The B.L.A.C Women’s Relationship Roundtable

Seven African-American women gathered to share their experiences and thoughts about relationships and love in The D

The women:

Pictured left to right:

  • Real Estate Broker Jaye Simpson, 36 is happily divorced
  • Clinical Professor Shari Saunders, 51, is in a 15-year committed relationship
  • Life Coach Erica Murray, 36, is divorced and happily remarried
  • Editor Lori Robinson, 42, has been married for 12 years
  • Promotions Manager Candice Fortman, 30, is single
  • Personal Finance Expert Gail Perry-Mason, 48, has been married for two decades
  • Fashion Entrepreneur Ebony Rutherford, 32, is single

Lori: What do you think is the state of Black relationships in Detroit today?

Jaye: I’m hopeful about Black relationships. I think we had this age of everyone being independent and individualistic and I think the economy has forced us to really think about becoming one again and helping each other, rather than just me being concerned about individuality. So, one good thing about this economy is that people say, “We need each other. Let’s figure out how to stick it out and stay together.”

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Erica: I agree. It’s helping people get back to basics, helping them weed through what’s important in life. However, I’ve also seen the flip side. When we don’t have things that help us not pay attention to what’s really going on. When the money is flowing and the jobs are going well, [problems] that might be right in front of you, you don’t see.

Candice: One of the things that scares me the most is a lot of my peers leaving to go to where there are more jobs and more stability. That’s sort of taking [away] a base of men who would be available.

Erica: I hear my girlfriends in Atlanta say the same thing.

Jaye: With the Internet and with technology now, you are not limited to just the bars or the clubs or church. You really have access to men all the over the world. I agree that people are leaving Michigan. My job allows me to help those people transition out of Michigan. I don’t have many clients relocating into Michigan. But that doesn’t mean that you’re limited to just the people that are here.

Gale: I hear a lot of love stories going on right here in the city of Detroit. There is room for love and we’ve just got to be open to it. A lot of women aren’t open sometimes. A lot of men aren’t open.

Lori: What were you taught about relationships?

Erica: I never really had a Cinderella thought about marriage. I never did stuff like put a veil on my head. I desired to be married. However, I thought infidelity would just be a natural part of being married. Everything surrounding me never really pointed to healthy relationships. The first time I was able to really see it was “The Cosby Show.” I loved the Cosby Show! I was watching it every Thursday. And then, I remember when [it came out that] Bill Cosby [had an affair] when he and Camille first got married. I cried. My mom said, “Don’t put anybody on a pedestal.” These were the things that I saw. They drew a picture for me of marriage.

Ebony: Not to say that my mother didn’t try, but she wasn’t a good example. She had different boyfriends all the time. She’s crying over one boyfriend, but then she marries somebody else. Then you realize, “OK, now she’ll marry for financial support.” And then get a divorce. My mom’s been married three times. She finally figured out what it was what she really wanted, who she is. She had to grow.

I had to teach myself from the mistakes I made. Everyday, I try to check my “check yourself before you wreck yourself.” That’s what I say to myself all the time. I need to check myself because I’m all into this guy and he’s really not all that into me. So let me check myself before I wreck myself and get my emotions involved.

Jaye: I grew up in a single-parent home with my mom. My mother drilled into me: “You must be self-sufficient. You must be independent. You must be able to not have to depend on others, including men.” So, I grew up with a distrust of being able to really surrender yourself in a relationship. I never had any grandiose feelings of wanting to be married, of wanting to have a family. I was thinking the exact opposite.

Lori: So what happened? Because didn’t you get married?

Jaye: I did get married. But it was because I was able to see healthy relationships with two parents in the home. My aunt and uncle just celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary yesterday. But as a child, it was, “You depend on you and no one else.” Even when I got married, I [was] thinking, “This is nice. But if he leaves, my train will continue.”

Lori: So no one really had the Cinderella image of a relationship.

Candice: I did. I was an only child, so I spent a lot of time alone and imagination is everything when you’re an only child. I dreamed it up. I mean it was going to be grand. Growing up in a household with my grandparents, married, that’s just what I assumed was normal even though nobody else I grew up with on my block had that reality.

Lori: Do you think that was a healthy idea for a child? Realistic? Unrealistic?

Candice: As a child, my focus was on a wedding. What does a child know about building relationships? That’s what changed for me-let’s go the courthouse. I think also through hurt and through watching people hurt through marriages, that changed for me the fairytale of it all. I wish I had a little bit of that left.

Gail: Growing up, [my life] was totally different, but I still had a fairytale [perception]. I was in foster care for the first few years of my life. When I was adopted, my father really didn’t agree with the adoption because I was labeled special needs. They ended up getting divorced, basically over me so. So then, when my mama got remarried, it’s like, “Oh my God, I want her to keep this husband. I want him to like me.”

