Women who love themselves are extremely attractive to others, says Celeste Owens, Ph.D., a motivational speaker and psychologist in Washington, D.C. Think about it: The friend who found the love of her life probably spent a lot of time working on herself. "When I met my husband I wasn't actually looking," says Owens. "During that time I was diligently working on loving and appreciating me." After years of picking the wrong man, she says, she realized the common denominator was herself. "I didn't know my worth, so I would accept anything," she reflects. "I had to slow down and work on me."
To find their soul mate, Muhammad says women of all ages should leverage the one thing no one can change—their age. In other words, they should allow their stage of life to guide the choices they make and the qualities they seek in a life partner.
"In your twenties you are looking to spend the rest of your life with someone," she says. "You do have more leeway. You can have that list of what you want in a mate, but the more important thing should be what you have to offer." She says women in their thirties have more experience and can refine what they want. Do they want a child? Do they want someone who appreciates their career? Women in their forties are very compelling to others because they "are more comfortable with who they are," she says. "They know what they have to offer." And women in their fifties or sixties are generally not worried about childbearing and have seen people come and go, says Muhammad. "This woman's travels in life make her able to better understand a partner's travels," adds Muhammad. "She is more patient and that is very attractive. She has more understanding, and she is looking from a different perspective. That is better than any list."
20s: DAMI & NIYI OKUBOYEJO
MARRIED JULY 2010
"I was never a guy who swept girls off their feet," admits 28-year-old Niyi, laughing. "It was like, Am I going to die alone?" Then one day in the fall of 2005 he saw Dami walking around the campus of the University of Houston. "She just didn't look like the other girls," says Niyi, now a fashion designer in Manhattan. "There was something very intriguing about her. She was a mystery." He learned that she moved from New Orleans in 2005 after her family lost nearly everything in Hurricane Katrina.
Dami, 23, who now teaches in Brooklyn, was not nearly as impressed with Niyi. "I saw him and just burst out laughing," she recalls. "I asked my sister, 'Who is that guy who seems to be trying so hard?' " Sporting tailored suits when everyone else on campus wore jeans, "He just seemed out of place in Houston," she says. "My sister and I called him 'Omo Britiko,' which means British boy in Yoruba." Unaware that Dami thought him odd, Niyi (pronounced Nee) invited her to be his jogging partner. "Jogging is what I knew," he says. Dami surprised herself by accepting.
After their first date in November 2006 they realized they had more in common than they ever thought. When he was 14 and she was 13, their individual families had migrated from their native Lagos, Nigeria, to the United States. As Dami got to know Niyi, her first impressions dissolved. That quirky sense of style started to seem polished and metropolitan. And what she originally mistook as social awkwardness now seemed sweet and fresh. "There was something about him," says Dami. "He was always nice, expressive, funny and really cute," she recalls.
By July 2010, the two were ready to say "I do." "I never imagined getting married, but I wasn't against it either," Dami says. "Niyi came in my life because I was open to whatever God had planned for me." As for Niyi, what he loves most about his wife is how well she understands him. "She was my first girlfriend," he says. "She accepts my quirks."
30s: KADIJA & TORY HUNNICUTT
MARRIED AUGUST 2010
If it hadn't been for her ex-husband, Kadija, 39, might have never met the love of her life, Tory Hunnicutt, 34. "My ex and I are still friends," she explains. "He dabbled in real estate, so when I needed a home inspector for a property I was trying to buy, he handed me Tory's business card." The deal fell through, but Kadija's determination to buy an investment property would put her in contact with Tory again.
"THERE WAS SOMETHING ABOUT HIM. HE WAS ALWAYS NICE, EXPRESSIVE, FUNNY AND REALLY CUTE."
"I told my brother, who was working with me that day, 'Now that's a face I could wake up to,' " Tory recalls. Kadija, who had a son in ninth grade and had been divorced for three years, wasn't looking for a relationship, but she did ask Tory if he was available to hang out. "I told her I was legally taken and mentally unavailable," says Tory, who was going through a messy separation. But he did accept her offer to buy him lunch to say thanks for helping her finalize the real estate deal. "I was so impressed because in D.C., women don't buy you lunch," says Tory.
That lunch lasted for three hours. They talked about Tory's recent separation and Kadija shared her own past. "She said, 'You are going to get through this,' " Tory recalls. "I never really had that kind of connection with a woman."
A month after that lunch, Tory was headed to surgery to give his younger sister a kidney. "I thought this must be the greatest man in the world," says Kadija, who was on her way to a wedding in Hawaii. "The scriptures say that there is no greater love than a man who would lay down his life for a friend." She sent him balloons and ordered a flower arrangement and hot bowl of soup for his sister, whom she had never met. But it was a small gesture she made after Tory was released from the hospital that clinched it for him. "She bent down and tied my shoes because I couldn't," he says. "I was done. That was it. I knew she was The One."
