Until death do us part: 8 reasons for marital failure amongst African-Americans

By Dr. Umar Abdullah-Johnson, Psy.D., NCSP, M.Ed.

Nationwide (BlackNews.com) — Discussions about the epidemic are everywhere, from the latest best-selling novels to academic discussions on college campuses, to passionate discussions between Frat brothers & Sister circles. The question everyone wants answered is “WHY?” Unfortunately, many of the traditional reasons you have been given for the premature romantic meltdowns amongst Blacks are inaccurate and insufficient. These very same factors were present when successful Black marriages, created 30 or 40 years ago, were forged but yet many a couple managed to stay together.

As a child therapist, who spends much of my time navigating the parental relationship in order to create an atmosphere of normalcy in which our children can function, and as a doctor of clinical psychology, who studies the emotional and psychological conditions that give rise to relationship difficulties that are unique to African-Americans, I have discovered that there are several themes running through failed families that if brought to your consciousness may help you escape a dead end relationship, or be able to help resuscitate a dying one back into new life.

With nearly most Black children being reared in single parent households it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the ADHD diagnosis has been on the rise, which in most cases has nothing to do with any neurologically-based brain dysfunction, but rather a family-based emotional dysfunction that I refer to sarcastically but truthfully as “Absence of Daddy from Home Disorder,” which is the real ADHD. If we want to save the Black community, we have to save the Black family, for if the most essential of institutions is destroyed then almost no other can function effectively.

1) SEARCHING FOR SECURITY: UNMET EMOTIONAL NEEDS FROM CHILDHOOD – Because so many of us either come from families that were dysfunctional, or had relationships with parents that were dysfunctional, it’s not difficult to understand how one’s unconscious conflicts may lead you on a search to find what you never had (i.e., SECURE ATTACHMENT TO A CAREGIVER, ATTENTION, ACCEPTANCE, LOVE/INTIMACY, APPROVAL, TRUST, RECIPROCITY). Because one’s relationship behavior, under such circumstances, is largely under the control of unconscious impulses it should come as no surprise to you that selfishness ranks at the top of the list of reasons for relationship dissatisfaction. When your dating or mating behavior is largely driven by an unmet childhood need, your partner simply becomes a means to an end, but NOT the end itself. Thusly, you end up using and exploiting them, for what they can give to you, without offering anything in return. You must become conscious of how your poor relationships with parents, or siblings, is continuing to play out in your romantic behavior, transforming you into an exploiter or victim of emotional exploitation. Before settling down, you’d being doing yourself a huge favor by having an in-depth discussion with your bride or groom to be, to ensure their reasons for marriage are not based upon attempting to overcome childhood insecurities that have plagued them for most of their lives.

2) SELF-HATRED: LOOKING FOR SOMEONE TO LOVE YOU – Many people are their own worse enemy but are totally unconscious of this fact. When something goes wrong in your life do you chalk it up to a learning experience, or human error, or are you one of many Blacks who begins to replay old abusive audiotapes from memory, with your parents’ voices (or older siblings) disguised as your own. Do you beat yourself up without mercy, or are you able to comfort yourself when you make mistakes. If your inner voice is that of an abusive and overly punitive parent, chances are you suffer from self-hatred, and it is this self-hatred that is driving you to find a mate who can put out your self-inflicted emotional arson with their cool waters of love and compassion. You can spend a significant portion of your life trying to find love until you come to the realization that you will not be able to reciprocate the love you find if you do not ALREADY love yourself. No matter how much another person loves you, until you love yourself, you will never be able to love them in return appropriately or effectively. In fact, they may choose to walk away from the arrangement after having their emotional forces sucked dry without reciprocity. You don’t need a lover, you need a therapist.

3) MATERIALISM MELTDOWN: BUYING HAPPINESS – Needless to say that in a capitalistic society the corporate-owned media will actually be able to convince some African-Americans that marrying someone with economic potential, and the education to go along with it (i.e., MBA, JD, MD, PhD, PsyD, etc) may actually brainwash you into thinking that to find a person who appears able to help your purchase an upper middle class lifestyle may lead to lasting happiness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Listen to me carefully, “money buys pleasure, it can never buy happiness.” In fact, the pleasures that money buy often lead to addictions that destroy relationships. This is not an invitation to a life of poverty often so well propagated by the religious sector, that many Blacks erroneously find poverty to be a blessings, but rather this is just a dosage of psychological realism that peace of mind cannot be purchased. Many Black marriages simply dissolve when one superficial partner is no longer content with the “financial ceiling” their partner has hit. A high maintenance partner, man or woman, spells disaster. These individuals are self-centered and emotionally distant. They never get the last laugh as sooner or later old age creeps upon them, and the wisdom of contentment begins to haunt them, but not before then with they give up their self-centered capitalistic mindset to begin the search for an intimacy and love that cannot be purchased with a credit card.

