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I've talked about my often-disastrous relationships in a number of my columns, and every time I do, I get dozens of messages from people asking me to elaborate. Not that I'm an expert -- it's more like how you see a guy come screaming out of the woods covered in bees and you ask him where he found the hive, so you can avoid it.

So, the most common question I get (besides "Will you please stop sending me pictures of your penis?") is "How do I know if this is the one?" which I think is a stealth way of asking me, "How can I avoid the hellish divorce that haunts your memories?"

Well, if you want to avoid the bees, I say you should always keep in mind ...

You Don't Have to Impress Each Other


If you try to pet 49 stray cats, and all of them embed their claws in your forearm, you're going to assume that the 50th will, too. Even if it's purring and rubbing all over your ankles, you bury your hands in your pockets and punt that fucker like the winning field goal at the Super Bowl.

Since most of us don't find our "true love" on the first shot, we're cursed to endure attempt after attempt at connecting with people who we normally wouldn't allow into the trunk of our car, let alone our personal, emotional space. After a while, we learn that dating equals pain ... and I can't speak for women, but guys tend to emotionally shut down to avoid that pain. They build a phony version of themselves to send on dates on their behalf, learning to fake their way through simple smalltalk in hopes of constructing a panties rug at the foot of their bed.

Works every time, baby.

The problem is that if you wall yourself off from every single person you meet, the chances of skipping right past the one who is actually compatible with you are near 100 percent.

Every woman I dated since my divorce several years ago felt the cold, dead disconnection behind my witty banter. Everything was just an act. Women were allowed on the porch, but if they wanted to see the living room, they had to look through the windows.

What? Don't judge me, man.

Try This:

There are several ways to do this, but the result has to be the same: it's you getting to a point where you can share the worst parts of yourself and not judge the other person when they do the same. This is why meeting on the Internet works so well for some people -- they actually find it easier to be open and honest with a faceless person. For other people, they try dating somebody they've already become friends with -- they were at the party where you accidentally pooped yourself in high school, there's no need to pretend you're suave. Or, maybe you just date somebody long enough that those barriers all fall down one by one, against your will.

I'll still never live down the time she saw me without my shirt on.

In my particular case, three years ago I met a woman named Shaniqua Childpuncher (who for privacy's sake we'll call "Emily"), but not in a dating situation. We were just two people who made dick jokes with each other online, with no real plans for hooking up or even flirting for that matter. Since we didn't have any of that stuff at stake, we didn't have to worry about censoring ourselves or using the "date voice." We could be open in the way that friends are when sharing crude jokes -- baring disfiguring emotional scars and everything else. No subject is off limits in a conversation like that; the old addictions, horrifying relationships, the vices and embarrassing childhood photos (her pics came complete with boyband posters on her bedroom walls, mine were from the time I was in an actual boy band). It progressed from there. We've lived together for over two years now, and not once have either of us considered that this might not be the right thing.

Obviously my exact process doesn't work for everybody -- I don't doubt that there are dudes who meet girls at night clubs and/or costume orgies who, over time, bring down those barriers and actually get honest with the person they're sexing down, instead of vice versa. The point is that you have to get past the stage where the relationship depends entirely on how well you're hiding your flaws from each other.

"No, there's nothing wrong with my nose, why do you ask?"

Of course that involves a certain amount of trust, which means ...

You Have Learned How to Trust


I can't tell you how many friends I've seen fly into jealous fits because their wife had gone out shopping 45 minutes ago, and it normally only takes her 43 minutes. They just know she's out fucking someone else. Even after she returns with a car full of groceries and a timestamped receipt, they can just smell the extra dicks on her.

I used to be like that. My ex used to work as a bartender at a shitty pub. Before heading out, she'd put on makeup ... which she never did when she was off. I'd look down at her low-cut top, and I was absolutely certain that before the end of the night, she'd be nailing some dude right there on top of the bar. Some nights, I'd make her change outfits.

"No, you're not going out wearing fruit again. Go change."

It used to cause major arguments because my reaction was directly telling her, "I don't trust you." And I didn't. Even when I knew that the difference between $20 and $120 in tips was showing a little extra cleavage and that it was part of the job, in the same way that this job involves me talking a certain amount about my dick.

Try This:

You're not born with the ability to trust -- as a newborn baby, you screamed your head off the moment Mom left the room, for fear you'd been abandoned. Trust is learned. I never had a reason to trust someone in my younger years, so my default position was to assume the worst. She's working late? Yeah, working some dude's dick! Going out to eat with friends? More like going out to eat with multiple dicks slapping her boobs! The other person's actual track record had nothing to do with it.

"I have to go. No, I'm not fucking dudes in front of the kids."

