The new man sharing: why Black men find breaking up so hard to do
Essence, Jan, 2005 by Taigi Smith
Here's a common scenario: You've been single for longer than you care to admit, and a brother finally walks into your life and rocks your world. He makes you laugh, has a college degree and a solid job, and most important, he's single or at least he seems to be. A few months into your relationship, you begin to see that there's something wrong with Mr. Right. He stops spending weekends with you, becomes "too busy" to return your calls, and casually begins dropping the names of other women who are "just friends." You suspect that your man is seeing his ex and possibly several other women too, but he's not 'fessing up, and you don't confront him. Instead, you tacitly begin man-sharing.
It's the rare sister who hasn't been there, mired in a relationship that saps her dignity because she knows she's not the only woman in her man's life. Many of us enter relationships instinctively looking for evidence of another woman. And if it seems that the likelihood of there being one is higher when dating Black men, it's because research shows it's true. A recent study conducted by University of Chicago sociologist and professor Edward Laumann suggests that Black men are more likely than White men to start sexual relationships with a new woman while maintaining physical relationships with old girlfriends, a practice Laumann calls concurrence or overlapping. In fact, the relationship overlapping period for White men lasted about ten days on average, while the overlap period for brothers spanned an average of 250 days, says
Laumann, who published his findings in the book The Sexual Organization of the City. Almost 40 percent of the AfricanAmerican men Laumann surveyed admitted to maintaining long-term sexual relationships with at least two women, a practice he calls serial polygamy. Laumann's study formally measures and puts a new label on a concept that gained national attention almost 20 years ago when relationship therapist Audrey B. Chapman penned Man Sharing: Dilemma or Choice: A Radical New Way of Relating to the Men in Your Life. Chapman's book sparked heated debate, particularly among Black women who "didn't want to hear about it," says Chapman. Writer Taigi Smith brought Laumann and Chapman together for a candid conversation about the causes and effects of overlapping relationships and man sharing in the twenty-first century.
Taigi Smith: Audrey, you wrote your book more than two decades ago, but it seems even more relevant today. What inspired the book, and why has man sharing resonated with us for so long?
Audrey Chapman: I did the first workshop on man sharing in 1982 because I felt that there was a crisis. Women were coming into my office depressed and in one case suicidal. These women complained that they were monogamous only to discover that the men they were seeing had not one woman but often two or three others on the side. I also counsel men to talk about their fear of commitment. Many have had a serious relationship fall apart, and they are devastated. Others were traumatized by the breakup of their parents. These men end up protecting themselves by not making any commitments at all. I wrote Man Sharing not to advocate the practice but to help women manage the situation.
Smith: Why do you think there is such a disparity between the ways White men and Black men begin and end their relationships with women?
Ed Laumann: It exists primarily because most African-American men are not pursuing marriage. In the White community, close to 70 percent of the population are married or in mutually exclusive relationships. In the Black community, the marriage rate began to plummet between 1970 and 1975, and now only about 40 percent of Black men are in monogamous relationships.
Smith: So should Black women just be prepared for the possibility that our men will be involved in concurrent relationships?
Laumann: I think they should certainly expect it. All men tend to be more liberal about sexual behavior than women. In the White community the gender difference in attitudes about sexuality is about 20 percentage points with regard to reporting religiously motivated or traditional ideas about sex. But in the African-American community we're talking about a gap of nearly 40 points. More Black men believe that sex without love is okay, whereas African-American women tend to be much more conservative on these issues.
Chapman: I tell women not to assume that because they meet a man and he takes them out, he's single. It's more than likely he was not sitting alone in his apartment waiting for her to show up in his life.
Smith: Dr. Laumann, your study also found that African-American men with higher levels of education were more likely to be serial polygamists than any other group surveyed. The implication is that men who are better off financially have their pick of sexual partners.
Laumann: The men with higher education are extremely attractive because they're successful and have good incomes. Some women are willing to accept them without any level of commitment at all so that they can gain access to a man with these resources.
Chapman: Some sisters feel as though having a piece of man is better than having no man at all. I hate to say it that way, but that's what it boils down to.
Smith: So describe the kind of Black man who is willing to be monogamous.
Laumann: It's the high-school graduate who has a regular job. My research found that he's substantially more likely to be interested in sustaining a monogamous relationship.
Chapman: African-American women want men who have the big salaries and big cars. By the time the women get through their grocery list of the ideal prototype, they have eliminated the common ordinary guy who's just holding down a routine job. They don't want him, and that's got to change.
Smith: What signs indicate that a woman may be in a man-sharing situation?
Chapman: She should be on alert if he is hardly available, only gives her a cell-phone number, and does not want to do quality things with her. She has to use common sense and pay attention to how he's relating to her. If the way he relates to her is superficial or highly sexualized without intimacy, then there is a big chance that he is stepping out on her.
Smith: So could marriage and monogamy be a thing of the past?
Laumann: We need to understand more clearly what conditions allow marriage to happen and be sustained. The stresses on exclusive, long-term relationships are very high. And it's unfortunate that the African-American population has experienced this form of serial polygamy first, but it's not going to stop there. It's something we have to come to grips with in American society as a whole.
