“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.

BYU marriage and family therapy program honored nationally for research

The BYU marriage and family therapy program was recently named the No. 1 program of its kind for research productivity.

That means the faculty does more research than any other group of marriage and family therapy professors in the United States.

The ranking, published in the leading Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, names four BYU faculty members in the top ten most prolific researchers: Jonathan Sandberg (#2), Russell Crane (#4), Jeff Larson (#5) and Rick Miller (#6). Larson, Crane and Miller were also ranked in the top ten for most-cited research. Professor Shayne Anderson was also listed as the most prolific author for faculty who have been in the field for less than 15 years.

Jonathan Sandberg, Russell Crane, Jeff Larson, Rick Miller and Shayne Anderson
Jonathan Sandberg, Russell Crane, Jeff Larson, Rick Miller and Shayne Anderson.

“We are delighted but not surprised by this recognition of the quality of research by our faculty,” said Alan Hawkins, BYU School of Family Life director. “I think our trajectory for the next 20 years looks even brighter.”

The research from BYU’s program helps develop both the academic and practical approaches to marriage and family therapy. Students in the program work with faculty on research as they go through school, preparing them to recognize and implement evidence-based best practices in their careers.

“More important than the number of articles read or cited is the number of students who were influenced by the process of participating in research and learned how to think critically, theorize about change, analyze data and draw conclusions,” said Sandberg, who also serves as the marriage and family therapy program’s director.

The BYU marriage and family therapy program was founded in 1967 and became fully accredited by the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors in 1972. The program seeks to be a healing influence in a world struggling to create safe and meaningful relationships by combining ground-breaking research with faith-centered family values.

The No. 1 ranking for the program is based on findings from a study that examined scholarly works published between  1999–2008 and 2008–2015 by faculty in accredited doctoral programs through the U.S.

Talking commitment: Upcoming Hinckley Lecture on cohabitation, commitment and marriage

Cohabitation is not an issue at BYU.

In fact, as well-educated, religious and generally economically-sound individuals, students at BYU are among the least likely to cohabitate before marriage.

But BYU students and couples are just as susceptible as anyone to experience the negative trends and effects of cohabitation on familial outcomes by avoiding commitment and relationship decisions.

At the 15th Annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture, Dr. Scott Stanley, research professor and co-director of the University of Denver Center for Marital and Family Studies, will expound on how relationships form, how commitment develops and the dangers couples face by “sliding” through potentially life-altering relationship transitions and decision making as opposed to discussing and deciding on a future.

Dr. Stanley’s lecture “Sliding vs. Deciding: Cohabitation, Commitment, and the Future of Marriage” will be held on Thursday, February 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hinckley Center Assembly Hall.

Sliding: The non-decision

Talking about your relationship—especially the future of it—can be hard. But the repercussions of not having critical conversations and making relationship decisions are much harder.

“Sliding,” or moving to the next stage in a relationship without discussing the consequences and making a definitive decision and commitment to the future of the relationship, can be seen in relationships at every stage.

 “The people we’ve identified that are at greatest risk [of marital stress] are people who have decided to live together [or move forward in their relationship] before they’ve decided as a couple that they want a future together,” says Dr. Stanley.

Individuals who are not cohabitating face similar risk when they likewise forego crucial clarifying conversations and decision making. In the process of creating relationship ambiguity, couples, in Dr. Stanley’s words, “increase the inertia for their relationship to continue before talking clearly about whether they’re on the same page and where they’re going.”

Following trends and giving up choices

The combination of relationship inertia developing before a couple’s commitment has matured and the cultural trend of individuals preferring ambiguity results in individuals bypassing relationship steps and stages, and in the process, giving up future options.

“People don’t want to be clear,” says Dr. Stanley. “They don’t want clear [relationship] steps and stages because they don’t want to give up any options too soon. Ironically, that’s exactly what happens when they’re sliding through these stages. They’re giving up options before they make a choice.”

With societal trends questioning marriage as an essential life stage, individuals find themselves in situations that they never actually decide on because they bypass the stages and opportunities to make clear decisions for their futures.

Recognizing—and taking—proper steps

According to Dr. Stanley, commitment forms strongest when there are a set of steps and stages that couples move through.

Marriage not only acts as a signifier of higher commitment between two individuals, but it also acts as a major life-orienting step where individuals can make choices that influence their future lives and families.  

“People slide through potentially life-altering relationship transitions now without necessarily seeing what the consequences might be in terms of their future options, [relationship] stability, marriage and family,” says Dr. Stanley.

Recognizing—and taking—these steps and stages throughout a relationship are essential to establishing the commitment that creates the formation and foundation of sound, stable marriages, families and communities.

Regardless of a couple’s living situation, communication and commitment to a couple’s future need to be made before wedding invitations are sent or closets are merged.

Learn about commitment and the dangers couples face by “sliding” through relationship transitions at the 15th Annual Hinckley Lecture with Dr. Scott Stanley on Thursday, February 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hinckley Center Assembly Hall. Admission is free to the public.

2018 Cutler Lecture recap: Addressing the universal need for love and security

BYU Marriage and Family Therapy professor Jonathan Sandberg’s thought-provoking Cutler Lecture can be encapsulated in a simple scene from Winnie the Pooh:

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. 
“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

The need to feel connected and loved is a universal need.

Safe and secure relationships form when individuals in the relationship are responsive to and accessible by the other individual. The isolation created by taking away this accessibility and responsiveness is traumatizing.

In a disconnected world, it is vital that we form and foster relationships where we truly see people and their needs and truly love them. Feeling loved and recognized gives us a secure base from which we can launch and explore other aspects of life.

Be vulnerable and seek out deep, meaningful and loving connections and relationships. Repair conflict in your relationships. Be hopeful in developing secure attachments and relationships with others–even if you have not experienced those relationships in the past. And find ways to be emotionally accessible, responsive and engaged with others on a daily basis.

People are in need of love and security and we are the ones who can help them.

For the full 2018 Cutler Lecture, watch the video below.

2018 Cutler lecture: Securing marriage with (research-proven) attachment

Research and clinical experience not only tell us that a healthy, happy and passionate marriage is possible, it also shows us how to create it.

The School of Family Life 2018 Virginia F. Cutler Lecture will give you the knowledge and resources to do this within your own family and home.

On Wednesday, October 17, BYU Marriage and Family Therapy professor Jonathan Sandberg will give his lecture “Secure Attachments: The key to a happy, healthy, and passionate marriage” that will highlight current research on adult attachment and romantic relationships. More specifically, Sandberg will review actionable behaviors that we can adopt to promote attachment—a key factor that leads to safety and security in marriage.

Our society may spread the message that having a happy and healthy family is no longer an option, but science says otherwise. You can choose–and act–to have a healthy, happy and passionate marriage.

Learn how to strengthen your marriage and family at the 55th annual Virginia F. Cutler Lecture on Wednesday, October 17 at 7 p.m. in 151 N. Eldon Tanner Building. The event is free and open to the public.

This lecture series is named after Virginia F. Cutler, former dean of the College of Family Living (now the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences). Dr. Cutler spent her entire life educating people on the home and family. She also cared deeply about women and people in other nations, and her career took her across the globe as she served people in Thailand, Indonesia and Ghana.