By Dr. CHRISTOPHER J. MORGAN
February is Black History Month, an extra opportunity for all of us to investigate, recall and celebrate the many contributions of people of African descent. It is also Heart Month during which many organizations will create awareness around heart health and, lest not forget, Valentine’s Day.
Combining these themes makes me think about matters of the heart in the Black community. In the coming weeks we will focus on heart health, addressing hypertension, heart disease and stroke. First however, let’s consider the nature of relationships in our community, particularly between men and women. I firmly believe that the success or failure of our families, institutions, projects and initiatives is significantly determined by our capacity to develop and sustain healthy relationships among the individuals or groups involved. To get some insight on the matter I contacted registered marriage and family therapist, Orville Green, who has been counselling and working with individuals, couples and families for over 16 years, following 20 years as a public relations specialist.
In your professional opinion, what are the foundations of a healthy relationship?
I am convinced that any relationship in which each partner feels appreciated and respected is a healthy relationship. Within that broad framework, however, are a number of things that can contribute to feeling appreciated and respected: “effective” communication; non-sexual and sexual intimacy; trust; a sense of humour; sharing household tasks; occasional getaway time alone (without interference from business or children); daily exchanges (a meal, a shared activity, a hug, a call, a touch, a note); sharing common goals and interests; forgiveness. Here are some other important considerations:
• Growth also is important – each partner encouraging and assisting the other in self-improvement (academically, in business, or in other pursuits); and relationship growth, giving each other space to mature without feeling insecure
• Allowing each other to have positive outside interests;
• Giving each other a sense of belonging and assurances of commitment – united against outside influences and persons (“You and me against the world, Babe!”); this includes respecting each other’s confidences;
• Respecting each other’s parents; even if not liking, but definitely respecting;
• Not putting pressure on each other for material goods: seeking status, sex, wealth and security are the wrong reasons to be in a relationship.
Here’s an extremely important point: I always use the word “effective” when discussing communication generally. The reason is that most people do not communicate effectively, and ‘poor’ communication is what creates misunderstanding that often leads to unnecessary conflict; while effective communication helps not only to minimize the potential for conflict (which is inevitable), but to resolve conflict that otherwise would escalate into more serious problems.
You have counselled couples from various cultural backgrounds, are there any unique cultural perspectives or challenges existing in the Black community that impacts how we handle our relationships?
Without a moment’s hesitation, I say that the most common and important difference is that members of the Black community seem least likely to seek professional help with relationship issues that they have been unable solve on their own. Most frequently, the Black couples I see are those whose conditions have deteriorated so badly that the counsellor’s job is only to perform ‘last rites’ on what is essentially an already dead relationship. Regrettably, the counsellor’s inability to help save the relationship is then seen as confirmation of one partner’s argument (usually the male’s) that counselling would be a waste of time. Another aspect of the cultural difference is that the female partner is frequently ‘diagnosed’ by the male as the one with “the problem” and therefore the only one in need of “fixing”.
To be fair, the problem of procrastination in the Black community in seeking professional help relates to individuals as well (“I’m not washing my dirty linen in public!”). Otherwise, I find it difficult (or ill advised) to generalize about how “we” handle our relationships. I have learned, as a counsellor, that in the same way that individuals are more alike and more different than we usually imagine, so are relationships.
Can you share with us some common signposts that we should look out for that could indicate our relationship(s) is/are heading the wrong way?
Manipulation, control, jealousy, deceitfulness, neediness and selfishness are among the traits that militate against a thriving, healthy, loving and lasting relationship.
A few years ago, I knew a couple who were married for 35 years, had two children – a daughter in university and a son in high school, both doing well. They were nearing retirement and “seemed” happy. Then one day the wife told me her husband was seeing another woman and she was considering a divorce. I was shocked and saddened. How often do you deal with situations like this and what can you do to help?
Reports of one spouse being ‘blindsided’ by the other’s unfaithful behaviour are more common than we would like to believe. I consider it a positive sign when both partners enter counselling to resolve such an issue, especially if the ‘offender’ was not coerced or threatened by the other into participating. Even if the involvement is not mutually voluntary, the chances of saving the relationship are good.
