Navigating Hispanic and Black Marital Relationships

It has been nearly 20 years since Ana Nogales left her native Argentina to begin a new life in Los Angeles. Divorced and the mother of a young daughter, she found herself straddling two cultures, trying to blend Latino traditions with new rules for dating and marriage.

"It was very hard to adjust, to know how you 'should' behave," says Dr. Nogales. "Usually in our country you get to know somebody through a group. Someone introduces you. Here, many men think if they take you to dinner, they will get sex. But you cannot generalize that all men are this way."

To help other Latinos, Nogales has written "Dr. Ana Nogales' Book of Love, Sex, and Relationships: A Guide for Latino Couples" (Broadway Books). It is one of several new books this fall to address the needs of Latino and black couples.

Latin marriages: family affairs

From her own experience and through her work as a psychologist, Nogales knows that Latinos relate to families differently than Americans do. "We take into account the opinions of our relatives in what we do," she says. "Family is a priority." Couples look for help within the family. "When there is a conflict, everybody intervenes, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad," Nogales says.

Such support keeps the Latino divorce rate lower. But there can be negative consequences too. Many women endure domestic violence rather than telling relatives. Nogales adds that Latinos do not regard infidelity as a betrayal. "Men feel it's one thing to be unfaithful and another to be unloyal. Many Latino men stay in the family and feel loyal even when they are unfaithful."

When newcomers arrive in the United States, Nogales says, the husband is proud of being a breadwinner. But economic realities in their new homeland require both partners to work. Many Latina women also earn more than their husbands, adding to marital conflicts.

"It's very important that we recognize what happens in Latino relationships in America," says Nogales, noting that second- and third-generation couples find these situations easier to accept. "By doing so, we can develop coping skills, instead of fighting changes."

Inequities between partners can also strain relationships for blacks, creating a market for books like "Staying Married: A Guide for African-American Couples," by Vera Paster (Kensington Books).

"There are a lot of stresses and struggles to being a minority," says Dr. Paster, a couples therapist in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. That can strain marriages.

Calling African Americans "the canaries in the mines," she says, "A lot of the problems we encounter in acute form eventually are faced by the general population. This was true of adolescents having babies, people having informal marriages, and the whole issue of women being more successful in the job marketplace than men in some cases."

More African-American women than men hold college degrees. Women also have steadier job histories and often earn more money. African-American men are traditionally the last hired, first fired. As a result, many professional women marry blue-collar men or men without jobs, adding to marital pressures.

Regardless of career demands, women are still expected to run the home and rear the children. "A woman going to her executive position leaves her husband sleeping in bed because he's between jobs," Paster says. "When she comes home, she's frazzled. He's been home all day, but the dishes aren't washed."

Idealistic young women have told Paster, "I earn more, so I might as well be out there earning it. He is less marketable, so he can be home." But, Paster cautions, "I've rarely seen that work in the long run, where it's acknowledged that the wife is the breadwinner and the husband is the homemaker. It isn't just that the women don't accept it. The men don't either. They feel diminished."

Black women: backing their men

Other marital challenges have cultural roots. "One of the problems we've inherited from slavery is that black men have always been viewed as a threat," Paster says. "There have been all kinds of ways of oppressing them. African-American women feel that the woman's duty is not only to back up her man but soothe his wounds, make up for what he has to suffer when he leaves the house. This is true even for outwardly successful men, who can't get a taxi or are slighted. A lot of things are overlooked that otherwise would be challenged. Or maybe men, to make up for feeling disempowered outside, are sort of bully at home."

By understanding what is going on, Paster says, couples can solve problems together. "It helps to ask, 'To what am I reacting? Is it really because he trailed his clothes all over the house, or because I feel he's not pulling his share?' This may be why you're unhappy."

Calling books like these an effort to support marriages, she adds, "We need to do as much as we can to strengthen family ties."

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