“Black Marriages Matter”: School of Family Life Professors Study Qualities of Successful Black Marriages

Past research on Black families has focused on topics like the causes of single-family households or the impacts of divorce, rather than the skills and support needed to thrive. Antonius Skipper, assistant professor at Georgia State University, is working to include more in academia that focuses on attaining and nurturing successful Black families, as well as providing a more positive outlook on the Black family in general.

In collaboration with Loren Marks and David Dollahite, both professors in our School of Family Life, Skipper published the study “Black Marriages Matter: Wisdom and Advice From Happily Married Black Couples.” The study was published in the journal Family Relations

Marks shares the following about his experience with the research, “We hope that our efforts and the remarkable families we interviewed will influence research and broader culture by providing something beautiful to consider: long-term, loving marriages. There is so much division and contention and animosity in the world today. What a refreshing contrast to take a deep look at unity, harmony, and love in lasting marriages — and how these relational qualities are developed, nourished, and maintained.”

The gap between the number of Black Americans who want to marry (80% according to research cited in the study) and those who do get married (29% as reported by the U.S. Census) shows how important it is to switch the focus from deficit-based research to “strength-focused discussions.” Much of the previous academic rhetoric has made a successful Black marriage look unattainable.

In-depth interviews were held with 35 couples from several different states and the findings have powerful implications for couples of all backgrounds. However, they are especially important for the Black community, which fights against the long-perpetuated idea of the broken Black family along with other systemic barriers. The study outlines the following three principles and skills:

Cultivating Open Communication 

The interviewees shared that the ability to have conversations about potentially uncomfortable topics is crucial to a successful relationship. In order to avoid things from becoming barriers, it’s important to take care of them when they’re just a small issue. Like a snowball rolling down a hill and picking up mass and speed, a tiny conflict that isn’t resolved can turn into a much bigger problem later. One interviewee shared, “Whatever problem[s] arise in the young couple’s life, they should nip it in the bud. Don’t hold it in because [you] don’t want to hurt their feelings or they don’t want to hurt your feelings. … We must bring it out, sit down, and talk.” Many respondents shared that open and frequent communication and the sharing of feelings can contribute to conflict resolution, personal growth, or simply be a means of expressing love and appreciation. 

Flexible Roles and Responsibilities 

Whether because of personal preferences or a change in employment or lifestyle, interviewees shared that a willingness to “play any role on [the marriage’s] team” was vital. Using a biblical reference, one woman shared, “You need to be the Eve for your Adam. Every Eve has her Adam, and you need to be the Eve your Adam needs. I’m the Eve my Adam needs right now. If he needed another Eve to support him where he’s at, then I’d be that Eve.” This flexibility allowed couples to conquer many difficult situations, especially ones that come disproportionately to Black families. 

Money and Marriage 

Interviewees wanted people to recognize that “the crux of almost every issue” is finances. If you can manage your money from the beginning and facilitate conversations about it (there’s that open communication popping up again), then a load of stress will be taken off your marriage. When it came to money, many participants shared how important it was to play to the other’s strengths. “I feel that [each spouse is] supposed to stay with [their] strong things. … I think that’s why we’ve stayed together so long. … The things that she do well, I don’t even tread on that part. The things that I do well, she just lets me do that part of it … Let me tell you right now, no two people can handle the money … if you have two people [and] both [are] paying certain bills and stuff like that, it never works out. … You have to get one person that [will] handle the money” (quote). Existing research suggests that African Americans experience a disproportionate amount of financial strain, which makes the principles shared in the study especially powerful. 

The study contributes to a larger trend that is trying to flip the script on Black families. Rather than seeing them through the lens of shortcomings, many of which have been created and perpetuated by barriers that lie beyond their control, we can view the relationships Black families have as another example of enduring and happy marriages. This research can help Black couples and singles have more power over things within their control to obtain marital stability.

Let’s Talk: Suicide Prevention and Loss

We all have a part to play in understanding and preventing suicide. Whether or not suicide has impacted your life, each of us can ease one another’s burdens and send an undeniable message that everyone is valued and worthy of love. It’s worth improving our awareness of how to support both those who may be considering suicide and the family members or loved ones of those who have died by suicide. 

To strengthen prevention efforts, we can look at mental health problems as seriously as we consider physical issues. Michael Staley, a psychological autopsy examiner and suicide prevention coordinator for the State of Utah believes that mental health screenings should be just as common as getting our blood pressure checked. And similar to the way CPR training is widespread and required for many jobs to respond to life-or-death situations, so too should suicide prevention training be just as common. Such training would provide valuable skills in many settings, including at work and in schools.

Help prevent suicide by talking about it

Among college students, suicide is the second leading cause of death. It impacts our lives, but it can still be difficult to talk about. However, both Staley and Quintin Hunt, assistant professor of marriage and family therapy at BYU, share that the most important thing we can do to prevent suicide and help people heal from suicide loss is to talk about it. If we feel that something is wrong, we should ask the person we’re worried about if they are considering suicide. 

