Dear Sil Lai: I’m a twenty year old man dating an 18 year old woman. Because of cultural reasons (my family is African), I feel a lot of pressure to marry her. But the reality is I’m not even sure if I believe in marriage. I’m scared because it seems that practically all of them are doomed to end in divorce (at least according to what I’m seeing in the media). Would it be horrible for me to continue in a relationship with her, even though I know I’m probably not going to stick around?
-Shook One, Atlanta GA
I don’t blame you for being scared about getting married! The divorce rates are enough to send anyone running for the hills. Based upon the statistics that have been dominating the media for the past few years, it’s no wonder that many folks believe that getting married will doom you to your own real life Tyler Perry inspired dramedy (minus the poor writing and implausible plot lines, of course).
Many traditional African cultures view marriage as a sacred spiritual contract between two people and their families. It’s a hallmark of maturity that increases one’s social position and brings prestige to both man and wife. The pressure that someone such as yourself faces coming from a society where marriage is revered as one of the most defining points in one’s life can be daunting, to say the least. The fact that you’ve got enough courage to look at the reality of marriage in the face of what must be tremendous pressure from your family is a testimony to your increasing self-awareness and maturity.
The marriage and divorce statistics, while sobering, do not prove that marriage is bad, or not for the young, or even not for Blacks. But what they undeniably show is that marriage is a more serious commitment than most are prepared to make for the long-term. Divorce rates are highest among men and women aged 35 to 44. What this means is that many of the promises made in youth to love “til death do you part” end up falling by the wayside as you mature and realize that the person you’d be most compatible with at 20 isn’t the same as who you’d be right for at 30. It’s true that our core beliefs around intimate relationships and marriage continue to grow as we do…it’s a lifelong process. But at the age of twenty, it’s hard enough to get clear on who you are as an “I”, let alone the additional pressure it takes to become a “we”. And allow me to state the obvious: anyone whose attitude towards marriage is “I can always bounce if things don’t work” is nowhere near ready enough to seriously consider getting hitched. Period.
I believe that marriage is something one should enter into only if they believe in the institution and are truly committed to building a life with someone. One should never enter into it because of the fear of disappointing another person or trying to fulfill the expectations of those around you. Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated into jumping the broom because your parents are eager for new blood to carry on the family name. Don’t cave into peer pressure because your aunts and uncles are starting to look at you crazy because you’re the last (single) man standing. And don’t let yourself be bullied into it because your girl is threatening to delete you from her life and Facebook network.
Honoring your culture is important; honoring your spirit and personal beliefs is, in my opinion, even more so. Bob Marley said “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” I understand your need to respect tradition, but at the same time your need for a lifestyle that respects your personal relationship philosophy must come first. No one should ever allow themselves to be chained to a way of life that really doesn’t work for them.
It isn’t horrible for you to continue to date this woman, but it irresponsible to continue in the relationship without being honest about your real views on marriage. It’s only fair to give marital-minded partners the choice on whether or not to continue in relationship with someone who feels ambivalent about marriage at best. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to sit down and have a serious talk with your girlfriend about how you really feel about marriage. Don’t worry about whether or not she’s going to freak out on you for being honest. Trust me, it’s better to deal with an uncomfortable conversation today than to have to face her wrath ten years down road if you decide to pull a disappearing act. It’s often said that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It’ll be easier to extricate yourself before your finances and life are intertwined (and before a child can complicate things even further).
Marriage is more than tradition and an emotional connection…it’s a commitment that has real life legal and financial ramifications. I believe that true love can endure all things…just make sure before you tie the knot that you truly believe that marriage can as well!
Sil Lai Abrams is EBONY.com’s Relationship Expert and the author of No More Drama: 9 Simple Steps to Transforming a Breakdown into a Breakthrough and a board member of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Follow her on Twitter: @sil_lai and connect with her on Facebook. Want Sil Lai’s advice? Email SilLai@ebony.com to have your love questions answered in a future column!