To Leave Or Stay? How Black Women Are Rewriting Relationship Rules

Michelle and Barack Obama’s 10-year rough patch. Tia Mowry’s divorce from Cory Hardrict. Nia Long’s split from Ime Udoka after his years of on-the-job infidelity.
2022 was a tough recruitment year for marriage.
We watched rich, famous and powerful women voluntarily (and involuntarily) have their relationship challenges shared with the masses. Each new headline revealed their most private battles, the hard decisions they had to make in light of them, and it all came with an onslaught of divided opinions. No instance showed the stark contrast of opinion more than the responses to Tia Mowry’s divorce and Michelle Obama’s relationship revelations.
On a multi-generational panel, Michelle Obama shared that there was a decade that she “couldn’t stand her husband.” While her children were toddlers, Obama expressed that there was an imbalance in labor that brewed resentment. Cue the “it could never be me” chorus.
Mowry divorced her husband Cory Hardrict after 14 years of marriage when she began truly examining her own happiness. She considered her marriage a curriculum where she learned, grew, and created, and at the end there was a “graduation.” Cue the “she’s selfish, she made a vow, she has kids and marriage isn’t about personal happiness”  sentiments.
There’s a tug of war between where the line is drawn when it comes to staying in or leaving relationships. This is happening against a backdrop where more women want open relationships, are marrying later, or choosing to be single. Meanwhile, psychologists are trying to figure out why more and more men are single and lonely
With every generation there's a new iteration of what a relationship looks like,” said Dr. LaTasha Perkins, who works with patients on how the social determinants of health impact our wellbeing. “One thing Black women are starting to do is define what happiness is.”
We’ve heard the triggering statistics when it comes to Black women and dating. The numbers are often stacked against us due to education level, racist beauty standards and other systemic barriers.
What’s often left out of the conversation is the level of agency Black women have. Dr. Jessica Moorman is the author of the report  “Socializing Singlehood: Personal, Interpersonal, and Sociocultural Factors Shaping Black Women’s Single Lives. In it, she highlights that some Black women are adopting “strategic singlehood” or “the intentional practice of maintaining single status to foster growth, maintain freedom, or ensure safety.” According to the study, there are Black women finding fulfillment in exploring themselves without partners who they found to be restrictive, misogynistic or violent.
Tamara Winfrey-Harris, author of Dear Black Girl and The Sisters Are Alright, wrote an article about Black women making their own marital rules because she disliked the “way people talk about women in partnership and Black women specifically, the focus was on being chosen, as opposed to choosing.” She detailed how traditional and problematic marriage ideals were stifling many Black women, thus harming the community in the long run. These ideals encouraged women to downplay their talents, intelligence and power in order for a man to marry them. Winfrey-Harris wrote, “What we need is a new paradigm for committed adult relationships that recognizes the humanity of both partners.” Six years later, it seems more Black women are taking steps in that direction.
Moorman’s report shows that more women are cultivating relationships with men who act as love interests, co-parents or close friends who may provide social or emotional support. These women are incorporating men in their lives on their terms.
“We don't have a script anymore,” Moorman tells Unbothered. “Sexual scripts theory talks about socially-sanctioned approaches to dating and relationships. This is reinforced throughout numerous points in culture and we rehearse these concepts interpersonally. Now, those same goals and imperatives aren't there. For example, if you are a man who wants to play a larger role in the life of your child and is comfortable being a supportive husband to your wife, there's not a script that really accommodates that as a form of masculinity.”
This shift in scripting comes with reconfiguring dating and relationship standards. That may be where we’re seeing this push and pull when it comes to dealbreakers.
In 2019, writer Bee Quammie ended a 10-year marriage after she found out her husband was having an affair that also resulted in a child. 
“I felt like I couldn't trust him anymore,” Quammie tells Unbothered. “I realized  there were a lot of red flags that I was just trying to make seem okay.”
As she packed up her life, solidified stable income, and looked for a new home, she wondered if she made the right choice. Quammie battled feelings of shame, anger, guilt, and fear but she knew two things for sure. She didn’t want to become a resentful step-mother. She says, “I felt that it was more important for this child to have a father than for me to have a husband.”
And she could not pretend to be fulfilled.
“If I stayed, I would not be happy,” said Quammie. “I would be putting on a mask and then that's not healthy for my two daughters.”
Growing up, she watched the women in her life weather toxic marriages. Quammie decided she didn’t want that for herself. Turning her life upside down or right side up,  was the cost of peace.
“Black women overall are rejecting the idea that we have to be long suffering and the mules of the world which has been a stereotype that we've been asked to conform to.” Winfrey-Harris tells Unbothered. “I heard from a lot of women who said they were ambivalent about marriage because they grew up with married parents. They saw the ways their mothers had to shrink themselves in order to stay in a marriage.”
Shan Boodram — a certified sex educator, host of the 'Lovers and Friends' podcast, and Bumble's Sex and Relationships Expert — noticed changes in dating standards during the pandemic. She noted that people were more upfront about their physical comfort levels and that translated to other topics. There was also a lot of time for introspection and recalibration.
“I’ve noticed a shift from the ‘independent woman’ era, where we rejected the necessity of romantic partnerships to the point of undermining their value,” Boodram shares with Unbothered. “I think a lot of Black women are still apprehensive to say, “although I don’t need a romantic lover, I do want one.’”
Today, more of us have the privilege of marrying for love, and it’s given us the opportunity to be more selective about our life partners — but we may be overcorrecting.
“You’ve overcorrected if you care more about looking like you have a ‘figured out life’ than committing yourself to figuring out your life for better or worse,” says Boodram. “Caring more about what the process looks like from the outside than what you stand to gain within causes many to quit on relationships before they can reap the less ‘Instagram-able’ benefits of them.”
Perkins says that even healthy relationships put you under a microscope. Your partner, like a mirror, will reflect your flaws right back at you. This can be the impetus for growth, but can also be very uncomfortable. 
Cierra, a 27-year-old content creator, recently had her boyfriend move in with her. Living together and both working from home caused an array of adjustments when it came to privacy and space. They found themselves getting into more arguments, and a moment of boundary breaching almost ended their relationship.
Typically, she says, “I’m a big leaver.” But in this relationship that was built on a transparent friendship, they were able to push through. 
“What I’ve learned from working through our rough patches is how to really grow with a person, what is and isn’t really a dealbreaker for me and understanding the ebbs and flows of a relationship,” she says. “We may not always like each other, but we still have to find common ground.”
Cierra says she’s more still, calm, and has more of the deeper conversations that she normally would have ran from.
“It’s very easy to be avoidant and not deal with any problems you have if you have the option and ability to just cut somebody out that you don't agree with,” she says. “There's this whole culture around cutting people off and ghosting. You end up literally just running away from parts of yourself.” 
Perkins adds that if you haven't done the internal work of figuring out who you are and what you want, it becomes harder to distinguish if a relationship is good or bad for you.
“In the future, Black women in relationships look liberated. It looks like us making matches that sustain us, inspire us and allow us to build and grow the families that we want, " says Winfrey-Harris. "Our society, our communities, our potential partners have to catch up with where we are."
Just make sure you’re writing the story you want to live.

More from Relationships

R29 Original Series