Teaching Good Marriages

A Hampton University center focuses on improving the odds of a lasting relationship.

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If courtship in college is a kind of laboratory and apprenticeship for getting hitched somewhere down the road, senior psychology major Tiffany Mattaway knows of few who are making the grade.

''Hmmmm. Meaningful relationships? There aren't that many on this campus. I know of exactly two,'' says Philadelphia native Mattaway, set to graduate from Hampton University in Hampton, Va., next month. ''You see a lot of dating, a lot of what we call 'talking to.' But it's dating without a title, and the girls do settle for not having a title. They think it's the norm. They're, like, 'Well, he doesn't disrespect me. No, it isn't the best situation, but it's OK.' And that's a little unfair, I think.''

Line up that reality against the stark statistics rolled out as part of a course on marriage that Mattaway completed at Hampton--its National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting jumped off with a two-day conference last fall--and the urgency ratchets up. Released at that conference, and discussed in class, was a ''marriage index'' revealing these troublesome facts: The tally of married black people, aged 20 to 54, slipped from 64 percent of the total black adult population in 1970 to 39.6 percent in 2008, a period when marriages for all races declined from 78.6 percent to 57.2 percent. During the same time frame, childbirths to married black couples dropped from 62.4 percent to 28.4 percent, when the respective tabulations for all races were 89.3 percent and 60.3 percent.

Extending further, just 29 percent of black children lived with their married parents in 2008, the latest year for which data are available, compared to 34.8 percent in 1990, the earliest year for which the figures were calculated. Poverty wracks children fitting that profile. They are 50 times more likely than children in stable, two-parent homes to be abused. In school, their grades and their behavior are sub-par.

''It's a worsening crisis,'' says Dr. Linda Malone-Colon, the Hampton psychologist who teaches the two-year-old course and founded the center. Its primary research partner is the Institute for American Values, a New York City think tank, and, Malone-Colon adds, its message is without religious bent. ''We're simply proponents of good marriages and of trying to model for people what that looks like.''

Their pro-marriage initiatives target the young and old, people who increasingly do not view marriage as a viable prospect and those who believe in the institution but haven't quite figured out how to make life-decisions, including ones about college dating habits, that can help set the stage for marital bliss.

Hampton's own psychology department is laying the groundwork for a marriage-and-family tract for fledgling counselors interested in the subject; and Hampton students are being prepped for a mentoring project to groom youths in their Hampton, Va. community about what constitutes healthy relationships.

''We want to be the model, including for historically black colleges and universities that can be instrumental in this work in their own communities,'' Malone-Colon says.

The work is complicated and complex, says Dr. Obie Clayton, a Morehouse College sociologist and research partner with the Hampton center. Black marriage rates should not be viewed, he says, entirely apart from trends in areas such as employment and education. A gender gap in academic pedigree, with female achievement outpacing that of men, has shaped the dating rituals of educated black women, in particular. (A 2009 Yale Center for Research on Inequalities and the Life Course study showed that black women born after 1950 were twice as likely as white women to never have married by age 45. They also were twice as likely to be divorced, widowed or separated.) Men who are unskilled and underemployed disproportionately opt against marriage, regardless of whether they are fathers--and many indeed are in relationships with their children, Clayton says.

Much of his activist-driven research has been directed at keeping fathers involved with their children, no matter the state of their involvement with the mothers. ''Marriage, though, still is the ideal,'' Clayton says. Its benefits range from better health to more stable bank accounts for married individuals.