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Relationship Rescue

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We asked three ESSENCE readers—a singleton, a dater and a newlywed—to let our experts have a quick look under the hood of their love lives. What we learned could help all of us sweeten our connections.

THE SINGLE SISTER

ESTHER IMENDE, 33, Washington, D.C.

DILEMMA: MEETING MEN

Where on earth do you find single men?" asks Esther Imende, a vivacious political analyst who has been single and looking since ending her last serious relationship more than a year ago. She has grown weary of a club scene that often involves singles stumbling into each other's arms after a night of too many cocktails. Esther has more in mind than liquor and dancing. She keeps her passport current for trips abroad, she motorcycles on the weekends, she loves watching football, and she dreams of one day swimming with the dolphins. She's ready for adventure, but she'd like someone to enjoy it with.

Advice: Relationship coach Paul Carrick Brunson has connected scores of singles through his service, onedegreefrom.me. Brunson explains that as we get older, "Our social circles shrink and the dating process becomes more challenging." To meet new people, Brunson says we have to be proactive. He suggested Esther target what he terms "the three conduits to marriage"—her friends and family, place of work and online. Brunson told Esther to identify three friends with strong social circles with whom she shares similar values. Esther had to ask each friend to set her up on a date. Brunson also had Esther create a profile on okcupid.com, a free site with more than 3.5 million active users. "Ninety percent of a person's decision to click on your profile has to do with your photo," he told her. "The most effective photo for a female is a fun, casual shot from the shoulders up. And make sure that you're smiling." Once Esther's grin was on display, she was to contact 30 men using what Brunson calls "the shotgun approach": a cursory glance at a man's profile, followed by a quickie one-line note. "If a man finds your photo attractive," says Brunson, "it won't matter what you've written—he'll respond." And when he does, the smartest women know the first commandment of online dating: Cut out all that pen-pal foolishness and quickly get that man's buns into a Starbucks chair. Last, Brunson asked Esther to make her status public among her coworkers. "Tell them you're dating around," he suggested. "When people hear that, their wheels begin turning."

Test run: Within hours of receiving her homework assignment, Esther snapped a digital image of herself with a big smile, signed on to okcupid.com and set up a profile, which mentioned motorcycles and dolphin swims. Then she messaged about 40 men. "Paul's advice to just scan profiles made the process easy and fast," says Esther. Twenty men responded to Esther's online flirting; four of them set up face-to-face dates. "It was the smile," she says. "So many men were like, 'Great smile!' " Next, Esther reached out to her friends for set-ups. "I underestimated the power of my connections," says Esther, whose pals whipped up two more dates for her. "They were all so giddy about the proposal." Among her six suitors were a couple of winners, including a professional actor, who took her to dinner after inviting her to watch him starring in Othello, and a handsome TV producer, whom Esther plans to see again soon. "We went for Sunday brunch and the conversation just flowed," she gushes. Verdict:Esther typically meets about six new men each calendar year, yet after just two weeks of following Brunson's advice, she has already hit her annual average. "One of my biggest 'aha' moments came when Paul told me to 'be open,' " says Esther. "Instead of pushing aside prospective men because I scrutinized their profiles and found something I didn't like, I decided to give this whole thing a shot with complete abandon. The past two weeks have made me hopeful that there are interesting single brothers out there. But I'll only find them if I leave my living room."

Takeaway: Widening your social circle is the fastest way to cure a case of dating doldrums. Be proactive and willing to try something new.

