By Marjorie Nightingale, JD, LMFT
This is the second of a four-part series of infidelity. In the first blog, I asserted that blaming the other woman (aka “the side chick”) distracts from addressing the core issues that can foster change. In this edition, I want to address how racist policies have influenced infidelity in Black relationships.
Many people are unaware of how racist institutional policies find their way into Black culture and negatively influence individual behavior – even altering the way Black people think about each other in relationships.
When couples enter therapy because of infidelity, they will view the hurtful behavior using common defenses. Unfaithful men might try to justify their behavior because they were lonely, bored, horny, wanting sex acts their partners refuse to do or that they are not getting enough sex. These are the “It’s not my fault” excuses. Some men say women are too easy and they cheated because they could. I call this the “Why not?” excuse. Women might view cheating men as selfish, greedy, undisciplined, or insecure. This is the “My man is a broken dude” line of thinking. However, even if any or all of these are true, cheating behavior is often driven by cultural beliefs and attitudes influenced by racist institutional policies. Understanding this does not excuse one’s individual behavior, but it does help to foster more lasting change. In my experience, men who make the most sustainable change are the ones who address their own personal struggles and understand how racist policies encourage negative behavior that harms Black communities. Black women should also understand they have been fed a steady diet of negative portrayals of Black men and have accepted these portrayals as truth. Ask any single Black woman over age 35 why she is single if she wants a partner, and she may say: “There are not enough Black men”, “Black men won’t commit”, or “All Black men cheat.”
Black relationships and black sexuality operate within a racialized context and racism impacts how we love and who we love. According to the US Census Bureau, in 1970, 68% of Black households included a married couple. By 2018, that number dropped to 28%. This decline overlaps the mass incarceration of Black men during the “War on Drugs” in the 1980’s and 1990’s. At the height of this “law and order” program, local prosecutors were incarcerating throngs of Black men, mostly between the ages of 18-45 for low-level drug offenses. Large numbers of Black men were (temporarily) removed from the community, leaving Black women of marriage age with fewer prospects. The media pounced on the ideal of “Black male unavailability” and promoted a commonly repeated, but unfounded statistic that there were ten Black women to every Black man. Black culture picked it up and almost forty years later, people still believe it is true. When people believe something, they act on it. Some Black men used this scarcity mindset to manipulate women. They rejected commitment to one woman in favor of having multiple partners and sometimes without informing their significant other. Unfortunately, lots of Black women also bought into this false premise and developed an unhealthy tolerance of bad relational behavior.
The 10:1 ratio has always been a lie. While we witness the continued over policing of Black men, the rates of their incarceration have fallen 34% between 2006 and 2018 according to the Pew Research Center. Additionally, most of the men swept up in the mass incarceration hysteria have long since returned to the community and are contributing members of society. Yet, Black culture continues to promote the false narrative of 10:1 when the true number is 10:8. Let that sink in. A significant number of Black women continue to fear they have a slim chance at partnering with a Black man, when in actuality, their chances are one in eight. Consequently, cheating men often blow through so many women when they are younger, then look up at age 50 or 60, alone, and desperate to find a partner. By then, the women they have hurt, have grown tired of the games, and have figured out how to live life just fine without them.
Black culture continues to normalize and celebrate Black male infidelity in books, movies, television, and social media. Unfortunately, a number of Black men still see having multiple women as an entitlement. A Black male client once told me that as a ten year-old, he was so angry with his father’s blatant cheating with multiple women in the neighborhood, he tried to make his father stop. He went into the barbershop where his father was in the chair and demanded he stop. His dad, the barber and the other Black men who were present laughed at him and mocked him for crying and for pleading for him to stop hurting his mother. Collectively, they told him, “That’s what we do. She’ll get over it… she doesn’t have a choice.” The boy left. Twenty years later, the boy had taken the bad advice of those Black men. He was in therapy trying to save his marriage after cheating on his wife.
It is disheartening when Black men disrespect Black women callously. In pop culture, we often see Black men treating Black women like trash - pitting them against one another in a “competition” for Black men’s attention. Women are treated as if they are playthings, not human beings, and easily discarded or dismissed as if their lives do not matter. In this sense, Black men treat women in the same ways they object to white people treating them. We are raging about how white society treats Black men - as we should. However, it is as dangerous to be a Black woman as it is to be a Black man in America. Where is the outrage for how Black women are treated by their own community?
We need to do better. We can start by rejecting negative portrayals of Black women and Black men, regardless of where they come from. Portraying Black relationships as inherently dysfunctional should not be a source of entertainment. Not even to “secure the bag!” We can also think critically about where these ideas originate and who gains from their continued acceptance. A marriage rate dropping from 68% to 28% cannot happen without the explicit participation of the Black community, regardless of the racist influences. Thus, improving Black relationships is our collective responsibility.
As a collective, we can reduce infidelity by not normalizing cheating. Black men can take responsibility for defining manhood for themselves and for those who will follow their example without torching their own community. Black women can stop allowing the fear of being alone to justify tolerating, minimizing, or excusing the unacceptable. Every Black man does not cheat. As a couple therapist, I see Black men who love their wives and girlfriends and do not cheat on them. They come to therapy to improve their communication or deal with other relational problems, not just infidelity. All. The. Time. Women who set strong boundaries up front and hold men accountable, end up with men who respect them. Period. However, when Black couples are struggling with infidelity, Black men seek therapy because they want to do better. Most do not know how culture powerfully influences their behavior. Often, it is such an “aha” moment and eventually men learn there is nothing cool about being a player.
Couples may address issues around sex, communication, finances, insecurities, and whatever else leads them to violate their partner’s trust. However, as we dig into our individual and relationship obstacles, we should be mindful of the external forces propelling our self-destructive behavior.
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