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State of Our Unions

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Black love has always been under siege, but our men and women came together anyway. When White folks denied us marriage, we jumped the broom. We survived generations of enslavement and dreams deferred, men prevented from earning fair wages and women doing double duty to carry the load. But survival has come at a price: Blacks are now the most unpartnered people in America.

Only 34 percent of us are married (versus 57 percent of Whites), and nearly half of our unions end by the tenth year. Black women are less likely to marry than Whites, Hispanics and even Black men. So why aren’t we tying the knot? And when we do, why can’t we keep it tight? This report on African-American marriage reminds us of how strongly we have loved each other and how hard we still have to fight for that love.

We want to love each other, but often

the weight of our history, social forces and even government policy puts stress on our relationships. For instance, our marriage rates dropped sharply in the 1960’s when the welfare system discouraged many poor women from finding husbands. Then drug infestations in the 1970’s and 1980’s shredded the fabric of far too many of our communities. Given slavery, racism, injustice and any unhealthy relationship habits we may have picked up from our parents, it’s easy to see why so many of us struggle to get together and stay together.

Imagine what slavery did to our relationships when wives and daughters were raped in front of their men, and our men were forced to breed with other women to produce more “inventory.” Brenda Wade, Ph.D., a San Francisco psychologist and relationship expert, says the slave owners’ divide-and-conquer strategy became our way of being: “Never let a Black woman think she can count on a Black man, and never let a Black man think he can take care of his woman.” That attitude has a disturbing legacy. Today sisterfriends often dish that brothers are no good, and far too many of our men are physically or emotionally unavailable, frustrated by daily assaults on their character, intelligence and manhood.

Racism today causes tension that can undermine the best of relationships. And our brothers bear the sting of racism far more than we will ever know. “There are many ways to castrate a Black man,” says psychiatrist Carl Bell, M.D., president and cofounder of Community Mental Health Council in Chicago. “Kick him out of school. Charge him with a felony so he can’t vote or find a job. Make him feel he has no future. This is what they’re up against.”

And without support, we are likely to repeat any unhealthy patterns we saw as children. “Many of us grew up in homes where parents didn’t treat each other with love and respect,” says Wade. “Each of us needs to ask ourselves if we have brought baggage to the relationship that we need to eliminate. What did my mother teach me? Why was my father gone?”

Because of our history and its fallout, we may have to adopt attitudes and behaviors that will help us get together and stay together:

Be clear about role expectations. Orlando Patterson, Ph.D., a Harvard sociologist, says Black women have always worked outside the home, but “Our men still have male-dominant attitudes toward their spouses.” Have an honest discussion with your mate about what he expects and what you can offer.

Consider not living together before marriage. Sixty-two percent of those of us who live together do not make it to the altar (compared with 39 percent of White women). “You can’t practice marriage,” says Diane Sollee, director and cofounder of SmartMarriages.com. “It’s a state of mind.”

Support each other. “Sisters need to recognize that brothers are targets,” says Michael Eric Dyson, a University of Pennsylvania humanities professor and author of Why I Love Black Women (Basic Civitas Books). “Lovingly encourage your man to seek relief—the therapeutic kind, not just the bar or the basketball court—for the invisible injuries he endures every day.” And, Dyson says, men must see their women as partners, not competitors. “Brothers should aim to cooperate, not dominate.”

Filed Under: Expert Advice
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