(The Root) — With all the fuss over what's keeping black women and black men from jumping the broom, black married couples have been lost in the fray. Yes, of course, they exist! In fact, the vast majority of black women and men do indeed get married.
Of course, many of us are putting our own spin on how we love and make it work. The "traditional" route — love, marriage, then the baby carriage — works for some, but for others, love comes in the form of a blended union, a lesbian wedding or a multipartner (not-so-legal) marriage.
In a three-part series on black love and commitment, The Root will celebrate Valentine's Day by taking a look at how black folks are loving each other, the problems the community faces and the solutions for making it work.
To kick off the series, The Root caught up with Divorce Court's Judge Lynn Toler. She took over the bench on television's longest-running court program in 2006, and since then, she's seen it all when it comes to what makes — and, of course, breaks — a marriage.
Here, Toler, also the author of My Mother's Rules: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius, breaks down when it actually makes sense to get divorced (rarely); two major issues that black folks overlook when it comes to picking a partner; and how to avoid unnecessary problems — like Facebook — in your marriage. "I'm a big fan of black love," says Toler, who has been married for nearly 23 years. "Black marriage is a great thing."
The Root: According to statistics, black couples marry less and divorce more than other segments of the population. What steps can we take to keep the marriages we do have intact?
Lynn Toler: Our people tend to meet each problem as it arises. Black folks that want to make it in an environment where marriage is not as common need to preplan with their partner by having conversations about how they are going to change in order to support the marriage. You have to say, "I am comfortable with this, and I am not comfortable with that." You have to decide how much hanging with the boys and girls is still comfortable. You have to decide if you're comfortable with who of other genders is coming in the house.
When you're in a community that isn't married, the rules about all of that — texting and on Facebook, who you can talk to, how flirty you can be — are different. You have to decide to change those habits to support your marriage.
TR: I'm glad you brought up Facebook. It, along with social media in general, is commonly blamed for divorce these days. How do social media play into a healthy marriage?
LT: You have rules about what you do when you're married, about who you can go out with, go to dinner with. We haven't made those rules about social media, so it's such a slippery slope.
Social media is seductive in its relative ease and its seeming innocence. You're not really cheating. You're typing a couple of words; you're not touching anybody. You can do it from home. You're not going anywhere. But what happens is people find themselves on the wrong end of disrespectful.
People always ask me, "If you're flirting online, is it cheating?" I don't think that's the question. The question is, "Is what you're doing online disrespecting your spouse?" Where you draw the line is if it would hurt your spouse to know what you were doing.
TR: You don't grant a divorce to every couple that comes before you seeking one. You're quick to suggest counseling, which seems like the obvious first step. So why do so many black couples avoid it?
JL: We tend to go to church more, which is good in one respect. The spiritual side? Sure, keep that. But there's a practical side that you can deal with. Talking to a professional, a person who has a degree and training specifically in marital issues, has a value that can teach you how to have a productive conversation. And that would be something we could use more of.
TR: When it comes to marriage, do you think people are too quick to throw in the towel?
JL: Absolutely. I find most people are trying really hard, but they're only doing the same thing more and more. They've yelled their position louder. They've gotten angrier quicker and done what they thought they were supposed to do more and more.
On Divorce Court, I try to give people a different perspective so they can take a step back and see what the problem truly is, change how they approach it and deal that way.
TR: Are there justifiable reasons to get divorced?
JL: Yes, when you are in a perpetually lopsided relationship. I get a lot of requests for advice from women who say, "I never get my way. I never get what I want. I give and give and give and get nothing in return." If you feel like there's no room for you in your own marriage, that's a legitimate reason to go. Also, if anything physical happens, it's time to go. I don't believe in working through that. I've seen too many domestic violence cases.
Beyond that, I don't think there is a magic point. At almost any stage in a marriage, you can get back to where you need to be. You can get back to where it's acceptable, and once you're at acceptable you can get to better; from better you can get to good. There's hope as long as both parties are still engaged. If somebody's checked out, then there's nothing you can do with that.
TR: When it comes to picking a spouse, what mistakes do you see black women and men making or overlooking more than other groups?
JL: Black women tend to ignore the cheating more than other women. A lot of black women that I see in court, they're like, "Yeah, he had this woman, that woman and another woman and I married him, so I thought he would stop that." Women see all the promises and they think, "If I can get that ring on my finger, he'll change." People don't change when they get married. They just don't.
Black men don't know the level of pressure and pain that a woman is in. Black women — economically, socially and everywhere else — are under a lot of pressure. She's been hurt, and she brings that baggage into the relationship.
The guy thinks, "Well, I'm marrying her, it's cool now. I'm giving her what she needs." But if she's got issues going in, that ring will not solve those issues. Good guys marry women who are deeply hurt without the women having addressed that hurt. Black women, in general, need a little more emotional care then we receive.