“If you know somebody who’s going through a hard time or had someone tell you something that sounds suicidal, you can be the difference between life and death for that person. If you leave with a pit in your stomach that tells you ‘Maybe I should do something more’ or ‘Maybe I should ask that one question,’ do it,” says Staley. 

You may be worried about saying the wrong thing, but often doing nothing is worse. Staley recommends practicing asking the difficult question of “Are you considering suicide?” with those around us. If we’ve prepared ourselves, we’ll be empowered if the time ever comes to ask the question in a real-life scenario.

If someone shares that they are considering suicide, let them know that you offer a safe space by reassuring them that they are loved and that you will listen without judgment. Staley explains, “A lot of people feel that they’re going to be abandoned or be stigmatized if they share suicidal thoughts. If you share things like ‘I still care about you, I love you, and I want you to live’ that’s going to create a safe space and help them to recognize their value.” You should then refer them to a suicide hotline, mental health professional, or the emergency room. Follow through and assist them in getting the help they need. 

For every 1 person that dies from suicide, there are 25 people who have made a suicide attempt. If someone shares that they have attempted suicide, reassure them that you are glad they’re here and ask them if they’re still considering taking their life. Let them share their experience with you and get them help if they need it.

Process grief from suicide by talking to other loss survivors 

Hunt shared that an understudied field of research is how suicide loss affects family members and friends. This is important because those who are exposed to suicide are at greater risk of suicide themselves. Hunt shared the following from past research, “One-hundred percent of suicide loss survivors have said that the most useful thing for them in healing has been talking to other suicide loss survivors.” Whether we’ve been impacted by suicide or not, a powerful thing we can do is simply ask suicide loss survivors about the experience in a sensitive and caring way. 

We can all equip ourselves with the emotional and mental capability to talk about suicide. Our care for others will show through our words should we be faced with that situation, but just as importantly, our actions will demonstrate whether we are a safe space for someone to share their struggles. Hunt says, “Regardless of your depth of belief, sexual orientation or gender identity, your political affiliation or marital status, we’re all just people trying to help others recognize their value right here and right now.” 

Learn more about suicide prevention training at https://www.qprinstitute.com.

If you have been personally affected by suicide loss, Hunt, Erin Holmes, professor of family life at BYU, and Rebecca Sanford, associate teaching professor at Thompson Rivers University School of Social Work and Human Services, are studying suicide bereavement. Follow their social media for more information: 

Family eats dinner

6:15 is the Dinner Time Sweet Spot

Summer relaxation ended with Labor Day and the back-to-school season is signaling a return to routine. In parallel, family dinners signal an important transition in our day. Recently published research demonstrates how the placement of our dinner can help us to improve our family life and get more out of our day. 

“The act of dinner actually helps us shift into different activities than we were focused on before dinner. It signals a transition from the day-time schedule of work, school, and activities to evening leisure and togetherness,” says Jocelyn Wikle, assistant professor of family life at BYU, who published the research in Review of Economics of the Household along with Joseph Price, professor of economics at BYU, and Luke Rodgers, assistant professor of economics at Florida State University. 

The research is the first to study whether the timing of family dinners has an impact. Using data from over 41,000 families in the American Time Use Survey (2003-2019), the team determined that the optimal time to eat dinner is 6:15 p.m. Parents who served dinner by 6:15 spent 27% more time reading to their children in the evening, 18% more time playing with their children, 11% more quality time with their children, and 14% more overall time with their children. This effect occurred across all family types.

By having dinner earlier in the evening, you can ensure more time for enjoyable and important evening activities. And if you have a family, that time is important because it “institutes more serious family time and more quality time together. It’s a time when parents aren’t being spread thin and can give more attention to their children,” says Wikle.

“What an earlier dinner is doing for families in the evenings is giving parents time with children both at the table and also after the meal,” says Wikle. This is important because when we invest time in children, we’re investing in their learning and social capacities. To sum up decades of research, positive quality interactions between parents and children are good. Family dinners, in particular, are associated with fewer behavioral problems (Musick & Meier, 2012; Sen, 2010), and increased academic achievement (Eisenberg et al., 2004), for example.

“Parents are a child’s best teacher and parents are really supporting their kids in so many ways. This is just one more way parents can give time and attention to their children,” says Wikle. 

Dinner also can be a struggle. There are going to be times that your children are eating fast food at 8 p.m. on a Wednesday. However, Wikle encourages parents simply to do their best. “Just an awareness of how the time after dinner can impact your family is powerful,” she says.

Wikle’s tips to have dinner ready by 6:15 include prepping food beforehand, doubling-up on food prep, involving your children — dinner prep itself is an opportunity for quality time, and keeping it simple. Her family’s go-to meal is waffles: “It’s a family favorite that can be whipped up quickly.” 

We’d love to hear about your best tips to get dinner done on Instagram @byufhss.