From the May/June 1994 issue

IN 1965, THEN-ASSISTANT SECRETARY of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later to become a US. Senator, published the first-ever federally sponsored study of blacks in America called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” The Moynihan Report, as it came to be known, concluded that the root cause of poverty and despair among urban blacks was the rise of female-headed households. He wrote, “At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of negro [sic] society is the deterioration of the negro family.” Many black sociologists and therapists believe that the legacy of the Moynihan Report continues, even 30 years later, to shape perceptions of the black family as inherently flawed.

Supporters of the Moynihan Report point to a number of striking statistics to buttress their argument. In 1965. 40 percent of all black families were headed by single women, and by 1988, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, it had risen to 51 percent. Furthermore, black couples have the highest divorce rate of any other racial or ethnic group in America rising from 4.4 percent in 1970 to 10.8 percent in 1991, compared to a national average of 3.2 in 1970 and 8.6 in 1991.Yet, analyzing these data without understanding the larger context of racism is not only misguided, it’s deceptive. It is far too facile to blame all the problems of the black community on the breakdown of male-female relationships while ignoring the prevailing climate of racism and poverty and the limited access African Americans have had to civil rights and economic opportunities. Nevertheless, many African Americans themselves have internalized the belief that their marriages just don’t work.

Even among white therapists, the message of the Moynihan Report that marital instability is simply built into African-American culture has subtly infused treatment approaches with black couples. One black therapist said off the record that white colleagues give up too quickly on black relationships. Some otherwise experienced therapists candidly admit to being lulled into believing that because divorce is so prevalent among black couples, it isn’t the same emotional ordeal as it is for white couples. When white family therapist Betty Carter first started treating black couples, she was put off by the way black women in the throes of divorce didn’t seem as devastated as white women. The white women, who often had good jobs, plenty of money and nice homes, would collapse in tears on Carter’s couch and wonder aloud whether they could survive the divorce. The African-American women, in contrast, showed very little affect, rarely cried and hardly seemed to want to talk about their feelings. Carter was mystified, but as she learned more about cultural differences, she realized that the “coolness” was actually a mask for a great deal of pain that, as African-American women, they had been taught to conceal.

BLACK WOMEN OFTEN SAY THAT they don’t have the luxury to fall apart because they are responsible for bringing home a paycheck, raising the kids, often taking care of an aging relative. African-American women learn from an early age that they must sacrifice their own needs and take care of others, especially African-American men, who are seen as “endangered,” or “at-risk.” Because black women are so conscious of the devastating effects racism has had on the male ego, they also take responsibility for the state of the relationship. “African-American sisters buy into this idea that brothers can’t handle emotional things because they are so damaged by the system that they can’t help it if they are basket cases,” says Julia Boyd, a Seattle psychotherapist and author of In the Company of My Sisters: Black Women and Self-Esteem. “Sisters do such a good job of overfunctioning that we rarely ask the brothers to do more than be present.”

The stereotype of the strong, unintimidated, unflagging black woman can warp the therapist’s judgment about how to help the woman, and the whole family, cope with a divorce. If she seems to be coping well on the outside, a therapist may not stop to question the price she is paying.

Black women’s overfunctioning also has important ramifications on the larger family system, particularly in a post-divorce relationship. With so much discussion about the absence of black fathers, the men often feel expendable and find their ex-wives and even therapists simply assuming that they will be dropping out of their children’s lives, says Marlene Watson, who heads the family therapy department at Hahnemann University in Philadelphia, She regularly challenges her clients’ assumption that the children “belong” to the mother or are solely the mother’s responsibility, which often surprises both the men and the women. She worked with one divorcing couple who were worried about their young daughter. The mother was very clear about her fears of raising the child alone. Meanwhile, the father was silent and withdrawn, seemingly indifferent to what his ex-wife was saying. “I could tell this man was really anxious about losing contact with his child, which is why he agreed to come to therapy,” says Watson. “He said he felt like he wasn’t needed, and admitted that he wasn’t talking because he thought what he wanted as a father didn’t matter he had lost all rights to his child when the marriage ended.”