Occasionally, depending on the history of the relationship, the infraction might be the ‘last straw’ in a bad relationship, and divorce might well be the appropriate action. In that event, after helping the couple to explore all their reasonable options, the counsellor can assist in a rational, non-combative approach to parting company, either temporarily or permanently. The counsellor may assist further, depending on the complexity of the family system (are there children, property and other considerations?), by referring the couple to a mediator, whose skill is in helping couples negotiate their agreements before seeing a lawyer to ratify the legal requirements of those agreements.
How about the many strong relationships in our community, couples who have been together for 30, 40, 50 or more years, who have been through it all, what lessons can we learn from them?
Of course, I rarely see couples professionally whose relationships have been long-lived. But, from my personal experience, having many friends whose relationships fall into that category, my firm belief is that a good friendship between partners is one of the most critical determinants of long-term survival. If one applies to a relationship the same principles that contribute to a long-lasting friend, the relationship is virtually destined to survive and flourish for a long time (“’Till death doth us part.”).
An African proverb states: “Before you get married, keep both eyes open, and after you marry, close one eye.” Before you get involved and make a commitment to someone, don’t let lust, desperation, immaturity, ignorance, pressure from others or a low self-esteem make you blind to warning signs. Keep your eyes open, and don’t fool yourself that you can change someone or that what you see as faults are not really important.
When you are in a long-term committed relationship with someone, over time their flaws, vulnerabilities, pet peeves and differences will become more obvious. If you love your mate and want the relationship to grow and evolve, you have to learn to close one eye and not let every little thing bother you. You and your mate have many different expectations, emotional needs, values, dreams, weaknesses and strengths. You are two unique individuals who have decided to share a life together. Neither of you is perfect, but are you perfect for each other? Do you bring out the best in each other? Do you complement and compromise with each other, or do you compete, compare and control?
What do you bring to the relationship? Do you bring past relationships, past hurt, past mistrust, past pain? You can’t take someone to the altar to alter him or her. You can’t make someone love you or make someone stay. If you develop self-esteem, spiritual discernment and ‘a life’, you won’t find yourself making someone else responsible for your happiness or responsible for your pain.
Given the importance of developing and sustaining healthy relationships with our family, friends and co-workers, how do we develop these types of skills and how can we better utilize the expertise of professionals like you?
Not surprisingly, most of the practices that contribute to healthy intimate relationships between couples apply as well to friends and co-workers. Forums such as this, or the many books or even websites devoted to this subject, provide the basic information. It’s not rocket science. The next critical step is to practice the recommended skills. If those efforts are unproductive, or the desired outcomes are elusive, that may be a signal to seek professional help. Here are some suggestions as to when one should consult a counsellor:
• Personal, marital, family or relationship distress;
• Contemplating marriage or even a serious relationship;
• Loneliness, moodiness, depression, anxiety;
• Grief (e.g., from death, job loss, separation, divorce);
• Intense anger or hostility;
• Compulsive behaviours, such as excessive drinking, gambling, shopping, sexuality, drugs.
Lastly, how can we extend the romance and excitement of Valentine’s Day throughout the year?
It’s safe to say that most relationships, if not all, begin with a period of courtship during which each person tries to give the best impression of himself or herself. That is inherent in nature – the birds and the bees (and other animals, of course) do it! However, there is an equally natural tendency to reduce or totally lose the effort when the prize is won – ‘capturing’ the other’s ‘heart’. Consequently, in time, the relationship loses its lustre. If there is genuine interest in keeping a relationship appealing and interesting, each partner should return to doing at least some of the things that attracted the other person during the courtship. Those things may vary widely between one couple and another; each couple needs to identify those things for themselves. However, at the very least, I strongly recommend the daily maintenance of courtesy and good manners between each other – maintaining a good friendship. If each person puts the other first, both win. As someone has said, “the difference between ‘united’ and ‘untied’ is where you put the ‘i’.”
Orville Green is a Registered Marriage and Family Therapist. He can be reached at 416-293-4760 or 416-447-7600 or online at www.mcw4life.com/counselling.
Dr. Christopher J. Morgan is the director of Morgan Chiropractic & Wellness, an interdisciplinary health centre in Toronto, and the President of the Black Health Alliance, a network of community organizations, health professionals and community members working in partnership to advance the health and well-being of the Black community. He can be reached at 416-447-7600 or firstname.lastname@example.org