I think your environment is so important. I would always go over to my girlfriends’ houses down the street. I saw all the stay-at-home moms serve the husbands and they had a maid in the house. It was like “The Brady Bunch.” I was like, “Oh my God, I love this.” I would go home and my father, who eventually adopted me, I would always go home, make him dinner. I would love to serve people. I serve my family every single day. That’s why I was late, because I had to go home and cook dinner.

Shari: I wasn’t explicitly told not to depend on a man. But most of the men in our family had died. So, I always thought that women did everything. When I hear you talk about doing all those things, my mother was not like that. She said, “I was sick in the hospital once and your father brought you all in there and I looked at you and said, ‘Oh my gosh, if I die my kids are going to be a mess.’” From that day forward, she made sure that we could do everything on our own. We were [in] elementary [school] cooking, doing laundry, everything. And I am so grateful.

Lori: In 2003, Newsweek had this cover story about the achievement gap between Black women and men. It suggested that because Black women were achieving so much more professionally and economically, that resulted in a decrease in marriage. It seems as if ever since then, there’s been this focus on the [idea that] there’s not enough good Black men for Black women.

Candice: I think Black women are judged very harshly by the media on a number of fronts, but especially in this sense that somehow it’s our doing that there aren’t Black families. That it’s our attitudes. It’s the fact that we got too many degrees and we bought homes before we got married, like somehow these are all bad things. I feel some of that pressure, too. When I got ready to buy my house, I said to my grandfather, “Should I do this? Should I just wait and go live in an apartment until somebody comes?” And he was like, “Well, who’s going to come?” I also remember him saying to me, “I want you to buy this house. But when you get married, he has to buy a bigger house. You all can’t live here.”

Gail: I don’t look at it that way at all. If I have a million dollars and I marry somebody, then that million is his too. That’s the way I look at my friendships, my marriage, my kids. I will still cook you dinner if you’re unemployed, if you don’t go to work. I think that’s my job.

Lori: I just give thanks my husband is not expecting dinner every night because we probably wouldn’t still be married!

Jaye: I don’t believe that Black men look at me and say, “Oh, she’s a successful Black woman. I don’t want to talk to her.” I think it’s exactly the opposite. I think we are achieving and pursuing our goals, and while we’re doing it, we’re actually helping to reach as we climb.

Lori: I agree. I feel that when Black women are achieving, that’s an attractive quality to Black men.

Erica: May I say something? Whenever my husband comes home and sees me in the kitchen, I’m doing a lot of (audible sigh), he says, “I already know that that’s the [sign] to go downstairs, put some laundry in, or go upstairs and clean up something because you’ve already been to your limit.” It’s like, “I appreciate you knowing that this is a shared responsibility.” I need balance. If I’m not balanced, then the house is out of balance, just like he needs balance. We can balance each other.

The other thing that I want to say is I speak to so many women that are building their careers and doing their thing. But at the same time, their heart aches because, “The one thing I just really desire is to have this intimate relationship. What I really want, I don’t have.” I hear that echo of frustration from so many of my single friends.

Lori: Are we assuming that marriage is the only way to live or the best way to live?

Shari: That’s not a path that I’ve chosen. I might consider doing a commitment ceremony, but no marriage contract. As I get older anyway, I think marriage is for young people.

Lori: Explain that.

Shari: You have more time, when you’re young, to build together. So if one of you is really good with saving and the other isn’t, you can work that out. If you get married, and if you are people with different economic situations when you come into the relationship, in this day and age, if you have some sort of heath issue, you could go broke. I read another story where another person said, “I had to leave the wife that I love so that she could get health care.”

Lori: Is that the reason that you made the decision to be in a long-term relationship without marriage?

Shari: That’s one of the things I think about. I don’t want to have children and he already has children. We live in different places and I’m not sure when we’d get to the same place. We’re not pressed. We’re not really trying to get married, but we’re committed to each other.

Erica: We’re all different. You do what works for you and in any given situation. Before we got married, we asked the question why get married?

Lori: And what did you come up with?

Erica: We do desire to have a family. We also talked about health care. He and I do relationship workshops. There’s no greater intimacy than actually being married to somebody and being with that one person on a daily basis because you’re forced to see yourself, really. Sometimes, that doesn’t look so pretty, at least speaking for myself.

Ebony: At 32, I’m like, I want all those things. I want a ring. I want to be in a committed relationship. I want to show off my boo. But why do I need a piece of paper that that defines me and my relationship? Why do I have to have a signed contract?

Jaye: I think you’re reducing marriage to a contract and I guess that’s an individual decision and that’s fine. But to me, I look at marriage as more of a covenant with God.

Shari: Couldn’t you have a covenant without having a legal document for the state?

Jaye: For me, no. For me, marriage is covenant. It’s a three-string chord-that person, myself and God. Marriage isn’t a contract to me. It is a commitment to God. I deal with contracts every day, so contracts are just words on paper. Marriage to me is so much greater than that.

