You wanna know how your grandparents “worked through” their problems and didn’t divorce? ‘Cause ya grandmamma most likely didn’t have her own assets or income and depended on your grandfather to support her and the family. She had no choice but to work it out. Also, the stigma a divorced woman would face? Pfffffft. Trust me, a lot of y’all’s grandfathers are/were awful people and your grandmother would’ve left him if she could.

The above sentiments were shared on Twitter (and posted in the Grown Zone private Facebook group as a discussion topic by my daughter, Christine), and I believe they are totally on point. (For an invitation to the group, click here.)

As individuals and as a society, we are rarely honest about why previous generations stayed (and many, especially women, chose to suffer) in marriage, rather than choose divorce. We romanticize the marriages of our parents, grandparents and their parents as examples of love, devotion and caring—and indeed, many were. However, in most cases, marriage was a matter of economic and social survival, especially for women with limited protections and precious few options. We conveniently forget that well into the 1980s (and to a somewhat lesser degree, still today) women were viewed as the property of men. Like black people in relationship to white people, they had few if any rights or protections that a man was required by either societal standards or law to respect.

The idea of marriage as a partnership between equals, with shared decision-making authority, rights and obligations, has only begun to take root over the past 50 years. This is especially true if you were black. When my mother married my father in 1959, she had not yet earned a high school diploma (since being sent from rural Virginia at age nine to live with relatives in New Jersey after her mother died). College was out of the question, as were most real careers, especially with both legal and de facto racial discrimination in full effect. Though I believe she really loved my father in her 19-year-old mind, she had few other options than to marry the charming, 26-year-old military man. He, in turn, likely went along with the marriage because society—and his Reverend and First Lady parents—insisted on it, not out of love for my mother or commitment to the union. The marriage ended 11 years later, but only after the suffering in the union became unbearable.

Until toward the very end of the last century, women had no political, legal, or economic power. Those who tried to go it alone were literally in social and economic danger, with little or no access to careers, jobs, leadership positions (including in the church), financial assets and earning power reserved for men. As recently as 50 years ago, most women couldn’t even get credit in their own names!

For a woman to go to college for any other reason than to become a suitable wife to a potential husband (commonly known as earning a Mrs. Degree even when I was an undergrad at Rutgers University) was practically begging to be labeled career obsessed, a radical feminist, a lesbian, or a bitch who desperately needed a man to put her in check. And any sexually available single woman who didn’t “belong” to one man was basically a whore. (Of course, such Jezebels were worthy of neither respect nor protection, and therefore fair game for men, including the husbands of other women.)

So yes, for most of American history, the safest place to be as a woman was to be married, even if that meant enduring disrespect, abuse, infidelity, rape or worse. (In the United States, marital rape was legal in many states until the 1970s.) This arrangement was also fine for men, many of whom realized that they could be married and practice abuse, disrespect, infidelity and neglect with practically zero legal, social or financial consequences.

Bottom line: Many marriages lasted not because they were Godly, loving, healthy partnerships, but because women had everything to lose with divorce, while men had nothing to lose by staying married. This is why I roll my eyes when people want to romanticize how previous generations were so committed to marriage back in the day, and how rising divorce rates are a sign of lost values and a Godless society. Too much of what was accepted in marriage by earlier generations was totally ungodly (or in Grown Zone terminology, unhealthy: anything that diminishes the capacity for learning, self-love and personal growth).

Too many of us have wrongly learned by both instruction (including religious teaching) and example that the measure of true love in marriage is how much punishment partners can dish out and how much suffering they can endure and still stay together. Our rejection of that belief is a primary reason why I joined Zara to create Grown Zone Relationship Education. As we say in the Grown Zone: A marriage is like a house. Its value is determined by the condition it’s in, not by how long it’s been standing. Just because there is no such thing as a perfect relationship does not mean we should accept anything less than healthy relationships.

The keys to healthy, sustainable marriages will not be found in the examples and values of the past! We must promote new, higher standards for marriage to ensure that they are healthy, truly loving and life affirming for both partners before the wedding, and not a life sentence of suffering, unhappiness and neglect for either partner after the “I dos.” Marriages of honor, esteem and respect (our standard in the Grown Zone) last; in fact, they are the only ones that should. The sooner we stop marrying for any other purpose, the fewer poorly conceived marriages, and the fewer divorces, there will be.

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