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COMMITMENTS : Blacks Face Extra Challenges on the Road to Love


When it comes to relationships, there's no shortage of advice. Everyone from Ricki Lake to Cosmopolitan has an idea on how to meet the right man or woman or how to keep the flames of passion burning.

But for African-American men and women, the search for love can seem even more daunting, and all that advice may not address the real issues that black couples face. Social ills that threaten the black community also affect the stability of families and can make it more difficult for single men and women to find satisfying relationships.

In their new book, "Friends, Lovers and Soulmates: A Guide to Better Relationships Between Black Men and Women" (Simon & Schuster, 1994), psychologists Derek S. Hopson and Darlene Powell-Hopson of Middlefield, Conn., turn their attention to helping black singles and couples improve their communication and support of each other.

"There's a real need for a more positive approach," Hopson said. "So often the focus has been negative in terms of talking about the crisis, and not as much on what we can do to enhance our relationships."

The black community has kept its relationship issues quiet, Hopson said, because doing otherwise seemed "like airing dirty laundry in public" and giving the larger society ammunition against them.

But "in keeping our issues from other people, we have also to some extent kept them from ourselves," Hopson added. "People want to have solid relationships, but are finding challenges, whether single or married, in knowing what to do."

For African-Americans, racism and economic hardship have strained intimate male-female relationships, as have adherence to mainstream standards of beauty and success. Hollywood myths about love and romance don't help matters, the Hopsons say.

"Love is not just this amorphous quality of passion and intense feeling, but it really is a conscious, purposeful decision, an act of love," Powell-Hopson said.

"Some people hop from relationship to relationship," constantly seeking the thrill of infatuation because they think love is gone when that stage has passed, Hopson said. "If you only focus on romance, you neglect those other areas of love."

The Hopsons examine how lack of awareness of racial identity and racism in society can have a negative effect on male-female relationships. For example, some people grow up with negative messages about black men or women from their parents.

"Black men and women with that negative voice in their upbringing will find it speaking whenever they get involved in a relationship," Powell-Hopson said.

A client who came to Powell-Hopson suffering postpartum depression was having trouble bonding with her child. Therapy revealed that the woman was having trouble accepting a child who was dark-skinned, as she was, instead of light-skinned, as her husband was.

"She obviously grew up hearing negative messages about skin color and hair texture," Powell-Hopson said. "If we had just focused on the traditional analysis, we would have never been able to get to the root cause of her depression."

Another couple had decreased sexual desire. The man was frustrated at work watching co-workers he had trained promoted over him, "and felt very emasculated," Powell-Hopson said. "He felt he could not come home and share this with (his wife) because it would not be manly" and their marital relationship began to suffer. When they began to talk about it, he found his wife could give him a great deal of support and their relationship improved, she said.

The Hopsons also suggest that African-Americans rely on the principles that helped sustain the black community in the past, such as collective responsibility, and that a couple try to focus on their strengths instead of just their weaknesses.

In the book, "we talk about a we-ness instead of an I-ness," Hopson said. "So much in society is 'I' focused, what am 'I' getting out of it, as opposed to what can we as a couple achieve, in our relationship."

And in the home, cooperation works better than competition, he said. Competition works in the workplace, but at home a competitive approach can lead to conflict and disruption. This is especially true for black couples, he said, who in the past have had to rely on a cooperative approach to succeed in the relationship.

The Hopsons, both of whom have doctorates in clinical psychology, have been married for nine years. Derek, 42, specializes in marital and family therapy, and Darlene, 36, specializes in child and family therapy. They have a 7-year-old daughter, a 21-month-old son, and an informally adopted 19-year-old son.

The husband-and-wife team are frequent guests on TV and radio talk shows. They have co-authored two other books: "Different and Wonderful," published in 1990, and "Raising the Rainbow Generation: Teaching Your Children To Be Successful in a Multicultural Society," published in 1993.

The Hopsons met at a psychologists convention in Washington. While the other professional men she met told her about their credentials and the books they were writing, "Derek told me a story about his grandmother that stole my heart," Darlene says.

"What's most important is that we are best friends, and have seen each other through all kinds of challenges," she added. "Like any couple, we have our struggles, but we have excellent communication."

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