There has never been a time in my life when I wasn't considered the go-to girl for dating and relationship advice. When my elementary school friends got their first crushes and wondered if a boy liked them back, I was ready with a solution: Send a note asking if he likes you, and ask him to check yes or check no. Not exactly original, but there's no sense in reinventing the wheel if it works.
Over the years, from the occasion of their first kisses in junior high to their first heartbreaks in high school and bad (and good) dates in college, my friends continued to turn to me. I've taken late-night calls through engagements and marriages, and even a few divorces. I've been the one everyone turns to — and when I say everyone, I mean women, men, my parents, my friend's parents, relatives, co-workers, celebrities and, these days, complete strangers, too.
It hasn't mattered that I'm not an always-with-a-boyfriend type, and at times have swapped out dudes like I do the Louis Vuitton Speedys. Nor is it important that I'm not married, or that I don't even take my own advice all of the time. Any expert who tells you she does is lying. What matters more than my marital status is the quality of my advice, which runs the gamut of approaches:
Logical: "So, you really think because you're single at 30, you'll be single for the next 50 years of your life? Like no one, ever, will come along?"
Practical: "Your man hasn't taken you where you want to go? OK, tell him you want him to take you, and tell him what time and day." (If he still doesn't do it, he just doesn't want to go, or worse, this is the first sign that it's the beginning of the end.)
Blunt: "Don't clean it up. You're a sidepiece. Second place. You take leftovers. It's your life, live it how you feel. But own it, if you're going to do it."
Optimistic: "The stats are what they are. But you are one woman looking for one man. I'm unclear on why it isn't possible for you to find him."
Empowering: "OK, so I know what she wants, but what do you want?"
I started off winging it, of course. But then my interests led to a job as an editor at Harlequin, the romance-novel publisher, where studying, dissecting and researching the ins and outs of relationships was as much a part of the job as actually editing manuscripts.
Oddly enough, reading all of the mishaps of fictional characters that mirrored reality way too well made me better at understanding what could be going awry with relationships. I realized early on that most plot conflicts were based on someone being afraid of rejection or not having the confidence to ask for what she or he really wanted. The relationships were always put in jeopardy because of bad communication. How much easier life could be — in fiction and reality — if people just said what they meant.
Challenging? Yes. But not impossible.
While at Harlequin, I started blogging about dating and relationships, mostly because women like me needed a voice and a destination when we didn't know where else to turn. And, too, I needed an outlet for my own issues. When you're the go-to person, who do you go to? By the time I was 21, I had outpaced my mother at dating. She was married at 21, and by 24 she had me. Her dating advice after 34 years of marriage? Let's just say she meant well.
The women who followed and commented on my blog weren't anything like the clueless, gold-digging, bitter or lonely stereotypes that black women are typically portrayed as. Either their mothers had been married forever, like mine, and didn't "air their laundry" — especially not to their daughters — or they were the offspring of single moms who either were divorced or had never married.
Sometimes their mothers' relationship advice came with warnings of what to look out for and what not to do — practical enough, but still a generation removed from what we were experiencing. How do you ask your mother about what it means when a guy always texts but never calls, when you were the one who taught her how to use a cellphone? (For the record, that generally means he has a wife or live-in girlfriend, or he's genuinely not interested. Texting is what you do when you're doing something — or someone — else.)
The men who commented on my blog weren't the mythical raging misogynists who wanted women to uphold the traditions of "the good old days" while they, in turn, provided none of the benefits. They were mostly guys who wanted to make relationships work, too, and didn't know how.
The blog became an educational boot camp, of sorts, for me and the readers. And led to a bigger opportunity to learn so much more. I left Harlequin for Essence magazine, heading up its relationships department for four intense years. I wrote a dating column about common dilemmas that women face, and then a book, A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. It chronicled the most important lessons I'd learned about dating and relationships between the ages of 23 and 30, and mixed in the most surprising things I'd learned about men from the thousand-plus interviews I'd done.
I also went back to school to become a life coach so I wouldn't be another glorified so-called expert spouting opinions as facts and misleading people about something as important as finding (and keeping) love. I started a life-coaching practice to help singles live their best lives — with or without a mate (not every girl wants one, you know?) — and help couples work through their issues so they could do more loving and less fussing. I also began answering questions on Formspring.me, a site where readers can pitch their dating queries anonymously. Since last year, I've answered nearly 15,000 questions.
So what can I help you with? Are you looking for the best way to enjoy the holidays while single, or are you someone who just wants to survive Thanksgiving dinner with your mate's not-so-friendly relatives? Maybe you're trying to figure out how to get your mate to change or how to get over an ex. Consider me your go-to person.
Whatever your problem, starting next week I'll be answering your dating and relationship questions on The Root each Wednesday. Feel free to ask me anything at email@example.com.