Family therapists need to help black couples get out of their stereotypical roles of “overfunctioning, super-competent mother” and “withdrawn, distant father” and help them become good coparents. What therapists need to do is very basic-, be aware of the fathers; invite them to therapy; take them seriously; don’t assume they are going to drop out of their children’s lives. If he did have a say, Watson asked the father, what kind of post-divorce arrangement would he want? He thought about it and said he would like to see his daughter at least once a week. Then Watson worked with the mother, who was mistrustful of her ex-husband’s ability to follow through on a commitment. “She was reluctant to let herself rely on him because it felt like a chink in her armor what if he disappointed her again? it was safer to take it all on and do it herself,” says Watson.

After some arguing about past incidents when the mother had felt let down by her ex-husband, she reluctantly agreed to give it a try. Watson helped them set up a weekly schedule for the father to come and make dinner for the child, giving the mother a night off. “A black father wanting to maintain contact with his child flies in the face of so many stereotypes about black men, but I think if therapists dig a little with their clients, they will find many black men want to be active parents to their kids, and mothers would love the help,” says Watson. “We have to start those conversations in therapy.”

FOR AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN, being in a relationship with a strong, self-reliant, African-American woman can lead him to feel ineffectual in the face of her competence, and inevitably judged as lacking. Drew and Alicia, a middle-class, professional couple in their late thirties, came to therapy because they had become increasingly disappointed with each other. Alicia hated it when Drew didn’t stand up for himself in cross-racial interactions with coworkers and his editor, and felt he was too passive in other areas of their life. Drew felt Alicia was too domineering, dismissed his fears that, as a very dark-complexioned black man, whites saw him as a potential threat, and didn’t understand the constant pressure he was under. They had come to the conclusion that each wanted a partner who approached the world with their same style.

This couple was a model in their community. They were proud of their many “firsts” he was the first African-American editorial columnist at the newspaper where he and Alicia met in the early 1980s. Alicia was the first woman and first African American to become the paper’s managing editor. But as they sat uncomfortably on opposite chairs in Syracuse University professor Ken Hardy’s office, they talked about how it felt to be scoring another first. After 11 years of marriage, they were about to become the first couple on either side of the family to divorce, and despite the stereotype that blacks are casual about divorcing, neither one felt the least bit casual about it.

A typical couples approach would take into account family-of-origin issues, the couple’s power dynamic, even multigenerational issues, but could easily miss the context for the guilt the partners were feeling about their decision to divorce, a guilt that is unique to African Americans. “We’re afraid that if we divorce, we’ll be letting down the race,” Drew admitted to Hardy. This couple was proud of the ways in which they had defied the odds they were economically successful, they both came from families whose parents were still married, they both had risen to the top of their professions. Divorcing was like a shameful defeat; they would now be a “typical,” ie. divorced, black couple. They were afraid of letting down their community and disappointing their friends and family.

Few whites think twice about whether their actions will reflect badly on other whites, and certainly no white couple stays together because they are afraid a divorce will reflect poorly on other whites. But Alicia admitted to Hardy that she had stayed married five years longer than she realty wanted to because of her apprehension that their divorce would add to the negative stereotypes of unstable black families, that they would become another black divorce statistic.

Hardy believes it is essential that therapists address right away couples’ fears of letting down the black community and becoming fodder for white judgments, even before talking about the more obvious marital problems. He tried to offer Drew and Alicia an alternative way to think about separating, using Nelson and Winnie Mandela as an example. “Their whole relationship was obviously overshadowed by their struggle against apartheid,” he told them. “How can we judge them as failures given the pressures they were living under and under which they were trying to have a marriage?” Hardy also suggested that the fear of other peoples’ judgments should not overrule the couple’s sense of what they needed to do. “As a rule, African Americans have never been able to control what white people think about them,” Hardy told them. “We are always going to be the subject of arbitrary judgments. The best we can do is try to define for ourselves what is Mure and what is success.”

The tenor of the session changed as the couple began to talk about their marriage not as a total failure but a common journey that had brought them both happiness and also frustration. They were ready to part company, but “they continue to be brother and sister in the cause, and I like to think they’ve set a different kind of example for black and white couples,” says Hardy, “an example of how to divorce with grace.”

Teresa Moore is a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.