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Saving black marriages: Does it take a village?

  • Story Highlights
  • The Woodburys looked like the perfect couple, but their marriage was in trouble
  • Their frustrations and arguments took a toll on their marriage and four children
  • The couple enrolled in a relationship program to get their marriage back on track
  • Unhealthy relationships give kids inaccurate views of marriage, says Muhammad
By Tina Matherson
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- From the outside, Johnny and Shanna Woodbury looked like the perfect couple. They had been married 13 years, owned multiple properties and were successful managers. They also had four beautiful children -- a son and a daughter fresh out of college they had prior to getting married and a 12-year-old daughter on the cheerleading team and an 8-year-old son on the honor roll.

The Woodburys

Shanna and Johnny Woodbury enrolled in an eight-week relationship program to get their marriage back on track.

Together they had built and moved into their 7,200-square-foot dream home in Prince George's County, Maryland, with five bedrooms, six bathrooms, two sunrooms and a basement. Both were Christians who regularly attended the New Samaritan Baptist Church.

But privately, the Woodburys' marriage was in turmoil.

"I love my husband" said Shanna Woodbury of their marriage. "But I feel so overworked and underappreciated. I work full-time like my husband, but if I don't maintain the domestic responsibilities of the house, nothing gets done. Added to that, I manage our rental properties and take care of everything for our kids, alone."

Her husband started to echo similar frustrations.

"I'm faithful to my wife, I give her my whole paycheck but I work the late shift and my job is demanding. When I come home, I don't need to hear her mouth -- I just need to watch my favorite football game in peace."

Shanna grows more overwhelmed, tempers flare and the two begin arguing more and listening less. Tension took over their home and their fighting began to take a toll on the rest of the family, resulting in disciplinary issues with the kids.

"I realized my family was dysfunctional," says Shanna Woodbury. "But we also knew that divorce was not an option." Sound off: Does a strong marriage equal a strong family?

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The Woodburys knew they needed help. So a friend introduced them to Basic Training for Couples -- a class that had helped pull their friends' marriage back from the brink of divorce.

Shanna and Johnny Woodbury enrolled.

"Marriage is one of those entities that you have to know going in, it will be hard, but you're not alone," says Dr. Rozario Slack, speaking to an audience at a couples graduation.

Slack, a pastor and relationship consultant, is the co-creator of the "Basic Training for Couples Curriculum" and co-author of "10 Great Dates for Black Couples."

"I grew tired of the statistics and when I look at my children, I knew I had to do something to prevent marriage from becoming a dinosaur in our community," says Slack. Compare marital statistics by race in U.S. »

There are many influences that have shaped, affected or strained black marriages, according to marriage and family experts. Among them: African tribal traditions, the horrors of slavery, racial integration in the U.S. that paved the way to more freedoms and the migrations of thousands of African-Americans that fractured or reshaped communities. Trace the historic migrations of black Americans

"Moving from one community to another could affect marriage because it disrupts social ties," says Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University and author of the landmark book, "The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today."

"Migration separates people from friends and relatives who could help them through family crisis," says Cherlin.

Black couples in crisis inspired Slack and Nisa Muhammad to create Basic Training for Couples. The free eight-week program educates dating, engaged or married couples in groups of five to 15. The lessons cover the value of commitment, responsibility to the black community, psychological differences between the sexes, sexual intimacy and conflict resolution.

Slack created the male-friendly portion while Muhammad, who founded National Black Marriage Day and the Wedded Bliss Foundation, created the female-friendly portion.

"Marriage belongs to the community," says Muhammad. "An unhealthy marriage relationship gives children an inaccurate representation of marriage, which they in turn replicate for generations."

In the program, couples also learn about the history of the African-American marriage and many for the first time plot their family tree to trace marriage and divorces. See the class rundown

"We do this to help them understand: Is there any support for their marriage in their family?" says Muhammad. "Who are the role models? Do they see women who are great successful wives? Are there men that are great successful husbands or a brotherhood of husbands? If not, the members of the class become their community of support because we all want the same thing -- successful marriages."

The group support is key in Basic Training. Occasionally the facilitators divide the class into gender groups. This encourages the men and women to openly express their struggles without inhibitions and gives them the opportunity to offer advice and hold each other accountable.

And, the lessons don't end after the eight-week course. The couples are empowered to go back to their communities and bring awareness to other couples. They also plan outings, from game nights to sleepovers for the women.

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Since taking the class, the Woodburys have gone from co-existing with each other to having a marriage that is stronger than it has ever been. They have also met friends and other couples that will help them stay strong.

"We have become better parents because for the first time we are on one accord, and there is far less arguing for our children to witness," Shanna Woodbury told CNN. "At the end, our children have been the biggest benefactors and for that we are grateful."

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