The first thing Terrie* noticed about Len was his wide, warm smile and the way it lit her up.
Later she learned that he could also throw down in the kitchen and that he would go out of his way to please her. But Terrie, a nurse with a master’s degree, is sometimes embarrassed when people find out that Len is a janitor. And though he may be able to shine a floor till it sparkles like a new dime, he sometimes misses the mark when it comes to subject–verb agreement. “One reason it took us so long to get married,” says Terrie, “was because I had to do a lot of inner work around the fact that he hasn’t been exposed to many things and hasn’t finished college.”
Terrie is hardly alone. More fast-track sisters are hooking up with fantastic cable guys or UPS carriers these days. Or maybe you’re the CEO who found love with a regular Joe. Great! But how do you really feel about it? Though more sisters are outpacing Black men in income and education, it’s not easy to surrender the fantasy of settling down with a man who can rock it in the boardroom as well as the bedroom.
“When I was younger, all that status stuff meant something to me,” says Alexis Yancey Jaami, a TV producer. But over the years her friendship with Marzuq Jaami, who owns a window-washing business, continued to blossom. And somewhere in her thirties, she says, “I decided not to limit my range of possible mates.” The two have been happily married for three and a half years.
What’s behind these mixed matches? Larry Davis, Ph.D., a social psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, points to shifts that favor Black women and/or hurt Black men: lucrative technology jobs that were the next step from traditional pink-collar gigs, harsher treatment of Black boys in school, leading to higher dropout rates, and a lack of male role models in female-headed homes. “It’s a structural problem,” says Davis, the author of Black and Single (Agate Publishing). “We’ve changed from a manufacturing economy that employed Black men to a service and information economy that hurts them.”
In a society that still expects women to “marry up” and men to be the chief breadwinners, couples now have to rethink gender roles. What happens when she pays for the new car, or when her law-school pals don’t mix well with his buddies from the service, or when he feels out of place at her company’s annual dinner? “We take this personally, turning on each other,” Davis explains. “We have to quit fighting about it as if it’s something personal.” It’s societal. Welcome to the new ego-nomics.
If we want lasting happiness with the mate we’ve chosen, we’ve got to value all that he is and what he brings to the table. That means looking beyond money and status and giving power points for “soft assets” like affection, loyalty, nurturing, willingness to pull extra weight as a parent or the fact that he’ll just plain have our back. It means giving currency to a foot massage or a prepared meal at the end of the day. For a growing number of Black women who want to settle down, it will require finding a way to let go of expectations about what a partnership should be without feeling like you’re settling.