By Charreah K. Jackson
Falling in love is easy. Falling out of love is a little more complicated – especially when it leads to a divorce. Chicago matrimonial attorney Lester L. Barclay has guided more than 1,000 couples through divorce and shares his insights in the new book The African-American Guide to Divorce & Drama: Breaking Up Without Breaking Down. We caught up with the happily married father to get his surprising findings from the frontlines of divorce in the Black community.
#1 It Takes A Village to Get a Divorce
“When you’re Black, you’re not just married to one person, you’re married to a family. You’re married to a community. You may be married to a church. We’ve always embraced the concept that it takes a village. In many instances, people’s outside influences have significant impact over how we view things. It’s ‘I can’t make a move unless I talk with my pastor.’ We see litigants who will stand up before the judge and say I want to pray about this first or I want to talk this over with my family. Other people don’t always understand the position of community and family structure. For instance, you’ll have a grandmother who will come to court and the judge will say, ‘Well this is between the mother and father.’ Well in many instances, that grandmother is the one who is taking care of the kids.”
#2 Women Pull the Purse Strings
“What makes our divorces different is that our community is formed around a matriarch. African-American women tend to be better-educated and higher-wage earners so when you’re ending a marital relationship the economic factors come into play. If you have an African-American woman who has her master’s degree and she’s married to someone who has a high school diploma and works at the post office, she’s not going to voluntarily pay alimony for maintenance to him. And so, the whole negotiating position of African-American women is much stronger when you see that they control the money. 40 or 50 years ago we were renters, now we’re owners.”
#3 Mental Health Neglect and Marriage Don’t Mix
“African-Americans don’t do as well with getting therapy. So for Black people who are having marital problems that may lead to divorce, we’re resistant to any kind of intervention by mental health. We perceive that, if I have to see a therapist, than something’s wrong with me. Often times, we don’t have the same resources available to us that the broader community has and even when we do have those resources, the stigma can be very challenging. For instance, African-American men rarely want to do therapy. And sometimes, Black women will say, ‘I’ve got to go see a lawyer and I’ve got to get out of this because I think we’re spinning our wheels. The train is stuck in the depot and because he won’t seek therapy.’”
#4 Conditioned for Call and Response
“When we go to church, we yell out, ‘amen.’ If the preacher is off-tune, then you’re, ‘Oh Lord, please help ‘em.’ We’re just a more expressive people. I’ve seen White judges and lawyers who don’t fully understand how we express ourselves. A couple could be fighting like cats and dogs before the judge, but in the hallway, they are back friends again. And the judge looks at them and says, ‘Oh my God those people are out of control.’ But they might drive back in the same car. Just because we express ourselves a certain way, doesn’t necessarily mean that others understand what we mean when we express ourselves.
#5 A Bad Marriage Can Have a Good Divorce
“Just because you have failed at your marriage, you shouldn’t fail again with a divorce. The drama from a divorce can often determine the course of how things progress in the future. If you end your marital relationship in an amicable way, that often sets the tone for how you interact in the future. But if it’s hostile and he’s angry at her or if she feels a sense of betrayal, all those things will likely not be forgotten. He will always remember that she cannot be trusted. She will vilify him. 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce, whether in the church or outside of the church. We have to look at how we can end marriages in a peaceful way that gives dignity to both parties and keeps in mind doing what is in the best interest of the children if involved.”
#6 Divorce is for Spouses, Not Children
“All children of a divorce are impacted by their parents’ divorce. Most children will tell you that they want their parents to be together. But they have little control over the outcome of a divorce situation. What tends to happen in the African-American community is that many fathers who get divorces from their spouses simply divorce the whole family and walk away. I have seen lawyers who don’t look like myself who will think, ‘I’ve gotten her the house, I’ve gotten her the kids. I’ve gotten her alimony.’ But that wife is saying, ‘more important than all those things is that he has a relationship with our children at the end of the day.’ That lawyer thinks he or she has done a great job for that client and at the same time, they don’t recognize the impact this is having on this family in the future. When a father divorces his children, when he divorces his spouse is a very tragic thing in our community.”
#7 Different Skills Needed for Divorce
“Divorce is the ultimate disposal of the marital relationship. We plan for weddings, we plan for funerals but we do not plan for divorce. I tell folks considering divorce you need to look before you leap because for an African-American woman who has been dependent upon a husband for health insurance, there’s a possibility that you may lose your medical coverage. There’s a possibility that you may go from living in a home to living in an apartment. So all these dynamics go into the ending of a marriage, which can also be expensive. If you do decide to get divorced, settle your emotional issues before you begin dealing with your legal issues to avoid a drawn out and procey process. If you take a custody battle to court, it could easily cost you $30,000 to $75,000 in legal fees.”
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