“That we arrived at 50 years together is due as much to luck as to love, and a talent for knowing, when we stumble, where to fall, and how to get up again.”
–Ruby Dee on her lifetime marriage to Ossie Davis
There was a time when young couples yearned to be legally married and bound together, but all they could muster was a broom-jumping, a ceremony that showed their family and friends that they chose to become as close to married as was allowed during slavery.
Today, even though we have an African American president and first lady living in the White House, scores of statistics bemoan the issues and ills of the American Black family.
“Why is marriage so hard?” Gloria Morrow, Ph.D., asked during a recent conference, “State of Black Male/Female Relationships,” hosted by the Pomona Valley alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.
Morrow had teams of seminar participants list answers to her question, and they included outside influences ranging from finances, to in-laws, jealous friends, to infidelity. In reality, nothing happens to the marriage, she explained. Something happens inside the marriage.
“The problem is you and me,” the clinical psychologist said. “And what we bring to the table.”
Morrow noted that many African Americans suffer from poor mental, physical and spiritual health.
Some are depressed, in pain from past experiences and shut down to new ones. How could they possibly make a lasting connection without first investigating, knowing and healing themselves?
“Take care of your health,” she concluded, comparing an individual’s nurturing their own mental, physical and spiritual self to a full glass of water. “When you do, it creates an overflow in your glass of water that you can give to others. Nurture yourself first and give out of your overflow.”
Before entering a relationship, each individual should investigate themselves and have some sense of who they are and what they are supposed to be doing on this earth. Sure, as we age we grow, changing goals and directions, but a basic foundation and love of self is essential. And if you have baggage issues, Morrow suggests you be honest about it.
“If you don’t deal with your stuff, your stuff will deal with you,” the psychologist said. “Sick people make everybody sick in their environment.”
Morrow suggests having a courageous conversation with your spouse.
“‘Now that I know about this, how can we walk through this thing together?’ You want to bring each other along and support each other,” she said.
“Physical health is important,” Morrow added, noting that poor eating, smoking, alcohol or drug habits are not turn-ons. “Nobody wants to take care of a sick person who won’t take care of themselves.”
Finally, Morrow explained that a committed relationship needs to make special consideration for spiritual health.
“Prayer and devotion is essential every day,” she said.
James and Ola West have been married 62 years and met at Grant A.M.E. Church. Today they are members of two churches, Grace United Methodist Church and Crenshaw United Methodist Church.
“I don’t have a single friend who doesn’t go to church somewhere,” James, 87, said, explaining the history of his marriage’s spiritual health. “Her family was like my family. We never thought of marriage as being any other way.”
West met his wife after returning from Okinawa and explained that straying was never an issue in their relationship.
“I was happy to have someone who could speak English and I could relate to,” he joked, adding that they were married for three years before having their first child.
“We were getting stabilized, getting jobs,” West said. “When young people marry, there’s lots of stuff still coming at them.”
“We both grew up on farms,” he added, explaining why finances were never an issue in their marriage. “We never had anything special. Even when we moved to the city, we both behaved like we were still on the farm.”
The hard-working couple bought their first house in 1953, paid off the mortgage in 1958, and they’re still living in the same house.
“We never bought anything on time [credit],” West said. “We never paid any interest on nothing and we don’t pay for anything we don’t have to have. If we couldn’t afford it, we didn’t buy it, ’cause we didn’t have it on the farm.”
Alaric Jordan facilitated a workshop on financial literacy at the relationships conference and admitted that it’s difficult for most couples to overcome money management disagreements. He recommends couples learn to live below their means, save as much as they can and create an emergency fund to carry them a minimum of three months.
“But romance without finance is a nuisance. Worry about rent or a house note, utilities and credit cards pushes aside romance,” said Jordan, who recommends getting back to basics–managing a monthly budget, balancing a checkbook, purchasing life insurance, investing in real estate and creating a retirement plan.