For the first two years Tory would tell Kadija that she should feel free to date because he wasn't ready to give 100 percent. "But when I wasn't around her I couldn't sleep," he says. "When she wasn't around me, she couldn't sleep." Still Kadija was unsure. She talked about the age difference. Do you want to have a baby? she asked Tory. Kadija also had doubts about taking another trip down the aisle. "She said, 'I will never marry for love again,' " Tory recalls. "And I'd say, 'We are going to change that. You are going to love me unconditionally.' "
Kadija confesses that those early days of their courtship were challenging. "We pushed and we pulled," she says. "He is a big family man; he had two sons and one daughter. He was having a really hard time with the idea of separating his family. I thought he was having doubts. I didn't want to hinder him because I cared and loved him so much, even if it meant him going back to his ex-wife."
All the back and forth eventually became frustrating for Tory. "I knew she was a great person and a great mother," he says. "There is no end to the opportunities she would provide for her son. I knew she would do the same thing for my kids." Finally Tory had had enough of Kadija's doubts. "I said, 'This is it. It won't work,' " he says. "But I was just faking her out, giving it back to her."
Kadija's reaction? "I said, 'I understand. I just want you to be happy,' " she says. "Then Tory gave me a long speech about why it would not work, almost like a soliloquy. And then, in the very next breath he said, 'Would you marry me?' " Tory confesses there is no way he could have let Kadija go: "We have a connection I can't explain."
40s: JACQUELINE MILAM & JOHN ROUSSELL
TOGETHER SINCE JUNE 2009
John Roussell's brother urged him to join the social networking Web site classmates.com because there was someone on the site he knew John had been wanting to hear from for years. "My brother always knew I loved Jacqueline," says John. "I wrote her two letters when I was in the military, but she never wrote me back." Both from the tiny town of White Castle, Louisiana, the two had met in first grade. "He was the little cute one," Jacqueline says. "Later, in high school, we had something casual but it never had time to blossom."
Jacqueline went on to become an officer in the Air Force after graduating from Louisiana State University. John moved to Texas and spent six years in the Air Force. "I would come home and ask people about him, but no one knew where he was, and he would ask about me," Jacqueline says. "It was like we both had disappeared."
By the time John logged on to classmates.com in 2009 and sent the e-mail message "Hey, stranger," two decades had come and gone. Jacqueline, then 41, was a widow and the mother of a 9-year-old daughter, MyeJoi, and an 8-year-old son, Ronald, Jr. Stationed in San Antonio, she wasn't looking for a relationship. "All I wanted to do was take care of my children," she says. She had already endured more than most people face in a lifetime: On September 11, 2001, Jacqueline, an Air Force captain who was then pregnant with Ronald, Jr., escaped with her life when flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon. But her husband, 33-year-old Army Major Ronald Milam, who was also based there, never made it out. "I would say, God, just make me strong enough to take care of my babies, and if I could do that I would be okay," says Jacqueline. "I later told John that if I hadn't known him previously, he never would have had a chance."
After the two reconnected on the Internet, they started talking on the telephone and realized not only were they both in Texas but they also lived only 30 minutes apart. "I've been loving this woman all my life," confesses John, 44, who works as an engineer for Union Pacific Railroad. "And now we were in the same city." After several phone calls and dates, he built up the courage to ask about the letters. "He wrote me these letters back in the 1980's, but I didn't remember getting them," says Jacqueline. "I was engaged at the time, so I probably put them in the pocket of the yearbook and forgot about them. I went back and looked in my yearbook, and there were the letters—eight pages about why we should be together. I felt sick. I told him I had to get off the phone. I just cried. We wasted so much time."
Now happily living together with their blended family, which includes their 1-year-old son, the couple can't believe their good fortune. "I asked her, 'How could you love me?' " John says. "I'm just a country boy, a locomotive engineer for a railroad company. But your husband was an officer in the military." Jacqueline says that she never gave what John does for a living a second thought. "It's the heart that matters," she says. "He has a huge one and he loves me to death. You can't get any better than that. And I love that man. I never thought I would find love again." John is excited to finally be with his longtime crush. "She hasn't changed since first grade—never curses," he says. "Life with her is like stepping on rose petals every day."
"THE MORE WE TALKED, THE MORE WE REALIZED HOW MUCH WE LOVE EACH OTHER'S COMPANY."
50s: MARVA HICKS & AKWASI TAHA
TOGETHER SINCE OCTOBER 2009
Marva Hicks, 55, an actor and R&B singer in New York City, had all but given up on finding a partner. "I was trusting God," says the Virginia native. "I said, God, if you want me to be alone, then I am fine with that." Despite being blessed with beauty, famous friends and a voice that brings audiences around the world to their feet, she says, "Men were not taking me seriously." So when Akwasi, now 48, showed up to hear a mutual friend perform at a New York City bookstore in July 2009, Marva didn't even notice him watching her. The friend had another performance a week later, and all Akwasi could think about was seeing Marva again. "I knew it was going to be a slow wait," recalls Akwasi, who dug up an old cassette of her 1990's hit single, "Never Been in Love Before." The next week he saw her in the crowd and handed her the cassette, saying, "Remember this?" To him, the gesture said, I've been thinking of you ever since we met, but Marva thought he was interested in a girlfriend she was with that night and figured he was just trying to be nice.
