It was March 2003 when I uttered, "I want to be a great wife" to a woman I barely knew. She was the owner of the hair salon I frequented and I was the business manager of one of L.A.'s hottest eateries. Every week I'd come into the salon with little time for small talk as I worked on my phone and computer. On this day I had left my laptop and cell phone at the office. So we talked and talked. I later learned that after I left the salon, she called her only son and told him, "I just met your wife."
After a month of her endless prodding, he called. Four months later he proposed and eight months from our first date I became the wife of the kindest and most brilliant man I've ever known. And it began with me deciding while I was still single that I would be a great wife. There is a widely accepted myth within the African-American community that men are intimidated by confident women. In reality, strong men love independent women who know exactly who they are and who they want to become, and love themselves, flaws and all.
As the founder of the Happy Wives Club, I manage a community with nearly 1 million women in more than 110 countries around the world. Several years ago, with the support of my husband, I packed my bags and traveled the globe. My mission was simple: to find the common denominator of couples who were happily married for 25 years or more.
I visited 12 countries on six continents and interviewed couples of every ethnic background. I shared my journey in The New York Times best-selling book Happy Wives Club: One Woman's Worldwide Search for the Secrets of a Great Marriage (Thomas Nelson). It was mind-boggling that there were 11 common keys that every one of the hundreds of couples I interviewed—from South Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, North and South America—claimed were their "secrets" to a happy union. Even more astonishing to me than all their similarities in spite of their vast geographical differences was this: All the happily married women I interviewed were some of the strongest women I've ever met. Here are the actions I observed of these women from all around the world:
1. BE TRUE TO YOURSELF. The happiest women in the world, married or single, are those who know who they are and fully embrace themselves. There are more than 7 billion people in the world. Your spouse forsook all others for you. Don't let her go. Grow together. Blossom alongside each other. But don't become so different your spouse no longer remembers why he chose you.
2. STAY CONNECTED TO GOD. Every happily married couple I've interviewed believes in a higher power. They may not all agree on who God is but they do believe their creator made them to love and respect their spouse. Do not underestimate the importance of this in the happiness of your marriage and in your own life.
3. MAKE THE TIME FOR DAILY CHECKUPS. I have yet to interview a couple who have been happily married for 25-plus years that did not have a daily ritual. In South Africa, one couple had what they called their "daily board meeting." Before dawn each morning, the husband brews two cups of coffee and the wife opens all the windows in their bedroom. They return to bed and watch the city lights turn on while talking about everything on their mind. An Israeli couple I interviewed have been having port and appetizers together for an hour before dinner for more than 30 years. Your daily checkups allow your spouse to express to you all that's on the mind ensuring that nothing goes unsaid or gets swept under the rug. It's a time to sync schedules for the day to make certain you stay connected. These checkups allow you to become a great wife while building a foundation of trust with your spouse.
4. COMMUNICATE YOUR DESIRES CLEARLY AND SUCCINCTLY. Didn't mama tell you that nagging is just plain silly? Well, she was right. Nagging will never get you anywhere. Neither will yelling. If you want something, inform your spouse calmly, and then figure out together how you can get what you wish.
5. PUT YOUR PARTNER'S NEEDS ABOVE YOUR OWN. The happiest couples in the world each place their spouse's needs and wants ahead of their own. It is the humility in this act that lets your partner know, "You mean the world to me." And in return, they want to give you the world.
6. EMBRACE YOUR LOCAL SOUS CHEF. I am a believer that we, as women, can do anything we want, just maybe not everything at the same time. So if you don't have time to be the chef of the house, then take off the chef's hat and pass it to someone else. Trader Joe's, Sprouts Farmers Market—if they've got great healthy food that's preprepared, rest assured it has made its way to my dinner table. I am the "dial it in, take out" queen. And my family is just as grateful and happy as if I'd made it myself.
7. CHOOSE HAPPINESS DAILY. Happiness is a choice that exists only in the present moment. It is like a perfume that will rub off on your partner each and every day. There is nothing greater than coming home to a happy spouse. With every interview, I watched each couple gaze into each other's eyes and marveled at how the men doted over their wives like they were still high school sweethearts after 25 years.
8. TAKE TIME OUT FOR FRIENDS, FAMILY AND YOURSELF. Marriage is one of the greatest gifts in the universe. But it is not meant to be your entire world. Make sure to continue feeding your soul, and that involves taking care of yourself. Spending time with friends and family, eating healthy and staying in shape are a part of that equation.
9. TOSS OUT THE LINGERIE (IF IT DOESN'T MAKE YOU COMFORTABLE). The sexiest thing you can ever wear is confidence. If lingerie is important to your partner, then take the time to find some you also enjoy.
10. LIGHTEN UP. This is one of the best things about being around a couple happily married for decades. They laugh until their bellies hurt. They can tease and joke with each other without either becoming offended. Neither partner is perfect and they embrace that fully.
11. PURSUE YOUR DREAMS. So many, for whatever reason, believe that in order to have a successful and happy marriage you have to give up a part of yourself. That is absolutely false. As the quote goes. "Marriage is not 50-50; that's divorce. Marriage is 100-100." You need to be a whole and fulfilled person, not in need of anyone but God, in order to truly be a great partner. Because you can't give 100 percent if you are not 100 percent. A happy woman becomes a happy wife.
This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine on newstands now!