“Balancing a checkbook is fundamental to putting together a financial plan,” he said. “You have to know what you have to work with. You have to be a good steward of your resources.”
Jordan also recommends that couples get a budget sheet; they’re available on the Internet, and look at their daily habits to find more disposable income. If every day they visit the coffee shop before work, then buy lunch instead of brown-bagging it; then go out to dinner, that could add up to nearly $700 per month–enough to eventually fund a retirement.
Additionally, African Americans shy away from purchasing life insurance. It’s a scary subject, but if couples wait, as they age, their health declines and insurance becomes more expensive.
All the married persons interviewed for this article have taken the steps necessary and are now celebrating their retirements with their mates.
“Compromise is so important,” Marion Burts said. She and husband Ezunial will celebrate their 44th year together in May.
“We actually knew each other growing up in Fresno, and we were sweethearts for six years and 30 days before we got married,” she said, noting that having the same backgrounds, common interests and common friends has certainly helped to sustain their relationship.
“It’s important to celebrate and recognize God’s presence in your lives,” Burts added. “Read scripture together and pray together. Thank God for each other.”
“You have to work hard at it–like a job or a project,” she said. “Keep love on fire and never take one another for granted. Touch each other, lift up and celebrate the good. Suppress and forget the bad.”
Joe and Essie Crosby lived together back in 1971, two years before they got married. They celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in December.
“You have to be yourself,” Joe said, sharing his insight into relationships. “If one of you is trying to play a game, it’s not going to work. You’ve gotta be real and show your weaknesses and strengths. You can’t just be trying to please the other person all the time, that’s not going to last.”
Crosby admits that there have been plenty of arguments over the years.
“We had different upbringings and we had to deal with prior stuff,” he said. “We’ve never read books on relationships, or even gone to friends for advice. Stuff just works out. It ain’t easy, but we’re still here and the love is stronger now than it’s ever been.”
When things “work out,” it’s usually because the couple has put some work into it, Sayida Peprah, Psy.D., said in her workshop.
“If you have a seed and it has soil, water and sunlight, no matter how great that seed is, it will die off if you don’t intentionally, habitually water it and work the soil,” Peprah said.
“You have to be mindful of what you are growing,” she added, continuing the analogy. “Nurture those things you have in common. You don’t need to feed weeds. We need to be mindful of things we know will help the marriage flourish.”
She also recommends having friends with similar intentions.
Open communication is a topic that came up again and again during the conference. Participants also learned that not all communication is verbal.
Adrienne Clay and Debbie Sallie conducted a workshop called “Communication: Five Languages of Love,” and stress that a couple’s inability to effectively communicate with each other can be a deal breaker.
“We tend to want our spouses to be like us,” Sallie said. “What makes me happy should make you happy, right?”
Not necessarily. It’s been said that at a wedding, there are actually four persons at the altar: the bride, the man she thinks she’s marrying, the groom and the bride he thinks he’s marrying.
The workshop leaders gave participants handouts titled “Love Languages Personal Profile.” By choosing, circling and tallying certain statements on the sheet, each person determined their primary love language.
Some preferred hearing affirmations or complements from their spouse; others wanted to spend more quality time with them; some enjoyed receiving gifts best; others appreciated acts of service or help with chores most; and for some, snuggling and holding hands would be the a chosen expression of love.
The free quiz is online at 5lovelanguages.com.
Maybe you think your spouse is getting your “I love you” message each night when you present them a hot, delicious, home-cooked meal. But maybe they just want to hear you say you miss them when they’re gone. If you don’t know how important words are to your spouse, they could be feeling ignored. Well fed . . . but ignored.
When concluding her relationship seminar session, Morrow shared her seven “Rs” with her married participants:
It’s a Relationship–you have to work at it
Have Respect–no name-calling, no roving eyes
Use Reasoning–not jumping to conclusions
Practice Restoration–forgive, quickly
Review–evaluate the status of your relationship often
Add Romance–learn what your mate feels is romantic
Exercise Repentance–being unforgiving is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die