By the time you read this, my wife and I will have celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary. One of my good friends (who’s with his second wife) believes that Black marriages should be measured in dog years. He even sent me a text: happy 77th anniversary, son! That one elicited a pained chuckle, because his offhand joke illuminated something larger.
Out of six couples married within a year before or after us, only one is still together. Varying factors caused the breakups—infidelity; money issues; one couple lost a child and couldn’t even stand to be in the same room as one another for the memories of their baby. Some of the (former) couples no longer speak. This disturbs me.
We’ve all seen the articles, essays, talk shows and polemic regarding the state of Black marriage. The spectrum ranges from marriage not being for Black folks at all, to polyamory being one of the only viable solutions for strengthening Black relationships, to the lack of God in our lives directly contributing to failed marriages. I’d like to offer something else: it’s just so damn easy to break up.
Many of us live for and in the moment. And for some things, this Buddhist-like engagement with the world is a wonderful and useful thing. But for something like marriage, it’s almost counter to the very idea. When we get married, it’s more than just two people coming together. It is four different families coming together. A quartet of ancestral and historical lines becomes braided when we take our vows. But with migration for vocational and educational opportunities, many of us do not have immediate access to the families who attended our ceremony.
So, like my wife and I, many couples are kind of… just out there. In our case there are no parents on either side, and with no solid familial supports, it’s really difficult. When we went through our troubles, pulling the plug on the marriage was the first thought. There was no talk about the sanctity or longevity of the marriage. It was more akin to touching a hot stove: Ouch! This hurts. Gotta get away from it!
Ending the marriage was a reaction. Saving our marriage was a response.
While I’m usually dead set against making generalizations, I’m going to go against that impulse and make a few. These are the things my wife and I did to save and strengthen our marriage. I truly believe that they can be of value to anyone experiencing what can be one of the most painful things anyone can go through: a disrupted union.
1. Go to marriage counseling. Having an objective third party is invaluable. They act as a mirror for you, as a couple and as individuals. I won’t lie to you and say it was easy to invite a stranger into our pain, but it was worth it. If you care about the person you’re married to, do the work.
2. Support your partner. It is so easy to fall into jealousy when your partner is at his or her apex, and you’re at your nadir. Instead of trying to compete with them, support them. The fear that your partner will leave you because they’re doing well is real and destructive. You can only benefit from your loved one doing his or her thing—being at the top of their game. Instead of trying to find holes and flaws, step up your game. You are more powerful together.
3. If you have kids, think about them. Are you fighting for your marriage for them, or for each other? If every reason you can generate involves your children, then it is best to get out as cleanly as you can. But if your reasons (primarily) concern the two of you, your marriage is worth fighting for.
4. Take a long view. Look past the now. Do you see any value in your long-term commitment? Do you see any potential for growth? If you do, fight for your collective future.
5. Know when to shut up and listen. Not everything needs to be fixed. Some things just need to be experienced.
6. Be curious. Ask about your partner’s day, and be interested in the answer. Once you get into a routine, it’s difficult to break. Curiosity leads to engagement, which leads to new experiences, which destroys monotony. Monotony is the enemy of healthy relationships.
7. Know your worth. If you are feeling unappreciated, speak up. Demand the respect you deserve. Do not suffer in silence. This breeds resentment, and once you start seething in anger, it’s so very difficult to shake it and see your partner with a clear emotional mind.
These aren’t the end all be all, but for us, they were the starting point for another healthy and happy 11 years.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.