- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 2, 2002

"A long time ago, I asked God to send me a decent man. I got Robert, Cedric, Darrell and Kenneth. God's got some serious explaining to do," says Savannah, the lonely news producer in the movie "Waiting to Exhale."
The 1995 film, based on the best-selling book by Terry McMillan, features Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine and Lela Rochon as four beautiful, talented black women, each searching for true love with a black man who doesn't look like a "human submarine sandwich" and isn't a cheater, addict, hustler or homosexual.
In the end, two of the women find promising relationships. The third woman decides she may have to live life alone, while the fourth woman, newly pregnant, decides to become a single mother.
In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics released an unprecedented report on American love relationships, which shows that black women's woes are not fictional.
The report, "Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the United States," indicated that black women, when compared with other racial groups, were:
Least likely to marry.
Least likely to marry a long-term cohabiting partner.
Most likely to have their marriages end in separation or divorce.
Most likely to stay separated (neither reconcile nor divorce).
Least likely to remarry.
Most likely to see their second marriages end.
The report is based on "very strong data" from the National Survey of Family Growth, said center statistician and report co-author William D. Mosher, which supplies complete marriage histories, complete cohabitation histories, and details on separation and divorce.
Center researchers found at least a few clues about why almost half of black women's marriages didn't last 10 years, he said: Being coerced into premarital sex, having a child at the wrong time, marrying as a teen, having a family income of less than $25,000 and growing up in a home without two biological parents all were associated with marital breakup, Mr. Mosher said.
Lorraine C. Blackman, who teaches black family life studies at Indiana University, said the troubles in black male-female relationships include personal responsibility but go a lot deeper, into attitudes of the sexes and "marriageability."
For instance, she said, many black men have the traditional view that they should be the final authority in the house. They don't realize that black women "have not been socialized to sit back and let the man make the decisions."
Attitudes about sex are also out of sync: Many black men see cheating on a girlfriend or a wife as forgivable, but "African-American women tend to be the least likely to tolerate infidelity," she said.
The scene in "Waiting to Exhale" in which the betrayed wife burned the cheating husband's clothes in his car was shocking to black men, Ms. Blackman said, "because they are not accustomed to seeing an African-American woman take such a violent action; they're used to a woman cursing at him when he comes home or throwing dishes."
"Marriageability" is another part of the picture, Ms. Blackman added.
Many black women are achieving high educational and professional goals and seek mates with similar standards, she said. However, far fewer black men are going to college or getting professional jobs. Although many black men have good-paying blue-collar jobs, she said, others seem to bounce between low-paying jobs or are in and out of jail.
As a result, some women say, "I can do bad by myself, so I'd rather stay single and climb the ladder of success than burden myself with someone who may not have the same aspirations and goals that I have," said Louisiana State Rep. Sharon Weston Broome, who was in her 40s when she became a first-time bride in 1999.
Low-income black women, who tend to pair with the men in their communities, face even steeper odds. The old welfare system did little or nothing to employ black men and even helped dismantle marriage by reducing a woman's benefits if she lived with an employed man.
Today's welfare-to-work policies are helping black women obtain jobs and are more welcoming to a man in the house, but tax policies still carry a harsh "marriage penalty" for low-income married couples, and welfare has had little focus on black male employment.
Marriage may not make sense in some of these cases, said Dianna Durham-McLoud, a child-support specialist who now works with the National Center for Strategic Nonprofit Planning and Community Leadership, which seeks to strengthen families and neighborhoods.
"Poor women do not need another dependent," Mrs. Durham-McLoud said. "Women want someone in their lives who can, in fact, add something to the table."
Solutions include responsible fatherhood initiatives, such as the programs offered by the planning center, because they provide relationship counseling, man-to-man mentoring and job training to young fathers, Mrs. Durham-McLoud said, adding, "Nine out of 10 of the young men walking through our doors say, 'I need a job.'"
Government efforts in "family strengthening" including marriage education are also important "to help people make good decisions and know that there are benefits to being married," said Mrs. Broome, who is co-chairman of the Governor's Commission on Marriage and Families in Louisiana.
Already, she said, evidence shows that more black women are seeking premarital counseling.
"How is it that we take the two most important things we do in our life getting married and having children and we expect people to learn it all by osmosis?" Mrs. Durham-McLoud said. That might be possible "if you have the great good fortune of plopping into one of those functional, loving, nurturing homes," she said, "but what about the rest of us?"
Black families are floundering in part because "men and women aren't pulling together as effectively as they did in the past," said Ms. Blackman, who teaches an eight-week marriage-enrichment course tailored to black couples.
Marriage education can be "very powerful," she said, "if it helps couples understand the dynamics of relationships, whether it's as they begin their relationships or if they're ironing out problems in midlife marriages."

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