In 2019, a year into their marriage, Toni-Ann Craft, 37, and Kenneth Craft Jr., 42, moved from their spacious two–bedroom condominium in Washington to a smaller, two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, where Mrs. Craft grew up.
“We wanted to feel more grounded and be closer to family,” she said of their decision to relocate. But the couple “didn’t really have married friends” in Brooklyn — and didn’t have an opportunity to make them after arriving. “We both started new jobs, and suddenly, the quarantine hit,” said Mrs. Craft, who got Covid in April 2020.
She found herself stuck at home, with no community and a marriage that was becoming a challenge to navigate while in quarantine. “Being on lockdown was hard for us,” she said. “We bickered about minor things. Probably because at that point, we were around each other 24/7.”
Mrs. Craft, who is a senior manger of brand marketing and communications at Amplify, an educational technology company in Brooklyn, has a background in marketing, communications and membership management. She had always wanted to start a business, but said it “was a matter of finding that thing.” That “thing” was Friends with Rings, a virtual membership network she started last year for engaged and married couples, like she and Mr. Craft, who want to build healthy, successful relationships as well as a diverse community.
What inspired the idea for Friends with Rings?
Through our church in Washington, Kenneth and I were part of a ministry group of 12 couples who met weekly at a host’s house for dinner and formulated a bond. I lost that when we moved to Brooklyn. One night I was Googling to see if there was a marriage community I could join and couldn’t find anything. I wanted to create a community and start a marriage support group, but one that wasn’t church affiliated, because that can leave people out who could benefit from this service. I wanted to make friends and also address the issues couples had; Kenneth and I were having communication issues and I knew that it was something other couples needed.
It took a year to build the company and form a board of directors and specialists who specifically deal with marriage and relationship issues. We launched in April 2021 with 15 people on our board and 15 coaches, counselors and specialists.
How does it work?
We host monthly virtual events, panels and group coaching sessions with licensed marriage specialists and counselors. I curate a list of topics for the year by going through what my counselors and coaches specialize in and building content around that. There’s also a private Facebook group where members support each other by posting questions and having other couples answer them.
We open our membership program twice a year, in April and October. Fees range from $35 per month, to $175 every six months, to $300 for the year, per couple. Presently we have 48 coupled members. Members get access to monthly events and educational resources that can help strengthen their relationship, and discounted coaching and counseling services.
What are some events and programs you have offered?
We have hosted virtual events that include topics like how to establish boundaries to protect your marriage, led by relationship coaches DeVon and Danah Artis; understanding your partner’s temperament to foster better communication, led by relationship coach Keith Dent; and how to create strategies and solutions to better connect with your spouse, hosted by relationship expert Shaquan Grove, who goes by Coach Shaquan. Coaches and specialists are found through recommendations or have a great reputation online and in the industry.
By joining the community, what do people gain?
Membership helps couples keep their marriage alive while giving them the tools and tips to do that. Through the live Q. and A. portions of the panels and coaching sessions, couples are learning from specialists and each other by having an opportunity to hear what others are struggling with. That transparency helps create bonds. I’m seeing a community of couples support each other and form relationships with each other. It’s about people actively working to build or rebuild their marriage.
What is one of the biggest lessons members have learned?
In the Q. and A. sessions, I hear comments from couples that it’s about communication. Every issue can be boiled down to communication, how you are sharing your information and if you’re saying something at a time and in a way your spouse can hear it or receive it. Just because you shared something doesn’t mean your partner is going to understand it or that you’re communicating it positively.
What are today’s couples struggling with most?
The pandemic forced couples to be with each other all the time, so they are struggling to understand the difference between spending quality time together to cultivate their marriage as opposed to just being around each other. They are also struggling to understand that marriage is work, but it’s also working on yourself.
Many grow up with a mind-set that you don’t share your issues. They want to protect their marriage, but they’re unhappy or feel things aren’t working. They want to create a stable, healthy relationship and home environment, but don’t know how. And they want to learn to work together and communicate better, but feel embarrassed, overwhelmed or not heard.
What is something you didn’t expect?
We haven’t had many people drop out, but we have people who say they want to join and don’t. Our waiting list has 65 couples. The last time we opened it up, only three couples joined.
Many couples are on autopilot with their relationship. They want things to improve, but they don’t want to invest in it financially, or put in the time and effort it takes to make it work. They don’t want to take advantage of the tools and specialists we offer. This is like a gym membership. Those that go will see the results. The ones who show up occasionally, won’t.
What have you learned about your marriage since starting Friends with Rings?
That my marriage is not perfect. That our issues are not unique to us; they happen to everyone. I thought we were bickering more than others; we weren’t. I’ve learned to let Kenneth be who he is and express his individuality. I wanted him to do things the way I did them. But I’ve learned we were raised differently — I came from a two-parent household; he didn’t, and that we need to create our own traditions as opposed to living with the ones I grew up on. I’m learning to embrace our differences. We are learning to think outside of ourselves, to have mutual respect and to understand each other.
What has been your favorite moment since the launch of Friends with Rings?
Reading the testimonials. I’ve put in a lot of work into getting the speakers, prepping for the monthly events and thinking out our calendar. Then I wonder, ‘Is this helping people?’ Couples email me or they do an Instagram message saying how much they’re getting from this, that it’s groundbreaking for their marriage. We had a couple who, during our bedroom conversations with a panel of three sex experts, shared that they had been trying to conceive for 15 years. They got advice and a few months later shared a testimonial that they were expecting their first child. To know this is really helping people pushes me forward.