Chapman: African-Americans are the most unpartnered group of people in America. There's a real need for a movement that would help African-American men and women improve their relationship skills. Those in the Christian community are marrying and making commitments, but those in the larger group are not. And when Black women marry and this is the other sad part--their marriages are most likely to end in separation or divorce, and they are least likely to remarry.
Smith: Some people may feel that this is simply a lifestyle choice. Besides having hurt feelings because of dishonesty, are there any real consequences for the people involved?
Chapman: Finding out that her man is a serial polygamist makes a woman feel violated and enraged. It lowers her self-esteem in a way that is just incredible. There are women who stalk the men, hunt them down and play forensic detective. Other women become very passive-aggressive. These women internalize their anger and become depressed. Unfortunately, they end up taking it out on other people who come into their lives.
Laumann: And there are some interesting bad effects on men that arise from serial polygamy. For example, it's well known that Black men have very poor access to kidney transplants. One of my hypotheses is that acquiring a kidney is very difficult to negotiate; it usually requires another highly committed person to run the system for the sick person, to try to keep his name on the list, and so on. Many Black men in these situations are paying for, in a sense, the lack of commitment on both sides. They don't have women who are willing to go the extra mile.
Chapman: Men do a whole lot better when they are in exclusive relationships. They're healthier, they live longer and they are wealthier. And children, obviously, benefit when they have two parents who are appropriately relating to each other.
Smith: A lot of this information can be rather discouraging for single Black women. How should we use it in our approach to relationships?
Chapman: Women have to be more realistic. A Black man is a commodity these days, and men make good use of that. A book published a couple of years ago made the case that women need to date like men. That means you shouldn't claim a man as yours from the start, and you should not become exclusive until you both agree that you have a viable relationship that you want to develop into something that is more serious. This happens over a long period of time--after about 24 months.
Laumann: Men get support from other men for being able to play the field. It's an adolescent fantasy that one can just move on from one woman to the other without any consequences, and that's been projected into the adult population. There needs to be a collective response from women to say they're not going to accept it on those terms.
Chapman: Black women are so afraid that if they do that, they won't have anybody, Their whole world is built around getting married and finding somebody. I suggest they get a life, have friends they can do things with. We're all responsible for our own mental, social and physical health. So you have to take responsibility and evaluate the choices you make.
RELATED ARTICLE: What smart sisters know about love.
Finding a meaningful, committed relationship means establishing boundaries and setting standards for the kinds of behavior you will and will not accept. Spelman College professor Beverly Guy-Sheftall, coauthor of Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women's Equality in African-American Communities (Ballantine), and relationship therapist Audrey B. Chapman offer these tips to keep you from falling for somebody else's guy.
START FROM A PLACE OF POWER
"The first thing single women have to do is overcome the sense of desperation," says Guy-Sheftall. Although it may be difficult to find a suitable partner, it is still important not to operate in desperation mode. When you give in to a sense of hopelessness, it becomes impossible to maintain any power in relationships, and that often causes us to stay in relationships that just aren't working. Believe that you are a person worthy of being treated well.
BOOST YOUR SELF-ESTEEM
If you have a pattern of involvement with unavailable men, make an honest self-assessment, and decide if you're emotionally ready to enter a healthy relationship. "Many women attract unavailable men because they themselves are unavailable," says Chapman. "Because they have been so used and abused, they have shut down inside, and they're getting back what they're sending out into the universe." If you've had some tough experiences, take time to work through that history, with a counselor if necessary, and wait until you are truly loving and valuing yourself before you seek a relationship with someone else.
SET NONNEGOTIABLE STANDARDS
"Black women should have a set of criteria that they stick to, and some of the criteria should be nonnegotiable," advises Guy-Sheftall. Don't accept a man on the "waiver plan": He's not beating me, so everything's all right. "We have such a minimum number of requirements, which comes from our experience and knowledge about how much worse it can be," she adds. Beyond not being abusive or having another girlfriend, what other kinds of behavior do you expect?. Communicate with your partner about what you need, and stick by what you say. If your partner sees that you'll accept whatever he does despite your protestations, there's no incentive for him to change.
TUNE OUT NEGATIVE MESSAGES
"Young Black women have to tune out the messages they get about how difficult it is to find a good man," says Guy-Sheftall. That kind of bleak outlook leads us to accept behaviors that shouldn't be tolerated. Guy-Sheftall adds that women in her Baby Boomer generation "didn't hear that all Black men were in prison, don't have a job or are dating White women." "My mother told me that men were like buses: Another one will come along," she concludes. "Despite all the statistics, it's much more problematic to tell women that you have to hold on to the one you find no matter what. We have to know that it's better to be in a healthy relationship or wait until it comes along."--T.S.
Taigi Smith is a frequent contributor to ESSENCE. She is the editor of Sometimes Rhythm, Sometimes Blues: Young African-Americans on Love, Relationships, Sex, and the Search for Mr. Right (Seal Press).
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