It wasn't until I met Emily that I really felt secure, and it goes back to that openness that I talked about earlier. When someone bares as much dirty laundry as we both have, you don't really feel that they have any room to hide anything. If she's shared this much of herself with me, she couldn't hide something even if she wanted to. So if she told me that she was going to take a few days to go to an undisclosed location for an unexplained reason, I'd be totally fine with it. She's earned the trust, and this time I'm man enough to give it.

And don't storm into the comments telling a story about how this one time your mistrust paid off ("She told me she had to be on the road 10 months out of the year as a door-to-door cock inspector, but I suspected she was really having an affair and I WAS RIGHT!"). I'm saying that if the mistrust is there, the relationship is fucked either way. Either they're not trustworthy, or you're not secure enough to let your guard down even if they are.

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You Become Friends (at Some Point)


When I was younger, I used to think it was impossible to be friends with someone you're dating. The friendship would kill the romance, right? Since friendship is about doing boring shit together, and romance is about fucking on the hood of a Trans-Am while Def Leppard is playing on the radio?

But in my later years I've realized that every successful relationship has this point at their core: If you take out the romantic connection, those two people would still hang out like nothing had changed. Well, besides all the dirty, filthy fucking.

"Just checking you for body lice, buddy."

I was never friends in past relationships because I put the "butterflies in my stomach" feeling first, and the possibility of touching boobs second. I don't really remember a third priority on that list. When I hung around women, I'd say what I thought they wanted me to say. If they weren't into my hobbies, I'd never mention them. I modified my warped sense of humor around them to be whatever watered down version I thought they'd find acceptable. At every level, everything about our connection was contrived.

Try This:

You can't make a relationship work unless you actually enjoy each other's non-sex company. If that sounds like rock-stupid obvious advice, then you don't realize what a massive number of married couples didn't follow it before shopping for rings.

"I hate you so much it actually gives me an erection."

And please, please note that when I talk about enjoying the girl's company, I am not referring to that breathless worship where you think she's a magical goddess, where you feel the gut butterflies every time she walks past and you go aaaawwwww every time she farts. Pop songs have taught you this is what it's all about ("Every Little Thing She Does is Magic"? Fuck you, Sting, your songs are full of bad relationship advice). If you're still in "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" mode, you don't even fucking know this person. You're still treating them the way you would treat a celebrity, projecting onto the real person a fantasy that lives in your head. Anyone who says they're still feeling the butterflies after fifty years of marriage needs to see a cardiologist because there's some serious medical shit that needs fixed right goddamn now.

I don't want to make it sound like you have to be friends first and then start boning from there -- this leads to a lot of awful friendships where the girl thinks she has a good male buddy and the guy thinks he's inching her closer to his boner. That friendship is never genuine because they both have very different ideas about what's going on.

And neither of those ideas end with an orgasm that isn't self-inflicted.

But it works for some people and it did work for me. I was friends with Emily first and not only did I regularly unleash every retarded joke about balls that popped into my head, but our entire friendship was based around it. For instance, one of my most passionate creative pursuits in life is playing sports video games and thinking up profane names for the players. She joined me in spending hours in front of the character editor in NBA 2K, creating Point Guard "Hunchfuck Clusterbutt" and Center "Browncock Shitdents," laughing until we couldn't breathe. She made me sit down and watch the entire run of Battlestar Galactica (and I'm a guy who previously went most of a decade without watching TV). We liked hanging out, is what I'm saying.

And that thing people get in their heads, that friendship and relationships are opposite things, it's hard to explain but it's a different flavor of friendship, one where sex can break out at any time. Maybe we need a new word for it (and something less clinical sounding than "compatibility"). But no matter what you call it, that connection is the core of the relationship. Not the sex, not romance. And it's not just the ability to tolerate each other in between the fun stuff.

"What do you not get about this? When we're not fucking, you find another room."

Neither of You is in Debt to the Other


It sounds superficial to say that finances play the second most important role in a marriage -- romantic types would say that if their love was so fragile that money could break them up, maybe they were doomed from the start. But if you don't get realistic about this right now, you're going to find yourself in the same situation I was in six years ago.

I was working a shitty job, my ex wasn't working at all. Our third and final child was just born, and we were going down the list of friends who could loan us enough money to keep the electricity on. That was a regular thing with us because not only did we live well below the poverty line, but we didn't know how to budget the little money we did have -- my idea of budgeting was making sure I had beer in the fridge at all times. But here's the thing; it wasn't the shitty house and car that put pressure on the relationship. It was the stress. The constant arguments, the constant assigning of blame.

"Hey, unless you have a walkthru in that pile, you need to fuck right off."

The money just brought all of our mistrust into focus, this constant suspicion each of us had that the other one wasn't pulling their weight.

Try This:

"Pulling their weight." That's the problem.

Don't picture your relationship as two people pulling a wagon. It's like two legs carrying a person.

... wait, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, legs.

If you break a toe, your legs don't have an argument about the fact that one of them is forcing you to limp. You just automatically change your stride and keep going.