4) ESCAPING MISERY: LOOKING FOR A WAY OUT OF YOUR PAIN – Many of us look for relationships not to satisfy our unmet needs, or our economic desires, but rather as a life jacket to save us from dealing with personal challenges that we don’t care to address. All of us have things about ourselves that cause us great discomfort (i.e, problems with relatives, health concerns, dietary issues, professional barriers, unfinished goals, problems on the job, unearned degrees, poor relations with our children, emotional concerns, etc), but yet we don’t have the resolve or discipline to face them. Just as an alcoholic or drug user reaches for substances in times of inner pain and turmoil, you simply reach for a new relationship. As all drugs must ultimately reach a point of tolerance, where more is required to retain the desired effect, as soon as one relationship is no longer sufficient to distract us from our personal emotional issues, we discard it and reach for another. RELATIONSHIP ADDICTS, Blacks who cannot be without a romantic partner, is a very real and prevalent concern in our community. Being addicted to relationships is certain to land one in an ongoing, yet unfulfilling, cycle of relationships that are devoid of true reciprocity and intimacy. The problem with relationship addiction is that the relationship cannot save you from yourself, nor can it ever serve as an effective band-aid for your inner conflicts. It’s better to fix yourself than destroy someone else’s life. Anyone who cannot be alone long enough to develop a relationship with themselves can never build a happy one with another person.

5) POST-TRAUMATIC RELATIONSHIP DISORDER: THE GHOST OF RELATIONSHIPS PAST – In an attempt to acquire happiness, which cannot be obtained from any outside source, including people, many of us do not allow ourselves sufficient time to heal from long-term relationships, or short-term exhausting relationships, that have sapped our emotional, spiritual and psychological energies. Between relationships we all need a period of fasting, where we give our minds and souls the opportunity to heal and rest, before we attempt to “get it right the next time.” We always hear talk about the need for dietary fasting and spiritual fasting, but now is the time for me to introduce the concept of relationship fasting. Yes, a period of NON-DATING, that should last at least a season (3 months) before you infect some innocent person’s life with the negative energy of a past relationship. Just as with all traumas, you need time to re-stabilize your inner self and regain a sense of reality. When you don’t give yourself TIME OFF from forging new romantic attachments you risk spoiling what otherwise would have been a perfectly good relationship with your psychic baggage from your previous love(s). You are not able to trust, love, commit, reciprocate and be emotionally available for fear that he or she may be a rendition of the previous failed partnership. If you are still afraid, that means you are still suffering the aftershocks of post-traumatic relationship disorder, and should not be dating. This is one of the biggest problems with relationships in our community, as too many of us are spiritually infected with the unhealthy energies of past encounters, not to mention still in love with previous partners, thusly wasting the time of an innocent person who has healthy relationship needs that you are not able to fulfill since you are still preoccupied with someone who is no longer in your life, or shouldn’t be. You have to get over your past in order to get on with your life. There is a season for everything, including a time to heal.

6) TYRANNY OF YOUR INNER CHILD: THE PAIN BODY EXPERIENCE – Everyone, regardless of Race, has a pain body. An inner child who has never really grown up, and has been wounded in some way during our earlier years. This inner child usually sleeps and never bothers us until something happens, usually something that causes an intense insecurity, embarrassment or fear, sufficient enough to awake the sleeping inner kid and causes him/her to have a temper tantrum. When we date we are usually selling our conscious better selves to our partner, like a good salesperson we tend to hide, consciously or unconsciously, the negative aspects of our character, which tend to reveal themselves until an experience occurs that lessens our ego’s desire to hide its TRUE SELF. So you’ve been dating for 3 years and now she’s pregnant, or the two of you decide to co-habitate, or get engaged, or get married. Now, finally, the real you will begin to reveal itself. That’s right, not just the positive side of your personality that has been on display the past 3 years, but the negative side of your personality is about to show itself for the very first time, and in full effect. Once your partner’s pain body has been awaken, that tyrannical inner child, you are face-to-face with a person that you never really knew. You have never seen him/her under real stress until now, and you realize you have been sold a false personality picture, and you thusly decide it’s time to end a situation that has been 3 years in the making but only 3 months in duration. This is why most Black divorcees do so within 2 years of jumping the broom – they never saw their partner’s pain body until it’s too late. That is why, as a therapist, I am in full support, despite opposition of religious circles, that pre-marital co-habitation is a must. Only when you actually share 24 hrs a day with your mate-to-be will you truly be able to assess who they really are. It is so very easy to hide one’s negative traits behind a false façade of being the “perfect catch.” Until you have seen his/her pain body, regardless of how many years into the relationship, you are still dating a stranger.

