By Myrtle Jones
Seems we’re always hearing that marriage is an endangered institution among Black folks, but you can’t prove it by this long-married couple.
Once, a friend sent me a copy of Joy Jones’s (no relation) March 2006 column in The Washington Post, “Marriage Is for White People.” In it, Jones, a single Black woman, reflects on the notion that African-Americans have given up on the institution of marriage altogether. After reading it, my friend and I began sharing our views about what we thought were the solutions.
I’ve heard all of the gloomy statistics before. I know, for instance, that 42 percent of African-American women and 43 percent of African-American men ages 15 and over have never been married, compared with only 21 percent of White women and 27 percent of White men.
I also understand how I have come to be, at the age of 37, among the ranks of never-married African-Americans. I was born in the 1970s, a time when parents were teaching their daughters, as my mother taught me, to focus on education and career. If I focused on these, so the reasoning went, then a family of my own would naturally follow.
Today I have the education and the career, but the family has yet to follow.
For many years I worked so hard on staying “focused” that I either ignored or dismissed opportunities to develop relationships that could lead to marriage. When I finally did decide to focus on relationships, I spent time trying to decide what I wanted. A year later I thought that it would happen instantly, or at least soon.
It didn’t, but I remain optimistic that marriage will happen for me one day. Meanwhile, I am learning that life is always about balance. Focusing too much on one thing–whether it is career, family, or relationship–is never a good thing.
Likewise, I believe that African-Americans should stop focusing so much on how bad things are on the marriage front and how we got here, and instead look at ways to make things better. There are African-Americans who are happily married, and we should look to them for inspiration and advice.
One successful marriage I know of is that between my uncle Arthur and aunt Altha. Arthur, 62, and Altha, 56, have been married for more than 33 years. They married soon after college, before either of them had delved deeply into a career. They achieved career and family success simultaneously and not consecutively, as I was advised to do.
Uncle Arthur and Aunt Altha don’t always agree with each other, yet they always seem to communicate with, respect, and love each other. They have fun together and seem to know when to ignore or simply give their mate room to breathe.
I asked Uncle Arthur and Aunt Altha what they thought about the state of Black marriage, and here’s what they said single people ought to know:
1. Respect each other.
Young girls and boys need to learn early on how to be a friend to the opposite sex.
2. Stop building your life around rap music and bling-bling.
In other words, quit being so superficial. Guys focus too much on a woman’s body, and women focus too much on a man’s wallet. Money won’t buy you love, and looks will fade over time.
3. Everyone wants to be catered to, but don’t be blinded by that need.
Look for the person who is hardworking but who may not always have a lot of time to spend with you. Many of our young men are brought up by women who smother them. Likewise, young women think that the man who loves them must shower them with attention. However, a man who is working on his career and making a living for his family will never be able to cater to you the same way that the lazy one whose sole focus is dating you will. A woman who is out there taking care of business will never be able to smother her man the way his mother did.
4. Remain flexible about choosing a mate as you grow older and gain success.
Aunt Altha stated, “My aunt has three successful daughters. Two are unmarried, and one is married. The one who married did so soon after she finished school. I don’t have a solution, but in thinking about it, I am sure the other two had challenges as they got older because they weren’t just going to marry anybody.”
5. Seek balance as you progress through life.
You don’t have to wait until you finish school to focus on a relationship. The two of you can build together. The key to making this work is to select someone who wants the same things out of life that you do.
6. Being married will not prevent you from achieving your dreams.
On the contrary, being married will allow you to accomplish more than you can as a single person. The commitment of marriage inspires both of you to strive for more out of life for you and your family, and the foundation of marriage will support your efforts.
7. Get the ring and marriage first before you try setting up house to raise children.
The time when a woman has a baby is one of the hardest periods for men, according to Uncle Arthur. “Women tend to be very emotional while pregnant, and after the baby is born, we have to learn to adapt to our wife spending most of her time with the child.” Consequently, this is the time when men are most likely to leave, especially if they have not made a commitment to the mother.
Uncle Arthur and Aunt Altha also have advice about creating a successful marriage for young couples who are contemplating taking the plunge:
1. Don’t marry someone if you don’t like his or her family.
You don’t just marry the person–you marry the family, too. If the family does not like you, they will always try to find fault with you and work to destroy the marriage. If you still want to marry, Uncle Arthur suggests that you have your mate straighten out any problems with his or her relatives rather than rely on you to do it.
2. Don’t marry with the idea that you will change your partner.
Your mate may change, but not because you pressured him or her to. Uncle Arthur says that when his future wife met him, he was not one for going to church. Even though they were both Christians, he did not bother her about going, and she did not bother him about not going. In time he started going, but it was his choice, he insists.
3. Remember that marriage is about give and take.
There will be times when you don’t agree with your mate but you have to go along with his or her choice anyway. “As much as I love cars, I have never picked out a car since I’ve been married,” says Uncle Arthur. “I put a bug in her ear about what I might like, but I let her pick out all of the cars.”
4. Don’t be afraid to trust your mate.
Uncle Arthur says, “Most girls, Black or White, don’t want to get married because they don’t trust anyone. Trust comes naturally from within yourself. My wife never asked where I was going or when I was coming back, unless she needed to know so that I could watch the kids or because we’d planned on doing something. I did not ask her, either. We trust each other.”
Regardless of your past experiences, remember that marriage is not out of the question for you. Countless people get married for the first time in their 40s. If you’re not sure how to make it happen for you, start by asking for advice from the happily married people within your inner circle.
Myrtle Jones is an assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology.