Discussions surrounding the alleged deterioration of the black family have been common for decades, and more recently, the discourse concerning the reasons behind the low marriage rates of black women have increased substantially. Scholars, bloggers, and pundits (both male and female) have posed a myriad of poorly reasoned causes and solutions that only serve to demonize an already stigmatized group, typically either black women for supposedly driving men away or black men for allegedly finding black women undesirable. “Patriarchal” and “racist” often rarely do justice to the articles that claim that black women must search outside of their race to complete themselves by finding a husband because black men are undesirable partners because they are “broke or in prison.” Unsurprisingly, there has been a backlash over these types of articles with discussions ranging from the real structural reasons black women have lower marriage rates, to why interracial marriage would fail to save black marriage. But largely overlooked is how this fits into broader discussions about how we view marriage and relationships in general. People have scratched the surface by saying that the issue of black women getting married is a straw man. They say a woman’s lack of desire to get married is a trivial matter, but I think this discussion should go much deeper than the feminist idea that single women are also healthy women. It is much more important to question the social construction of relationships than it is to question how certain groups fit or do not fit into this construction.
The “traditional” family, comprised of two consenting, heterosexual adults, is framed as the basic unit of society. It is the social goal of all sane people, and if one fails to reach this goal by some arbitrary age, people begin to question his or her sanity or desirability. Parents will begin to call more and more often to ask “When are you getting married?” or say, “This one seems like the one.” Married friends will begin to gossip. Inevitably such a person would be forced to sit down with a group of friends and/or family and take stock of past relationships in an attempt to determine what went “wrong.” “Was it me or was it her?” “Did I do something to mess things up or were all the men in my life trash?”
This rhetoric frames our romantic lives as a series of perpetual failures, all hopefully leading to marriage, which must then be judged over a lifetime because any marriage that doesn’t last “until death” is a failed marriage. Each relationship is supposed to be the start of a potential marriage, another chance to find that one person worthy sharing a lifetime of happiness, and anything outside of that lifetime of happiness is perceived failure. Over the course of a lifetime, one may experience dozens and dozens of these failures, many never realizing the supposed ultimate success: a lifelong marriage, and people find themselves in therapy, depressed, or worse because of “failed” relationships. Because of the way we frame marriage, the overwhelming majority of our relationships “fail.” But our relationships only fail to last forever, an expectation that we harbor for few other things in our lives.
In reality, our relationships rarely fail as much as they simply end. We enter a relationship (whether it’s monogamous, polyamorous, heterosexual, homosexual, or something else entirely) looking for happiness; we have fun, we love, we grow, and when the relationship no longer makes us as happy as we would like to be, we end it. (I’m not attempting to romanticize relationships here. I do realize that they can be abusive and destructive and are often patriarchal and oppressive.) People are dynamic and live for increasingly long amounts of time. The idea that one person can, and should, provide a lifetime of continuous happiness is over-romanticized and unrealistic. It is time that we discard, or at the very least redefine, the success-fail language that we have used to describe our relationships up to this point, and, instead, focus on having healthy relationships, free of oppressive gender roles and hierarchies, regardless of how long they may last. It is much healthier to enjoy our relationships while they last than to agonize over whether our love will last for an eternity.
Language is powerful. There is nothing to be gained by labeling every past relationship a failure just because it was terminal. The real failure would be to remain in an unhappy relationship simply because of social pressure to be married or because a set of arbitrary religious vows state that marriage is supposed to be unending. We should adopt language that eliminates the value judgments placed on the length of our relationships and relieves us of the stress of constantly pursuing everlasting unions. Perhaps we should define a successful relationship as one that provided us with a substantial amount of healthy happiness and growth regardless of its length and failed relationship as one that failed to afford us those things. Eventually we should get around to editing the ending to those traditional marriage vows that says, “’til death do us part.” It should be revised to say, “’til we are no longer as happy as we would like to be. But there will be no hard feelings if we get a divorce because we had a good time together.”
This approach, idealistic as it may be, would moot the discourse about the marriageability of women, especially black women and other women of color, and allow us to focus on eliminating the systems of patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity that too often create unhealthy relationships for women.
- Robert R., Guest Contributor