My relationship guru who changed my life

(CNN)When I got the assignment to choose the "person who changed my life," I was momentarily stumped.

Was it a teacher? A boss? Many special people have had an impact on my life. But when I thought about what changed my life the most, I realized it was getting married and having kids. Then I had to think, "Who helped make that happen?"
The answer was Maria Villalobos.
Maria and I met when I was 26 years old and working at the crime show "America's Most Wanted." Before I met Maria, I heard about her -- other people at work told me about this amazing new reporter who I should immediately befriend. But I scoffed. Why would I, a poster child for the 20-something single life, become friends with a 32-year-old married lady? Let's not be ridiculous.
As I quickly learned, Maria is the kind of person everyone wants to be friends with. She's funny, smart and generous. She's the organizer of office parties and barbecues, baker of cupcakes and cookies and giver of birthday presents. I also quickly realized Maria was a font of wisdom on life and love -- stuff I desperately needed.
Like many 20-somethings, I had had a string of boyfriends and yearlong relationships that I thought would lead to marriage but never did. I couldn't figure out why exactly, but I had a sneaking suspicion it was more than just "not meeting the right person." I knew I wanted a commitment, but marriage and family seemed like a faraway land to which I had no map. Was it my busy schedule? My demanding career? Maria saw the issues instantly.
Maria became the older sister I never had, though some of her advice seemed downright grandmotherly. I started spending weekends at Maria's house. She allowed me to crash countless dinner dates she'd planned with her husband, Matt Danilowicz, and what were supposed to be their romantic weekend getaways -- until I showed up. I even tagged along with Maria on one of Matt's business trips to London. (These two have boundless patience).
I didn't realize it at the time, but on those trips, I became a student in a master class on how to have a solid relationship. Watching Matt and Maria's marriage gave me a vision for how to act in a partnership. Moreover, Maria took me under her wing and doled out some loving tough medicine on things I need to work on.
Here are some of Maria's pointers for a happy relationship:

1. Bake cookies

I'm sorry, what now? OK, June Cleaver! I always considered this one of Maria's kookier pearls of wisdom, particularly when I was dating an up-and-coming TV reporter. He was a journalist, not Cookie Monster. Maria disagreed. She told me that everyone likes to be babied sometimes, even hard-charging career guys. To illustrate her point, Maria baked the cookies and had them available when we went to visit. And, guess what? My boyfriend devoured them with gusto. She was right. Guys, it turns out, DO love cookies. 


2. Make a delicious dinner

Again, I dismissed this as Maria's Martha Stewart phase. I don't make dinner, I told her -- I make reservations. But she convinced me to try making my Mom's delicious Italian spaghetti and meatballs for one of my dates instead of going out to dinner. Who doesn't love a home-cooked meal? she asked. Preparing a meal, she told me, shows someone that you are thinking of them, and caring for them, and taking the time to nourish them.
Maria helped me see that everyone -- friend or relative, guy or girl, married or single -- feels special when someone cooks for them.

3. Clean your apartment

Sigh. Here we go again with the hints from Heloise. I tried to explain to Maria that I was pretty sure my boyfriends were not interested in me for my domestic skills and that the chair in my living room was a perfect place to toss my clothing when I didn't have the energy to fold it. (It's so convenient! When you want to wear that shirt again, you don't have to walk all the way to the closet!).
But Maria told me I was wrong. She explained that a messy apartment signals that you might not have room for someone else in your life. Loved ones want to know where they'll fit and my messy apartment illustrated that I didn't really care if someone could comfortably sit in my clothing-covered chair.

4. Don't feel hungry

Do you see a food theme here? Maria must have sensed that food gets my attention, though I think she meant this one figuratively. She used this gem with a different TV boyfriend of mine. He was a star network producer who was always jetting off to foreign lands to cover breaking news. He was great on paper: smart, handsome, successful and often unavailable. When I was angst-filled about whether to soldier on through the absences or break up with him, Maria said, "I think if you marry him, you'll always feel hungry. Find someone who feeds your soul."

5. Choose the right partner

Have I mentioned how much I like lead singers in bands? Ladies, who's with me? And let me be crystal clear: There's nothing wrong with rock stars. I'm sure they make great husbands, though I'm having a hard time thinking of an example right now.
Maria, for some reason, was not as enamored with guitar players, budding movie stars and professional jet skiers as I was. She wanted someone who would help support my career as well as his own. She told me, "Imagine a husband who meets you at the door when you come home from work and says, 'You did a great segment on the show today. I taped it for you!'" (insert your own version of that kind of consideration and supportiveness here).
I don't know if Maria cast some sort of magic spell on me, but somehow the man she described is exactly who I've been happily married to now for 14 years. Maria helped me open my eyes and my heart to a long-lasting relationship. I don't think I could have figured it out without Maria's love, patience and wacky wisdom.
She changed my life.