The effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus has forced nearly all Americans indoors. Across the country, stay-at-home orders have halted rituals of assembly, crippled engines of commerce and forced people to redefine what constitutes essential activity.
But besides grinding the most public aspects of our lives to a halt, COVID-19 has also disrupted our most meaningful relationships. Togetherness might be a good thing, but what happens when we’re facing too much of it?
What does it mean for intimate and family relationships for us all to be in so close, for so long, with no end in sight? In particular, how might that affect black relationships that already carry the structural and historic burdens of racial inequities, and now have the stresses of a growing pandemic added on?
“For the first few weeks, probably everybody will have some fun,” said Mawiyah Kambon, former president of the National Association of Black Psychologists and executive director of Onipa Psychological and Consulting Services. “But after that, cabin fever sets in.”
The practice, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, focuses on holistic health and wellness and an African-centered approach to healing. She calls on parents to establish structures, for couples to nurture their relationship separate from their children, and for black people to call on the ancestors for strength in the process.
Kambon talked to The Undefeated about the urgent work necessary for black couples, now that we’re all behind closed doors.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are the tensions that most plague relationships and what are the ways they show up in black couples?
Stress is the biggest thing. In this country, we’ve not been able to reach the economic status that we deserve. That doesn’t mean that every single person hasn’t, but for us as a race, impoverishment was often the call of the day which put stress on the family.
In earlier times, families seemed to be able to work it out. Whether they were in agricultural communities or cities, they seemed to be able to get by together. I’m not saying there were not challenges in those families, too. But at least there were models for roles and relationships and how couples might work things out. How they might struggle together, and come out of all of it.
Those things are important, and they ease some of the pain and stress of people having to live in an economic system that depresses them. So what do couples come in with today? I just saw a couple and part of the issue was that both of them came from situations where they didn’t get the kind of nurturing they needed in their own lives. So then they come together with a lack of trust, with a lack of understanding of how to relate to one another, and they’re trying to work it out. Their situation is a blended family where there’s yours, mine and ours, and at this time when people are forced together, they have to look at each other and figure it all out but, there are hardly any models to help them.
What are the key aspects of working it out and the most difficult struggles?
To give love and be able to receive it, begins with, first, being able to love yourself. We often skip over that. We look so much for love from someone else. We want somebody else to ease the pain, and fill the gap and we aren’t very clear about who we are. We come and we want to point the finger, but we never stop to look at ‘Who am I?’ That is the major thing — am I OK before I start to join with someone else so that we can be OK.
We don’t have a lot of models, and asking for help is not high on our list, particularly when it comes to black men. They come in talking about they’ve tried this before, but they felt put down because the therapist seems to always side with the woman. Everyone needs to feel like when they come in, that they can be heard. That’s what the men say. That they want to be heard. Women say that, too. But more often than not, men feel that they’re not.
Given these stresses, how were you treating African American couples pre-coronavirus?
First of all, I don’t treat people, I serve them. I’m a servant. My role is to assist them to find the better in them, the greater in them, the strength in them that brought them together. We talk from our culture, so I go way back. I go way back to talk about the generational, the ancestral, the traumas that existed before now in the family. And also the strength. That we had ancestors that did well, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. I want them to be able to think of people in their past who they knew did well in the world. Not necessarily as a couple but as a human being.
There’s a lack of continuity in terms of family stories, so nobody knows the good that existed and nobody knows the bad that existed so they can avoid those traps. And so what I do is I bring ancestors in. I try to be present for the couple. I listen to them together, and they tell me what they consider to be the problem. Then I speak with each of them separately so they can feel able to express themselves without interruption or without feeling like they are walking on eggshells. With some couples and individuals, I do guided meditations. Many gurus of meditation will say the best meditation is when you do it yourself, but we happen to be in a different place as a people. We’re very strong spiritually and sometimes that energy speaks to us and we don’t know what to do with it. Guided meditation equips them to be able to go there, wherever that is.
What is your advice for families who are forced together by the coronavirus and feel like they’re in too close? What are you telling people to do in the short term?
