The woman who loves a black man has a special challenge. She will have to be diligent in her efforts to understand a man who often has difficulty understanding himself. It's not that we black men are being purposely or intentionally elusive; many of us simply don't know how not to be that way.

It's part conditioning, part programming, and part choice. Black men enter relationships with a myriad of complex emotions which are often intertwined with unresolved childhood issues, unique socioeconomic obstacles to overcome, and the cumulative effects of racism.

By the time we are ready to "settle down," our decision to do so is usually accompanied by trepidation. It's not that we don't want to commit; many of us just don't know how to. Yes, we know conceptually what commitment means, but its definition is not reinforced by examples that we can see and emulate in our homes, our communities, in most of our friend's relationships, or in our churches.

A random sampling of any urban radio station also reveals a subtle, yet insidious cultural affliction which undermines the value and respect for committed relationships: a gluttony of songs about being a player.

When black male teenagers inculcate these messages in their brains, it alters how they think about women, and how they view relationships with women. But they are not discouraged from listening to these types of songs. No one can do that; not even their parents who are usually trying to establish romantic relationships of their own, but more on that in a minute. At the very least, parents should encourage their young men to think about the misogynistic lyrics that they can recite better than the star spangled banner.

My many conversations with older black men about music in the 60s and 70s confirm one thing: the love song was alive and well back in the day. It was an integral part of the courtship strategy that black men used to "woo" women. Smokey Robinson, Barry White, and Teddy Pendergrass supplied the soundtrack and the lyrics which influenced the romantic aspirations and psyches of young black men.

Babyface carried the torch in the 80s. After that, "booty calls," "hook-ups," and "friends with benefits" became - and still is - what the majority of Hip-Hop and R&B songs are about. You'd be hard-pressed to find a song which extols the virtues of being a family man, the love for one's children, or a song that mentions the word "wife."

Women have to view black men as computers. When they consider getting involved with a black man, they need to find out what programs the model of their computer comes loaded with. Ideally, you want a computer that's equipped with the programs that cater to your needs, enable you to execute your daily functions, and fulfills your desires.

That's not usually the case. Most women will have to add some programs, or do some reprogramming.

Because a successful relationship is really about having ongoing successful relations, the first area of concern -and undoubtedly the greatest challenge - is communication. "Black men don't talk." I've heard this before. I've never been accused of it, but I'm aware of it. What's interesting is that women don't say that black men don't talk before they get into bed with them. Chances are he talks just as much now as he did before you became lovers. The only difference is that you are listening to (and viewing) him differently. With your new level of intimacy, you have a stronger need (and desire) to connect with him verbally, not just sexually.

He doesn't feel the same way.

Yes he pursued you. Yes he expressed his desire efficiently and convincingly in the beginning, but once in a relationship, black men tend to retreat to safety. It's part of our conditioning. The vulnerability that we feel is juxtaposed with the strength (a.k.a "swagger") that we superficially display. Unfortunately, we don't know when to drop it, or display it in a different manner (e.g., with compassion, tenderness, or empathy). Have you ever heard someone say, "He's got a compassionate swagger?" Of course not. Swagger is all about confidence and strength. It protects us from other men, and makes us desirable to women. We just have to be programmed to know when it's appropriate and safe to be swaggerless.

Because black men don't talk openly and freely about the issues that affect them most (with their women or anyone else for that matter), they internalize a great deal of rage, anguish, and fear. Some manage it better than others, but we all have it to some degree. It stems from fragmented or non-existent relationships with our fathers, constantly being treated as perpetrators, and having to work two to three times harder than our white male peers to achieve the same success.

Unlike black women who benefit from the mental and emotional support of girlfriends, relatives, networks, or even co-workers, black men tend to be isolated - personally and professionally. On the surface, it would appear that black men are the kings of the jungle giving "pounds," handshakes, and random hugs to random people. To any onlooker it would appear that they know everyone.

Nothing is further from the truth. We thrive in the area of social status because we often lack status in other areas; the areas that count the most. Publicly, our social persona helps us maintain the appearance of being someone, and being liked. It also fortifies the illusion of our swagger.

Privately, we go through it. Black women have their mothers to call for reassurance and direction which they can draw strength and exemplification from on a wide range of topics. Black men have a longing for their father's guidance, and a desire to be connected with other men to receive emotional support, but it's not to be.

Presenting one's self in a weak, needy, or distressed light to another black man obliterates the perception (a.k.a "a front") which we black men work hard to create, and even harder to uphold. It makes the creation of a black male support system exceedingly and unnecessarily difficult. So we suffer alone to avert judgment.

For the black woman who is in a relationship with a black man, know that he does not experience - nor does he see - the world the way that you do. You were embraced both socially and professionally before we were. You've never been considered a threat, and you've received more opportunities as a result. The world that your black man lives in can feel like an uphill race. A good woman (i.e., a woman who understands her man and how to positively motivate him) can help a black man embrace his struggles, and not feel victimized by them.

Statistics show that black men are lagging far behind black women in education, professional accomplishments, starting businesses, and executive advancements. Yes, in the words of Aretha Franklin, "sisters are doing' it for themselves," but they are doing it alone.

African-Americans have the lowest marriage rate out of all demographics. African-American women are three times as likely to never marry as their white counterparts - which has to be a contributing factor in 70 percent of black children being born out wedlock. Black men often feel displaced. They don't see their place or their role in their homes when their women achieve the level of self-sufficiency that they have in the last decade.

Being in a relationship with a black man who feels displaced or undervalued is tough. What's even tougher is reprogramming black men to see their own value; the value they hold to their women, and to their families. Any woman who is successful can't help but to feel the urge to say, "Get it together and make it happen for yourself - I did!"

This phrase works better: "Get it together and make it happen for yourself. I know you can do it - your family is counting on you!" Sometimes that's precisely what's needed. Who else is more qualified to tell him this than his woman? Tread with caution and employ diplomacy though; black men have hypersensitive egos underneath their bravado which is why they are hesitant to commit to marriage, the arena where all of the fronting comes to an end.

The black men who do marry are apparently a special breed. According to published reports by the U.S. Census Bureau, 45 percent of black men and 42 percent of black women have never been married. Of the black women who do get married, 52 percent of them will marry by age 30, compared to 81 percent of white women who are married at the same age.

In spite of that, 65% of never-married black women have children, double that of white women. 22% of never-married black women with incomes over $75,000 have children, which is 10 times that of white women. 85% of black children do not live in a home with their fathers. With the reality of these statistics, the magnitude of the problems concerning the proper care and maintenance of black men can't be overlooked by the women who love them. These problems also can't be overlooked by the black women and families that are plagued by them.

At the root of so many of the problems which afflict black men is self-love. From self-love comes self-respect. From self-respect comes honor and pride in who you are; not what you do or how much money you make. Self-love and self-worth are delicately intertwined.

Women can love their black men to death, but if they don't love themselves, they will never feel deserving and worthy of the love and the life they are blessed to have. Black men must be reprogrammed to use self-love as a foundation upon which a greater love of life, and love for others can be built. Self-love and swagger may look the same from afar, but one emanates from the inside. Now you will be able to tell the difference when up close.

Gian Fiero is a seasoned educator, speaker and consultant with a focus on business development and music/entertainment industry operations. He is affiliated with San Francisco State University as an adjunct professor and the United States Small Business Administration (SBA) where he conducts monthly workshops on topics such as career planning, public relations, and personal growth.

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