7) WE DON’T HAVE ANYTHING IN COMMON: THE CLASH OF VALUES – One of the biggest misconceptions regarding Black marriage is the need to have things in common. This is so not true, you don’t need to have anything in common (i.e, careers, hobbies, interests, etc) EXCEPT VALUES. Two people may appears to be twins on the outside, coming from the same types of homes, same religious backgrounds, same careers, same hobbies and interests but yet be total opposites INTERNALLY. Non-identical values are destroying Black families faster than fire consumes wood. At the top of the list is finances. You may love to spend money, and live paycheck to paycheck, but your mate values saving over the long term, and not being a spendthrift. Such a clash of values is likely to erode the foundation upon which the marriage stands. Another is GOD. You love going to worship service, and it’s a regular part of your weekly routine. However, your mate, who is of the same religion and claims to value God as much as you do, doesn’t see the need to attend bible study or Friday/Sunday worship at the Masjid/Church. This is going to cause a major conflict because it heightens the true values gap that exists between the two of you. Some of the others include intimacy, in-laws & friends. You may like to spend more time with your friends that your family, or you mother may like to play a bigger role in your marriage than she should, or you think that physical intimacy one night a week should be sufficient while your partner values regular intimacy as a foundational aspect to his/her marriage. Clashes over values can be easily avoided by making sure they are discussed during the dating/courting process. When you clash over values it’s because you really didn’t take sufficient time to get to know your mate. You were so busy focusing on your own values that you didn’t bother to study his/hers.

8) BLENDING THE UNBLENDABLE FAMILY: YOUR CHILDREN OR OUR CHILDREN – Co-Raising children, even if the children are biologically your own, can be a very difficult issue to tackle in marriage. However, when you have children and your mate has children of his/her own, brining all of those personalities under the same family governmental system can be quite a challenge. Sometimes, we never prepare ourselves for the fact that marriage truly means “what is yours is also mine.” Thusly, it becomes difficult for us to allow someone else to chastise our children. When partners feel that you don’t want them raising your children they begin to question the commitment your have for them overall. Think about it, what better way to show trust and true reciprocity than to allow him/her the opportunity to share in the decision-making duties of their non-biological children. When you are not able to do this it creates a trust gap in the relationship that can only widen with time. Still further, when you differ over how the children should be raised and discipline techniques, or even just the need for discipline itself, things can begin to get really rocky in that once peaceful household. As a therapist, I have seen the Black mothers’ traditional over-protection of her son lead to standoffs with her new husband, who refuses to share power, nor should he, with a spoiled teenage boy. I have also seen where a biological father’s love for his daughter has prevented him from making it clear that his wife is not one of her girlfriends. When these small fires are not stamped out of existence, they threaten to burn down the entire marriage. Before settling down, spend some time with your mate’s children, get to know them, and ask yourself if you can tolerate those particular personalities for the rest of YOUR life. Study how different your discipline approaches are, and whether or not you can find common ground, especially when you don’t share the role of biological parent. Most importantly, check your own possessiveness, and readiness for having another person treat your children like their own. If you are not ready for this, then you are not ready for marriage.

These are just a few major issues that can threaten, add oftentimes destroy, what could have otherwise been a happy marriage in the Black community. Certainly, a book can be written about each of the above-mentioned issues, and I plan to follow-up by doing just that. Nonetheless, we should want what’s best for our children, and that is a safe and happy home with their biological parents. None of us are perfect, and there is nothing wrong with moving past a terrible situation, as staying in an emotionally unfulfilling relationship, just for the sake of the kids, can end up hurting the children more than you. Let’s face it, we live in a psychologically unhealthy society, where the pursuit of material, economic & professional accomplishment has reduced the importance of family and children to being nothing more than social assets we use to given the impression that we are psychologically healthy, when in all actuality we are rotting from the stench of American Capitalism. Just take a look at the suicide and homicide rates in the Black community, and you will see that we are a people in crisis. Still further, just take a look at the rates of depression, bipolar & borderline personality disorders in our community, and you will see that our people, a historically faithful people, are now dying from spiritual hunger. Domestic violence and child molestation are two taboo topics that neither the Black Masjid or Black Church is willing to discuss openly and honestly, which leaves it to crusading Black behavioral specialists, like myself, to set the record straight as to why so many of us are living as “functional depressives.” The Black family is facing extinction because the spiritually-grounded non-materialistic African-American personality is facing extinction. Two spiritually unhealthy individuals cannot build a healthy family. The point of intervention should not be the family, but the individuals who created it. Stop putting the cart before the horse, career before family, and money before GOD.

Umar Abdullah-Johnson is a Doctor of Clinical Psychology, Nationally Certified School Psychologist, Certified K-12 School Principal, and political scientist. He is an expert independent special education evaluator. He trains educators, principals and mental health technicians on various psycho-educational topics, including ADHD & disruptive behavior disorders. He is an outspoken opponent against the mass psychiatric drugging of Black boys in public schools, and the mass diagnosing of Black children as mildly mentally retarded and learning disabled. He has appeared on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, the Bev Smith Show, and countless radio and talk shows across the country, in Africa and in the Caribbean. He will be speaking at Arcadia University’s Black Male Development Symposium in Philadelphia on May 12th, 2012, HBCU Charles Drew University, Keck Lecture Hall, in Los Angeles on December 2nd 2012 & the 12th Annual Central Texas African-American Family Conference in Austin on February 16th 2012, discussing the topic of his highly anticipated upcoming debut book, “The Psycho-Academic War Against Black Boys: From Grade School to the Grave Yard.” He is Founder/President of the National Movement to Save Black Boys (NMSBB), and a blood relative of Frederick Douglass, the 19th century Abolitionist & Orator. He can be reached for consultation or lecture scheduling at DrUmarJohnson@yahoo.com or (215) 989-9858.