The numbers are staggering: One in every five marriages will end within five years, and one in three will end within ten years, according to a 2001 report by the National Center for Health Statistics. For Black women, the news is even more distressing. We are less likely than White and Latina women to stay in our first marriages. And if we remarry, those unions are also more likely than theirs to fail.
Trying hard not to become statistics, more and more Black couples are turning to couples counseling and marriage-skills workshops. To see how well it works, Essence asked Nick Chiles and Denene Millner, married for seven years and coauthors of several fiction and nonfiction relationship books, to attend an intense couples-therapy workshop last fall. What they learned about themselves and each other during that weekend has meaning for us all.
Saturday 9:05 a.m.
Nick: The fear doesn’t hit me until we deposit our behinds in the uncomfortable chairs that will become our home for the next 48 hours, and I glance at the sullen faces around the semicircle. At that moment this entire couples-therapy workshop morphs from an abstract idea planted by an Essence editor into a very real process, fraught with the possibility of painful confrontation and self-reflection. Denene and I are the only Black people in the room-a fact that certainly does not help my comfort level.
As the session begins we are each asked to introduce ourselves and reveal what brought us to this roadside motel in Princeton, New Jersey, to attend the Getting the Love You Want workshop. The session is sponsored by Imago Relationships International, a nonprofit organization specializing in relationship therapy. Nearly half of the dozen couples gathered declare, often through sobs, that the workshop is intended to help them make “some decisions”-namely, whether or not they will file for divorce on Monday morning. I feel dread spreading through my lower abdomen. What kind of torture have I blindly volunteered for? I try to comfort myself-I have nothing to worry about. My marriage is fine. Isn’t it?
Denene: Our marriage isn’t perfect. Nick isn’t perfect. And neither am I. But compared with some of the horror stories we’re confronted with every time we give a speech, where someone bares her soul over some trifling Negro who has done her wrong, I figure we’re not doing so badly. A problem’s got us all twisted? We’re getting on each other’s nerves? We work it out or stew about it until anger turns into indifference.
Still, I need to get some things off my chest. And today at this seminar I’ve got a license to fire away. Knowing this makes me damn near giddy-until the introductions come. The room is thick with tension as couples make it clear they’re just not happy with each other. And for the first time I’m nervous. These people aren’t here to kiss and make up. They’ve put on armor, ready for war. What if Nick doesn’t take kindly to what I have to say? I imagine the singer Prince gently warbling in my ear, Would you run to me if somebody hurt cha/Even if that somebody was me? I hope my relationship with my man is strong enough for him to run to me, because this is not going to be pretty.