouldn’t forget. You see, I learn from my mistakes.

I was divorced twice by the time I was 26. That was before I learned how to pick a mate for life. I took a deep, hard look at myself, and that is what I think everyone should do to know what they want and need in a mate — before they get married. I learned in my college psychology class that everyone’s personality is set by age 11 and the only thing that will change you after that is a significant emotional event.

So the first thing I did was accept that I was not going to change. That was an important lesson, that you don’t have to change to find that mate. Know that you’re looking for someone who can accept you the way you are, someone who works with your personality instead of constantly fighting against it.

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But most people date and never know what they should be looking for.

So I wrote down my good and bad points, and accepted it all. Then I had to figure out what I needed on the other side to make a relationship work.

For instance, I have a bit of a temper, so I knew I needed someone who would understand that flaw. I also had to find someone who would allow me to run the family finances. I also like to meticulously research and plan vacations.

I was obviously smitten, but he — recently divorced and emerging from a series of unsatisfactory relationships — did not seem to want anything more than to be friends.

I know this makes me sound like a control freak. But you know what I said about accepting the good points and the bad points? I like to be in control. I’m not going to change. I’ve learned that it’s better to have that out in the open and find someone who accepts you for who you are.

Anyway, after going through my good and bad points, I got back into dating. When I dated someone who did not have the things I needed, I walked away. No sense in wasting time. It took me almost 50 dates in 18 months to find that person.

We met one day in Compton, where I grew up and became a police officer. I was on duty when I spotted her walking into a jewelry store. I was pretty sure I recognized her from school. I thought she was so beautiful that I waited for her to come back outside. I said, “Don’t I know you?” She thought it was a line. “No, you don’t know me,” she shot back as she kept walking. I tried one more time. “Didn’t you hang out with Alona,” at Willowbrook Junior High? That stopped her. And I got her phone number.

I had a pretty good track record of rejecting norms and traditions. That included marriage. Yet I suddenly found myself articulating all the reasons people marry — and believing what I was saying.

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That was Friday. I called Shelia the following Tuesday and her brother answered. He said she was sleeping and that he’d give her the message. Sleeping? I thought she was blowing me off, so I didn’t call back. A few months later, I was talking to a friend near the same jewelry store when I saw her coming my way. What’s funny about this is that she is shy. But she walked straight up to me, interrupted my conversation and said, “Why didn’t you ever call me?”

Turns out, she was sleeping and her brother never gave her the message.

We started dating and I could see that she was really special. She had all the qualities I needed. I told her upfront that I had been divorced twice and wasn’t looking to get married again for at least five to 10 years. Shelia said OK.

I didn’t stand a chance with Libby. She was a gorgeous blond dancer. I’m short, and I wear glasses. When I tried to tell her how I felt about her, she (gently) shot me down.

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Well, I must have had an attack of the crazy because 11 months after we started dating, I found myself in front of a preacher.

We’ve been married for 40 years. We are so well-matched that we have never had a serious disagreement in our entire marriage. No one believes it, but it’s true. We just get each other. And when we can’t agree on something, we simply agree to disagree.

My wife understands my temper. She also allows me to run the family finances. (Well, at least that is what she lets me think. I handle the finances while she looks over my shoulder to make sure it’s all correct.) And every year we go on vacations with friends and family and I play tour guide. I’ve researched exactly where to go and the things to do and see. I make reservations months in advance so we know how much money it will cost and budget for it so there are no surprises. I give everyone the tour plans in writing before we leave.

Everyone, especially my wife, appreciates just being able to relax and enjoy.

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Becoming a single mom by choice seemed insane: I was a public schoolteacher, not a lawyer. I didn’t even have paid maternity leave. How could I afford daycare, diapers and doctor’s appointments? I expected people to think I was crazy, but they were supportive.

You know about some of my bad points. Here are some of my good points. I am a true giver. I like to treat my mate like a queen, and I need her to appreciate that fact and not take it for granted. (I once had a girlfriend break up with me because I was “too nice.”)

My first thought each day is how I can make her happy. When I know my wife is having an especially busy day, I like to tell her, “Dinner is on me, babe,” and then I grab takeout from her favorite Mexican restaurant. I don’t drink coffee but, because I wake up first, her coffee is waiting when she gets up. When our kids were born, I would take as much of the workload as I could — like night feedings — so she could get a full night’s sleep. I pay attention when she says she likes something. I go back later and buy it so I can surprise her with it.

I realize what we have is really special. I thank God every day for this blessing, and for our five children and nine grandchildren.

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I thought the pandemic might bring us closer, as we both tried to express our deepest fears and vulnerabilities. But in the end, my fears didn’t matter at all.

After you meet that special person, I have three rules to make it work. And both of you need to follow this:

1) Don’t start anything you don’t plan on keeping up. If you start out sending flowers every week, you will have to do it for the rest of your life. Otherwise, your mate will say you have changed. If you don’t plan on cooking every day, don’t start cooking every day. Take turns from the beginning.

2) Try to be best friends. In my experience, women and men tend to become best friends for different reasons. Figure out what it is for your mate, then do it. I think women become best friends over the things they tell each other. So when she comes home from a hard day at work or from a night with her friends, let her speak. All you have to do is listen and every now and then throw in a “I told you she was crazy.” I think men become best friends by the things they do together. I like going to Dodgers games. They are boring to her, but she will go and appear interested.

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3) Lastly, never stop dating and never stop making love. If you get busy with your work, your kids and other things in your life, you will grow apart. Sometimes you may even have to think, “We have been busy this week and haven’t made love.” Do it. That way you will never lose that intimacy and grow apart.

Well, that’s it.

I believe if you follow this formula, you will find the one who makes you happy and you’ll stay happy.

The author is a retired captain with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

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Tell us in 300 words or less about your tips for a lasting relationship and we may feature your story in an upcoming L.A. Affairs piece.

L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $300 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here.


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