Black Love: A therapist’s perspective

Shamora Merritt is a Marriage and Family Therapy graduate student at Virginia Tech. A budding Black love aficionado, her interest mostly draws upon her experience as an African-American woman.
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Shamora Merritt is a Marriage and Family Therapy graduate student at Virginia Tech. A budding Black love aficionado, her interest mostly draws upon her experience as an African-American woman.  Specifically, her research dives into the histories, pains and triumphs of black love, and explores the nuanced journey and analogy of beauty and pain in love.  She interviewed a thought-leader and renowned therapist, Marjorie Nightingale, JD, MFT on the subject of black couples.  Marjorie is a marriage and family therapist who works with black couples in Washington, D.C. She recently started a podcast for couples of color called “Cuff’d: Sex and Relationships in the Real World.” Her perspective is not only refreshing, it celebrates black love, and encourages critical thought on the evolution of black people in love.

Tripping up the stairs to my office in excitement, I [Shamora] called Marjorie. The call went to voicemail, and as I awkwardly began to stammer over my message in my ‘I was just born yesterday and haven’t mastered the English language’ voice when I was interrupted by her calling back.

After a short introduction I asked the first question.

SM: What message does black love represent?

MN: I think black love represents that black people are finding love.  I mean, it’s easier [more native] to be in a black relationship when you are black.  But I also respect mixed race relationships if there is not an agenda.  If you date outside your race because you are avoiding your own race, then you have some stuff to work on.

SM: *Thinks to self in Yoda voice – colorism everywhere is*

MN: One of the biggest platforms of the representation of black love is social media. The biggest issue with the representation of black love is that people are using social media to cultivate the images of perfect relationships.  Meanwhile, those are the same people that come into my [therapist] room with highly stressful relationships.  What tends to get picked up in the media is really dramatic ugly stuff that [black] people do to each other.  The perception is that black love is dysfunctional because that is what people highlight. But it masks the beauty that black love is.  I think the perception is changing with programming like the Black Love series on OWN.  I do think that people finding their way to each other is beautiful.

SM: It is beautiful.  So what cultural factors are strengths to the black family?

MN: Black couples have historically been more egalitarian.  In the mainstream narrative of love, couples have been revered through a very traditional, patriarchal lens. In the black family, both partners [historically] shared the responsibility in the household. Women have always worked and tend to share more than just care-taking and nurturing roles. Black couples have been judged historically as not being more traditional, but in the real-world, black couples are pioneers in egalitarian relationships where everyone contributes.

SM: Now egalitarian relationships are encouraged.

MN: Yes, it is not new for us.  I mean, according to the research, egalitarian relationships prove to promote better outcomes for couples across the board.  Black couples pioneered that.

SM:  Wow, it is such a transformational concept for me, seeing as how the black family has been shamed for disrupting traditional gender norms in the family, and now it is a major strength and contributor of strong relationships. On that note, what messages, on a societal level, have negatively affected Black relationships?

MN: The most destructive message is one that came out 10 – 15 years ago. With the mass incarceration of black men, the perception is that black men are this disappearing species.  I mean, the idea that there are ten black women to one black man, is just not true.  But if you believe that it is, then that is how people will act.  If men think they are scarce, then they will behave in such a way and trample the women that they are with, believing that they are to be revered.  And if women believe it then they will tolerate that behavior out of fear.  The truth is, there are a lot of single black men.  Now I am not saying the black men are not disproportionately put in prison, but they don’t all die there.  They get out and turn their lives around and get married and start a family.  This idea that black men are so scarce is such a false narrative and feeds into such destructive couple behaviors.

SM:  Wow, that is such a destructive narrative, and one in which I blindly believed to be true for so long *as in up to this exact moment smh*. People function in the realities they believe to be true.  I remember going to Howard and being alarmed with the statistic that the ratio of women to men was 4:1.  It made me unconsciously feel like if I got a black man, I had to hold on for dear life.

Aside from this destructive narrative, do you think there are pressures and cultural values in the black community that are encouraged when looking for a partner?

MN: Well, I think there are some cultural values prevalent in the black community that can lead to unhealthy partnering dynamics. It’s a problem with patriarchy in general actually. Patriarchy is a white male construct that comes out of slavery. I had a guy ask me, is it true that white women are more submissive than black women.  I was like, what?.  Do you know the historical concepts of this messaging? You don’t even understand how much you have been colonized in your thinking.  And, why are we still thinking and talking about submission?  And, why is the submission of women necessary for a man to feel secure in himself?  That is problematic. The women and men that live in that [patriarchal] construct have the most problems in their relationships.  Men that are most secure are not threatened by a strong black woman and it doesn’t make them weak. They can just accommodate a woman’s strength.

SM: Truth! And there is such a stigma around being a ‘strong black woman.’ I struggled with embracing it and also rejecting it at times.

MN: Yes. If you are independent and make your own money, then there is inherently something wrong with that and it labels and judges black women who are assertive.

SM: So, where is black love going? *silently throws up emoji pray hands*

MN: In 1970, 70% of black households were married. In 2010 it was down to 33% [According to 2015 American Survey Data].  It has been trending away from committed relationships.

SM: *frantically schedules couple massage for husbae*

MN: However, this is not unique to black couples. What is helpful is for people who have the power to influence other’s thinking [media, celebrities) to start exhibiting a respectful attitude toward the opposite sex. People will follow. There is a lot of negative imagery that even black people self-promote.  If we change the narrative and the exposure to healthy relationships, then black love will start to shift.  But it takes time.  As black people, we have to be more responsible for the images that we project.

SM: What additional advice would you give young black couples today?

MN: Work on your stuff and don’t look for someone else to fix the broken parts of you. People have so much unhealed trauma, wounds and pain, and they get in relationships and project that pain on someone else as if it is their responsibility to fix that. And, it never works.  Someone else can’t fix your pain.  It is also really oppressive for someone to have that responsibility put on them. Even when people try, you can’t fix that. You have to fix that for yourself. Broken people have jagged edges.  Imagine trying to hug a cut piece of glass.

SM: Ouch.

MN: Right. When you are healed, you attract other people who are healed. You are not attracted to people who are not healed.  If you are married, before couples’ therapy, engage in your own individual therapy before.

SM:  Great advice.  Thank you for your time!

We end on the sweet note of pleasantries. As I reflect on Black love, I feel an anomaly of emotions: hopeful despair, warm fury, peaceful turmoil. But above all I feel at home.

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