A friendship blossomed among Marva, Akwasi and Marva's girlfriend. That October the trio planned his birthday dinner at the Sugar Bar, a restaurant owned by the singer Valerie Simpson and the late Nick Ashford. The friend had to cancel, but Marva and Akwasi decided to follow through with their plans. Spotting Marva in the crowd, Simpson asked her to sing a song. "When I returned to the table, Akwasi looked at me like I was a cupcake," recalls Marva.
Akwasi admits he was love-struck. "I started writing her poems," he says. "I would e-mail them to her, but she would respond, 'Thanks,' or 'I don't see myself like you see me.' " Akwasi later discovered that Marva was holding back because she wanted to make sure that her girlfriend, whom she had initially assumed Akwasi was interested in, was okay with them being together. "Once I knew she was happy for us, that freed us," Marva says. Since that day they have been inseparable. "She sees joy in everything," Akwasi notes. She laughs and adds, "He thinks I can do anything. I've never had that."
The only obstacle the two now have to overcome is reconciling their different religious beliefs. Akwasi was raised as a Muslim since age 7. Marva, whose own grandfather baptized her, had always believed the ideal man for her would be a Christian, "a man of faith who loves his family and has a relationship with God," she says. Akwasi does fit that bill, she says, "But he fits it in a different way." Akwasi is confident they will figure it out. "For me, religion is not an obstacle," he says. "Muslim men can marry Christian women, as long as they are believers. I know God doesn't make mistakes, and I have not regretted anything he's put in front of me."
60s AND BEYOND: AUDREY SMALTZ & GAIL MARQUIS
MARRIED NOVEMBER 2011
The first time Gail laid eyes on Audrey, the woman who would become her wife, "She was up there showing people how to look and feel like a million bucks," recalls Gail, now 57. It was 1999, and Audrey, a former fashion model, was a presenter at a Landmark Education personal development seminar. The two women chatted, but Audrey wasn't thinking about Gail in any particular way. "At that time I was 61," she says. "I had dated men my entire life. I didn't know she was gay. She didn't say she was gay." But Gail, who is 6 feet 2, was intrigued by Audrey, a spirited 6-foot-tall powerhouse who had dated Lionel Hampton for more than 14 years. "I liked her energy," Gail says. "I said, Let me try to step up to the plate. I brought a lot to the table too."
A former professional basketball player who had won a silver medal in the 1976 Olympics, Gail decided to pay $39 to take another class that Audrey was teaching. Audrey would be coaching her students on looking, acting and feeling like a million dollars. On the day of the class, Gail, an insurance and financial services professional, wore a red suit and black shoes. "She tore me up," Gail recalls, laughing. "She said, 'Your jacket is too small, you have on the wrong bra...' "
"...And she had the wrong shade of brown panty hose," Audrey adds.
Unfazed by the constructive criticism, Gail, who was 44 at the time, asked Audrey out for brunch. "I only had one opening and it was April 25, a Sunday," recalls Audrey, now 74, who owns Ground Crew, a backstage management company for the fashion industry. "I said, 'How about us going to church?' "
After church came brunch, where Audrey said, "So tell me about Gail." "That's when we just exchanged stories," says Gail, who decided after the outing that she wanted to go out on a real date with Audrey. Apparently, Audrey had also felt a connection. "I remember her calling me saying I need to tell you something," recalls Audrey. "She said, 'I am a lesbian and I want to take you out on a date,' and I said, 'Oh, really? Well, what's your definition of a date? Mine is that you pick me up, take me out, pay for it and bring me home.' She said that was hers, too. So I said okay."
They dined at a restaurant in New Jersey that overlooks the Hudson River. "It was incredible," Audrey says. "We never shut up, and the more we talked, the more we realized how much we had in common." They even discovered later that Gail's former coach Ken Bantum, also an Olympian, was an ex-boyfriend of Audrey's. "That was hilarious," says Audrey. "Finally, I said, 'Aren't you going to kiss me good night?' I had never kissed a woman before." Their kiss later that evening sealed the relationship. "When I kissed her, she was just warm," Audrey recalls of that moment. "I called everyone, told my nephews, 'This is it.' "
What do they love most about each other? "Gail is the opposite of me," Audrey says. "I am loud and out there and always in the moment. She is the gentle giant. She's cool, calm and she's nice." Gail simply says they are best friends: "We love each other's company." The couple agree that they haven't had a lot of hurdles to overcome, mainly because, Audrey says, she did not care what anybody thought. "Some friends said it's a fling; it won't last," she recalls. "But I didn't care. I've always told people that I am not a lesbian, I am in love with Gail, but you can put a title on it if you want." The only person Audrey sought for a blessing? Her pastor. "I kept trying to get an appointment. It took me five months," she says. Her pastor had only one question: "Does she know God? " he asked. "That's all that matters."
Gail says Audrey proposed six months after they met, though legally they could not wed. "I always felt as if we were already married; I even got a friend to make a ring for her," says Audrey. So when New York lawmakers legalized same-sex marriage last June, the couple decided to hold a formal ceremony. Last November in Central Park with 100 friends watching and a note from the mayor, they said their vows. "We love being married," says Gail. "We are family now," says a blushing Audrey. "I call her my bride."