I think it’s a mistake to think short term because then people say, ‘Well, I don’t have to really do much but just wait this out,’ and therefore we can get to the end of a month or two and you haven’t gotten anything in place. Whether it’s short-term or long-term, the same things apply. You need structure in your family. That doesn’t mean every minute of the day. And some of the structure could be fun things: learning how to do board games, go on the internet and find educational things, but also cultural things. Find some things where they can learn to do more reading around things that matter to black people. Tell stories of your childhood, the things that you used to like to do. Give your children the opportunity to read to you and let them tell you what they think of the story. Give them an opportunity to tell you some of the hardships they’ve experienced.
There is an African proverb that says sometimes good comes out of bad. We don’t look at this COVID-19 as a good thing, a positive thing, but we can do good things in spite of it. I truly believe in meditation as a tool. The whole family can do it. You can find music without words, something where you can just sit for four to five minutes, and maybe you can extend it to 15 minutes, where you can just be. And let the children know that it’s OK. They don’t have to be stimulated all the time.
And talk to someone before it gets out of control. Call someone. Get through this day, and if we can get through this day, maybe we can get through another one. It’s very important for our people in particular, for black people to understand that it does not mean weakness if you need help. We all need some help sometimes and we really need to be able to find someone who can appreciate that I need a little bit of help right now, and I’m not going to be stigmatized as a result of that. Strong people go for help.
What do you suggest for couples who need to repair their relationship with each other during this time?
Couples need to know they have a life separate from their children, and they need to develop that so they can be strong with each other. Sometimes they lose each other in trying to raise their children. And sometimes that’s a good excuse to not deal with each other. I always tell people who have children, they have to have a bedtime. You need some time just for you so that you can reflect, and then you need some time with each other. Healthier relationships depend on each person maximizing the best in them. You maximize yourself and then when you come together, you can share that.
How do people get there? What tools do you suggest for people who have to remain inside together for weeks?
One, don’t talk at each other, talk to each other. Don’t assume that you know what the other person is thinking, listen to them. Even if something they say may irritate you, figure out if that’s your issue. Spend a lot of time introspectively while you’re also being there for the other person. Try to understand that this person who is talking to you, who is being with you, is his or her own self. And that is separate from their relationship with you. Try to get to know them.
Ask questions, because sometimes people tell stories about their childhood and their past relationships and people think they hear, but they don’t really. They don’t understand the impact these [traumatic events] have had, because typically people are told, get over it. But you don’t get over it. It just continues to plague you from one relationship to another. So getting over it is not the answer. Dealing with it, coming to peace with it and having someone understand it may be the way.
Also, sometimes we put too much on a relationship. That other person may not be able to be your counselor. There are professionals for that. You all should start defining what it is you can have with each other, what you expect from each other and see if that person is able to accommodate that. They may not be everything that you need. You may need to figure out whether that’s even appropriate for you to even ask a person to fulfill a need that you have.
This is a great time for people to just sit down and be able to talk, but men have a harder time doing that. Women tend to expect men to get deep, but they were raised in a society where we don’t want to be that vulnerable, because we don’t know what might happen.
So let’s learn how to accept who the other one is. And also know that relationships can grow. The person you married at 21 is not going to be the same person at 45 or at 60. And, hopefully, you don’t want them to be.
We don’t want it, we didn’t wish for it, but on the other side of COVID-19, what would you like for black families and black couples, especially those who feel the most stressed, to have accomplished?
That they have been able to work through some of the problems that have plagued them. That those who have not had major problems can have set goals for their future — bigger goals than before, and that those goals should not always be monetary. That it’s something about human development. We as a people have always been close to nature, so go for walks, do things that give respect to nature. I hope that we think of our people who have passed, who fought so hard that we can be here and exist. Remember them!
On the other side, I want us to be able to have built a better society for us. That doesn’t leave out other people in society, but we tend to always open our arms to others, and we need to think of what a better society would look like for us. What are the demands we need to make of this world for us as a people. Then we need to sit in that and be comforted in feeling we are right in having that.