It's hard as hell to get into the two legs mindset. If, say, you're working and the other one isn't, or if you're working more hours, it's easy to get to thinking that it's your money, like you're the father doling out an allowance, and that your significant other has to answer for every penny.

Or, you get into this bullshit math where you take home $500 a week and your girl or guy brings home $300. Your bills are $600. So, since you're using everything in the house equally, you split the bills down the middle, $300 apiece. Now she has nothing, and you have $200 left over, which you hold up in front of her, flipping the bills past your nose and sniffing deeply. "Mmmmm ... I sure do love the smell of sweet, sweet money. Bet you wish you had some."

Though, honestly, it is pretty funny if you do it just the one time.

That's when money destroys relationships. When you're still thinking in terms of what's yours and what's hers, and what each of you have "earned" in money or time or unpleasant tasks that need doing. As long as you're keeping a separate score, you're still not thinking of yourselves as a couple. You're just roommates.

You have to get to the point where you can trust each other to draw from the same pool, and if the girl says she needs $50 worth of (vagina polishing cream? I don't know my girly products) that you trust she is being responsible. And when your job earns you some extra money in one particular week or month, you both get to decide how it's spent. Even if it was your working overtime that earned it. Otherwise, everything becomes a battle.

"Hmmm ... well I did buy that whore yesterday, but to be fair, you bought dish soap last week."

In our case, when Emily moved in, she was coming from several states away. When she got here, it took her a couple of months to land a job. I had to carry us for a bit. And, maybe because I've been on the "carried" end so many times, I didn't feel the need to compile figures in a spreadsheet, figuring out what she "owed" me. I knew she would do the same if the roles were reversed. Hell, the roles could be reversed tomorrow. And she would step up.

But once you get into that bullshit of thinking the other "owes" you, that's a never-ending swirl down the drain. And again the debt isn't always about money, it can be because you did more chores last week, or changed more diapers, or you didn't jump down their throat when they forgot something important. Forget about which of you is in the plus column, the fact that you're keeping score at all means your relationship is already dead.

"And with my dishes yesterday, that puts me two ahead. That means I get ass sex tonight."

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You Are Truly Grasping What "Forever" Means


My doomed marriage didn't begin with a romantic gesture or a planned proposal. It was an ultimatum. She told me point blank one day, "If we're not married by July, I'm moving on." Back then, I didn't understand what "marriage" actually meant. Not really. To me, it was a ring and a piece of paper that said we were officially hooked up. I knew that if we didn't work out in that first year, we could always get an annulment. And if we lasted longer than that and ran into trouble, a divorce wasn't unheard of. In fact, it was pretty common.

So I did it. We went up to the courthouse and signed some paperwork. We paid a small fee. Then we met in the town park and had a quick five-minute ceremony in which four people attended. And just like that, we were married. Ten years later, I was sitting dumbfounded, alone in my new apartment, trying to figure out what went wrong.

"What the hell just happened? And who shrunk my '80s TV?"

I wasn't exactly the type of person who planned years ahead for things, so there was never this clear idea of, "This is the only woman I'm going to be with until the day I die." It was just the next thing to do. When you've been with a girl for a while, you sign these papers and she changes her name.

Try This:

Imagine marriage didn't even exist as a thing. Like imagine you didn't live in a society where marriage is expected and where you continually get shit from people for not "tying the knot." Imagine all of those social pressures were gone, nobody was nagging you about it. Would you still make the promise to stay with this person forever? Are you getting married because you want to be married? Or just because that's what people do? A stunning number of marriages seem to happen because of the latter.

"I just thought I looked pretty in the dress."

About a year ago, Emily and I discussed marriage, and I told her that under no circumstances did I ever want to go through that again. I had been down that road, and I couldn't imagine having to deal with all the bullshit a second time. We didn't fight or argue about it, but there was still a short time where I didn't know if she was going to wake up one morning, call it quits and move back home.

But she didn't. She thought it over for a few days and then told me that she was planning on staying with me forever, whether we got married or not. She respected my feelings and accepted my decision on the subject.

She didn't even take a swing at me.

She made me realize that there exists a commitment so deep that some people are willing to bind themselves to its vows even without a piece of paper and a preacher to walk you through them. And I feel the same way she does. I mean, when you boil it right down to the basics, I'm committed to never cheating on her. I already love her, and I always will -- true, honest love isn't something that just dries up one day. I will always take care of her, no matter what the circumstance. I'm prepared to spend the rest of my life with her ...

... Oh. Well, I guess when I put it that way, I'm actually kind of surprised we aren't already married by now. I can be kind of a dumbass from time to time.

Emily Clark, will you marry me?

Update: She said yes. Which is a relief because it means I don't have to fist-fight her now.

Update 2: As of August 23, 2012, we are officially married.

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