THE DATERS

RENATA WILLIS, 27, AND JERIEL ALLISON, 27, Chattanooga

DILEMMA: COMMUNICATION

"The top issue in our relationship is communication," says Renata Willis, a scholarship processing assistant at the University of Chattanooga, who's been dating Jeriel Allison for two years. "I'm not a talker. If an issue comes up between us, I kind of keep everything inside until I blow up." Which is exactly what happened one evening last fall when Renata made a discovery on Jeriel's cell phone: He'd been exchanging friendly texts with a woman he'd previously dated. "To me, it looked like flirting," says Renata. She waited a couple of days and then confronted her boyfriend, crying and yelling. Jeriel, an affable advertising account executive, had considered the texts pretty harmless. "But seeing how hurt Renata was," says a contrite Jeriel, "was a big wake-up call." Renata forgave her boyfriend, who cut off all contact with his ex. The couples' goal now is to build a healthy communication style, sans the sudden outbursts. Advice: "During a situation, how we first talk to ourselves determines how we react," says Chicago psychologist Melissa Blount, Ph.D. "And that determines how we relate to the other person." After Renata first eyeballed her boyfriend's text, she spent two days with her irritation slow-roasting inside her. Seeing the flirty text triggered memories of a betrayal by an ex-boyfriend, one that had led to a messy confrontation and eventual breakup. By the time Renata approached Jeriel, her diastolic rate was off the charts. Blount advised the couple that the first step should be examining their pasts for clues about their individual patterns of communication. "What were your early examples of how two people in a partnership should relate to each other?" Blount asked the couple. "Explore where your belief systems come from, then compare notes." Blount recommended that they share with each other their hopes and expectations for the relationship. "Put it all on the table," says Blount. "When you're clear about your expectations, the relationship becomes far more honest." The point of the homework? To help this couple create a relationship road map—a plan they could come back to for years to come. Test run: Renata and Jeriel both dug deep into their family histories and discovered that each has a different comfort level when it comes to dealing with conflict. "Whenever my parents argued," recalls Jeriel, "my mother wanted to talk things out right after they happened. That's how I am." While Jeriel has absorbed his mother's let's-resolve-it-now approach, Renata has been far less eager to let it all out. As a child, she remembers her parents argued infrequently. And when they did, Renata would become anxious. "When I was growing up, a lot of my friends' parents got divorced," she says. "Whenever my parents argued, I would leave the room and hope they weren't going to break up." For Renata and Jeriel, the key to better communication lay in understanding and being sensitive to their differences, says Blount. As for expectations of the relationship, both identified marriage as the ultimate goal, but with the provision that they work together on establishing new patterns of communication. "I want Renata to know that she can open up to me and we can work things out without it becoming heated," says Jeriel. "Renata is my priority." Renata says that she, too, strives for a deeper connection. "I want us to fully hear each other's thoughts, needs and concerns," she says. "And I want us to be able to trust each other."

Verdict: For Renata, even the hint of a conflict can bring on the angst that the relationship itself could be in jeopardy, and that leads her to bottle up her emotions. Now that Jeriel understands that more fully, he is more gentle in his approach to voicing concerns and vows to never again give Renata a reason to doubt that he's loyal. Meanwhile, Renata has committed to expressing what's bothering her before she reaches a boiling point. "Relationships can bring out the worst in us," says Blount. "But they also help us get to our best. Yes, our parents can set patterns in place. But when you become an adult, you can build a new model."

Takeaway: Look to your past to identify your communication style, and work together to change negative patterns.

THE MARRIED COUPLE

NATALIE W. NIXON, 42, AND JOHN NIXON, 48, Philadelphia

DILEMMA: RESPECT


This is about shoes. Specifically, the way John Nixon, a partner in a law firm, was forever leaving his shoes in the hallway, despite his wife's constant requests for him to put them away. "I feel disregarded when he can't do this one simple thing," says Natalie, an associate professor and director of the fashion industry management program at Philadelphia University. John says he doesn't mean to disrespect his wife, "But I'm a much more casual person than she is and sometimes I forget."

Advice: Ryeal Simms, a certified relationship coach and marriage educator based in Los Angeles, says this isn't simply a case of misplaced shoes, it's about how well Natalie and John are hearing each other's needs. That's why he presented the couple with a "mirroring" exercise, a tool that can be particularly effective in helping couples who have been together for a while revive their listening skills. "Natalie, you might say to John, 'When you leave your shoes out, I think you see me as your maid,' " advised Simms. Once Natalie expressed her concerns, John was instructed to repeat what he heard and describe to Natalie what key emotion he believed his behavior triggered. Then the couple were to switch sides and Natalie was to mirror John. " This is a way to better understand the needs of your partner," says Simms. "And it's a template couples can come back to again and again during times of conflict."

Test run:"I already knew it bothered Natalie that I didn't put away my shoes," says John. "But after the exercise, it became clear that it makes her feel disregarded. I love my wife. I want her to feel respected, especially by me." Natalie appreciated her husband's effort to see her point of view. " He's trying to understand my perspective and make a change," she says. "That realization softened me and helped me see his side." When the roles were reversed, Natalie discovered how much her husband was bothered by what he saw as a laundry list of house rules. "John feels that home should be a place to relax," says Natalie. "He wants me to focus on a few big rules instead of a long list of things for him to remember. He had joked about the issue before, but doing the mirroring exercise helped me hear his concerns."

Verdict: After only two weeks of mirroring, John was putting his shoes away nearly every time he came home from work. Once he even put Natalie's away as well. "He double-dipped!" jokes Natalie. Meanwhile, Natalie has eased up on reminding John to keep the foyer tidy: "I'm focusing on the big picture now."

Takeaway: It takes work to really listen to your partner, but the payoff in a more harmonious union is worth the effort.

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