Fifty percent of first marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. That rate increases significantly for second and third marriages respectively. Seventy percent of Black marriages end in divorce. That number is particularly important for Black women, who face more difficulties in finding a mate than any other population in the U.S.
This rate of failure is interesting–especially when we consider what would be an acceptable rate of failure for other ventures. A restaurant that screws up every other order will have a difficult time keeping customers. A hairstylist who burns your hair off during every other visit will quickly earn a reputation not conducive to staying in business (smile). A lawyer who loses every other case will be hard-pressed to build a client base. I could not score an F on half of my assignments in graduate school without being kicked out and told by the department, friends, and loved ones alike that school just isn’t for me. But marriage is different. Presumably, there are few individuals who seek to operate a restaurant and/or to earn an advanced degree relative to those who want to be married. If most of us want it–if it’s the natural end in the progression of a healthy relationship, why do we fail so often?
Consider the various relationship configurations that we have. It is common for us to be “dating” or “seeing” someone. Some of us have “arrangements.” Others have “agreements.” Sometimes “we’re talkin'” or “foolin’ around.” Many of us have “a thing.” There’s no shortage of “understandings.” More than a few of us have “a lil’ something” with someone. Countless persons are “hooking up.” How many of you have a “friend,” a “homie,” a “buddy,” a “funzie,” a “maintenance” person, or some variation thereof?
On the other hand, only a bold few of us have a “boy/girlfriend” or a “wife/husband.” What is the primary distinction between being married or having a boy/girlfriend and any of the above listed semantic acrobatics that seek to describe a relationship in which we circumvent claiming a boy/girlfriend or wife/husband? Well it’s not exclusivity. Oftentimes the relationships in the previous paragraph have a measure of exclusivity not unlike what we find in a boy/girlfriend relationship or a marriage (especially when you consider the divorce rates). The same can be said for the level of commitment.
The difference is the level of responsibility that one can expect and the rights that one can claim. When you agree to be a wife/husband or a boy/girlfriend, you are expected to listen and care about your partner’s day and how s/he feels about how you two are proceeding in your relationship. You are required to inquire about your partner’s life experiences. When s/he calls or sends a text message, there is a standing mandate for you to respond. If your partner is feeling down, you are expected to be there for her or him–to try to cheer her or him up. In other words, you become responsible for that person. And, your partner will rightly demand that these expectations be met. When they are not, unhappiness and strife are in your future.
On the other hand, when you’ve got a friend or an arrangement or you’re simply dating someone, you may see that person every day for a week, and then one day decide to ignore their text messages or phone calls because you prefer to watch Family Guy or reruns or Bridezilla that night. You might only ask about your arrangement’s day as a function of meaningless protocol that breaks the ice for you to fulfill the role you two are playing in each other’s life. You might never ask about your arrangement’s day or even what they do for a living. You might decide to respond by email no matter how your arrangement tries to contact you. S/He might be upset, but knowing that s/he is not your responsibility, s/he will likely rationalize your sudden unavailability without raising an issue because s/he doesn’t feel s/he has the right to say anything. Therein lies the point of an arrangement rather than strict monogamy.
We are trying to avoid giving anyone any rights over us or becoming responsible for anyone. In fact, we are scared to death of relationship responsibilities and rights. In light of our long-term relationship failure rates this fear is not unfounded. Hence, you’ll hear men and women tell their arrangements, “I like the way we are. What’s wrong with how things are? We don’t need a title. Let’s not mess up a good thing.” Such statements reveal the frustration we feel with monogamy. It carries so much right and responsibility–more than we are comfortable with; hence, we fail at it–A LOT!
Let me suggest that we fail at monogamy at such a high rate because it’s not the natural end to a healthy relationship. Look around you. How many of your friends are in strong and healthy long-term relationships? How many of such relationships can you name? Now. How many of your friends bemoan not being able to find someone at all? How many failing or need-to-fail (in order to preserve the sanity of the individuals involved) relationships can you name? I’m simply suggesting that monogamy may be a good thing for some people, but we’ve got overwhelming evidence that it is not for everyone. It may not be good for most people.
Monogamy is a specific type of social contract. Nothing more. Nothing less. It is not the eventual end to a relationship because you’re mature or an adult or doing things right. I submit that if it were natural, we would be more successful at it. So, if you keep cheating, breaking up, and if no matter what you do or who you do, you just can’t seem to make a monogamous relationship work, you’re continuously earning F’s, and it’s okay. Maybe school just isn’t for you!