Erica: Our pastor, Rev. Shaheerah, when she married us, she said that he and I had already made our covenant. We were just coming out publicly now, saying this is what me, him and God have agreed upon. So it wasn’t that this ceremony now legitimizes and makes it official. That already happened. I’m seeing both of what you are saying. That covenant is something that the state cannot give you.

Jaye: I wanted a house of harmony, which is why I got a divorce. So, to me, I agreed that harmony in the house and peace-you cannot put a price on peace. I’m happily divorced. Now, will marriage come around eventually at some point? It’s not a primary focus of mine, but it’s not something I would say I wouldn’t ever do again. Just at this point, I’m enjoying me. And I’m enjoying the peace that I have in my home. I love it.

My village is so great. I call it my village because we all help raise each other’s kids. If you need dollar, I’ve got a dollar. It’s like Gail said, “If I have it, it’s yours.” So, my village is so full of great people. That marriage relationship is not something I miss. Most of my village is married. But for me at this stage of my life, I can enjoy my friends and family and that’s enough.

Lori: I want to bring up this concept of romantic love. It’s only relatively recently that romantic love has been considered the foundation for a long-term relationship. What do you all think about how African Americans in Detroit today are making decisions about who to marry?

Candice: I have to go back to my grandparents on this one. Watching their marriage, I always thought, “I’d never want to have that kind of marriage.” They just seemed so bored together. They were just very different people to me. He’s very quiet and reserved and she’s not. When she retired from GM, she traveled around the world. She went to every continent except Antarctica, by herself. He was like, “After I went across to Japan for the war, I wasn’t going across no more water!” He just wanted to go home to Arkansas.

They’ve been married 57 years now and she got really, really sick about a year and a half ago and is now in a place where he has to take care of her. And I mean from getting her up, bathing her, feeding her-everything. I see now in them-(pauses and begins to cry)-that love. To walk in the house and he’s holding her hand. The way she looks at him and the way he looks at her. For me, that’s romantic love. All the years when they were raising kids and tired and working and weren’t showing that love, it was always there. It just wasn’t for us to see. But now I see it every day. And it’s the most encouraging thing I’ve ever seen. It’s completely changed what I think love is and what I think marriage is and how I feel that you should go about finding a spouse.

Erica: Thanks for sharing that.

Lori: That takes your breath away.

Candice: It is a love story. I’m just so encouraged by them. I wrote this card to them just to express my gratefulness that they are in my life and I get to watch this moment in time because it’s changed me as a person.

Erica: What I take from what you said was that they allowed each other to be themselves. And I think that that’s beautiful.

Ebony: When you’re young, you think [love is] supposed to be like it is in movies.

Candice: What this process is taking me through is unbelievable. If God does things for a reason, I know exactly why I’m in this moment right now.

Lori: Do you think happiness requires a mate?

Jaye: I’ve learned from my divorce that happiness does not require a mate, for me. I don’t think you can find happiness externally. I think that you have to have sense of wholeness and love for yourself and happiness within and a person can enhance that, but they can’t create that.

Candice: I guess I’ve been having a hard time because if you still feel like something is missing from your life, are you fundamentally happy? There needs to be somebody else to carry this weight of life.

Jaye: When I hear you say “the weight of life,” sharing that with someone, I think, “I’m so glad I have God.” I just totally transfer to God. But I wasn’t there at 30 though.

Gail: I think you grow up in a marriage. I thought I really thought I needed a man, especially in my 20s. I think happiness is-now that I talk to women all the time-within. Do lean on God more than anything. Even when you’re married, you lean on God.

Lori: One of my married friends–Black male–said that we don’t have honest conversations in this country about two things: having kids and getting married.

Jaye: I think as a divorced person, that I can look back at that relationship and say “Wow, there were a lot of conversations that I should have had.” We had pre-marital counseling, but it was not focused on those deeper issues that you really need to discuss. So, if I ever got married again, I’ve learned by the school of hard knocks. I know the questions to ask now.

Lori: In 1950, 62 percent of Black women were married and about 50 years later, in 2009, 35 percent of Black women were married. Years ago, when women were in abusive relationships, they had to stay [for economic reasons]. I’m not sure it’s a negative thing that these numbers are changing like this.

Erica: When I first when through a divorce, it took me a long time to accept that I would be divorced woman. I struggled with that for so long, with the disappointment of being a statistic. The shame and the guilt I felt about getting a divorce kept me in it longer. Once I worked through the shame and guilt, I was the one like, let’s go and sign those papers! Because I was saying, “I’m putting Erica first and not putting someone else’s happiness first.” I could then clearly see that what two people put together can be torn apart. But what God puts together, nobody can tear that apart.

Jaye: Lori, I agree with you. It doesn’t necessarily represent failed relationships that 35 percent of Black women are now choosing marriage. I think it represents choice, that 65 percent of Black women have the freedom to make a different choice and to walk in their light.

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