Science Brief

Understanding the intersection of race and marriage: Does one model fit all?

Longitudinal study is identifying multiple factors affecting marital relationships among African Americans

By Chalandra M. Bryant

Chalandra M. BryantChalandra M. Bryant is a Professor of Child and Family Development at The University of Georgia. After earning her PhD at the University of Texas, she completed a two-year NIMH post-doctoral fellowship. She then served as a faculty member at Iowa State University (1998-2003) and The Pennsylvania State University (2003-2010).  Her research focuses on close relationships and the ability to sustain close intimate ties. She is particularly interested in the manner in which social, familial, economic, occupational, and psychosocial factors are linked to marital and health outcomes. She is the principal investigator of a longitudinal project, A Study of African American Marriage and Health, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The International Association for Relationship Research presented her with the New Contributions Award (honoring significant contributions to personal relationships research) in 2002. In 2004 she received the National Council on Family Relation’s Reuben Hill Research and Theory Award (presented for an outstanding research article in a family journal). In 2005 she received the Outstanding Young Professional Award from the Texas Exes Alumni Association of the University of Texas.



Studies of marriage and marital relationships of the majority population are abundant. Researchers representing a range of disciplines such as sociology, psychology, public policy, anthropology, history, and even neuroscience have explored marriage. Yet, despite such vast cross-disciplinary interests, relatively little is known about the marriages and marital relationships of African Americans beyond the demographic information gleaned from census reports (Bryant, Taylor, Lincoln, Chatters, & Jackson, 2008). According to those reports fewer African American adults are married (44% males and 37% females) compared to Asians (65% males and females), Latinos (56% males and 58% females), and Whites (62% males and 58% females) (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2010). This is in stark contrast to earlier periods. For example, between 1940 and 1960, most African American families were marriage-based; consequently, there was a peak in the proportion of married African Americans during that time (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1978; Wilkinson, 1999). In 1950 less than 25% of African Americans had never married (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996); whereas, in 2003, more than 40% had never married (Fields, 2003). These figures underscore differences between various racial/ethnic groups in the United States; moreover, they underscore a significant shift in the marriage patterns of African Americans. Although these reports help uncover differences and patterns, they do not shed light on the dynamic behavioral and cultural processes at work in African American marital relationships.

Going Beyond Demographics

Focusing solely on demographics provides only part of the picture. Studies going beyond demographics suggest that regardless of age or education, married African Americans report higher levels of global happiness than do non-married African Americans (Creighton-Zollar & Williams, 1987). Consistent with this finding are reports suggesting that rates of psychological disorder among married African Americans are lower than rates among their divorced, separated, and widowed counterparts (Williams, Takeuchi, & Adair, 1992). Work examining differences between African American men and women suggests that for women (but not men) marital happiness outranks work satisfaction as a predictor of global happiness (Glenn & Weaver, 1981). Moreover, while some work has shown a significant association between gender and marital happiness among African Americans (Bryant, Taylor, Lincoln, Chatters, Jackson, 2008; Corra, Carter, Carter, & Knox, 2009; Creighton-Zollar & Williams, 1987), others have found no association (Thomas, 1990). Studies taking a race-comparative approach suggest that African Americans report lower marital satisfaction and think about divorce more than do Whites (Broman, 1993, 2005; Bulanda & Brown, 2007; Faulkner, Davey & Davey, 2005, Timmer & Veroff, 2000). Given the divergent nature of some of these findings, clearly there is much to be learned about behavioral and cultural factors contributing to the marital relations of African Americans.

Family Economic Adversity and Community Adversity

Many efforts to understand marital relationships in general have focused on economic adversity, the impact of which is consistent with the family stress model. According to the family stress model, experiences of adversity, particularly financial strain, predict decreased relationship quality (Conger et al., 1990; Conger, Rueter, & Elder, 1999).  Both financial strain and low income -- which are associated but separate factors -- are linked to marital relationships (Bryant et al., 2008). For example, a study of a small sample of rural African Americans revealed a positive link between income and marital happiness (Brody et al., 1994). Another study revealed that high levels of financial strain were significantly associated with low levels of self-reported marital quality among African Americans; however, financial strain was not associated with the manner in which the spouses interacted with their partners (Cutrona et al., 2003). In a study comparing two groups of Blacks living in the United States – African Americans and Black Caribbeans – researchers found that although financial strain was significantly (negatively) associated with marital satisfaction among African American wives, it was household income (not financial strain) that was significantly (positively) associated with marital satisfaction among Black Caribbean wives (Bryant et al., 2008). This implies that the meaning of marital satisfaction may differ for these two groups of Blacks (Bryant et al., 2008).

Some efforts to understand marital relationships have focused on community or neighborhood adversity. William Julius Wilson (1987) noted, over two decades ago, that in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods, marriage was weakly supported. The community disorganization perspective (Massey & Denton, 1993; Wilson, 1987) suggests that adverse community characteristics negatively influence family relationships. Studies of community structural characteristics and perceptions of the community environment reveal that marital happiness is negatively associated with (a) community-level poverty (assessed in terms of the proportion of impoverished families living in the community, unemployment, etc.) and (b) perceptions of community adversity (assessed in terms of spouses’ reports about crime, litter in the streets, and quality of schools in the community) (Bryant & Wickrama, 2005). It is worth noting that some researchers found that among African American couples, perceptions of economic adversity or adequacy were more closely tied to marital quality than were objective measures of occupation, education, and income (Clark-Nicolas & Gray-Little, 1991).

Cutrona et al. (2003) found, unexpectedly, that observed hostile interactions between spouses were not significantly associated with neighborhood economic disadvantage, yet there was a significant negative association between observed warmth between spouses and neighborhood economic disadvantage. This means that husbands and wives expressed less warmth, support, and affection toward one another when residing in neighborhoods fraught with high levels of unemployment and large numbers of households below the poverty level. Even more unexpected was the finding suggesting that greater neighborhood-level economic disadvantage was associated with higher levels of marital quality. Cutrona et al. (2003) speculated that married couples living in impoverished neighborhoods could be better off financially, than their neighbors, and consequently downward “. . . comparison with their neighbors may engender positive emotions, which favorably influence people’s evaluations of their marriage” (p. 404). Another potential explanation involves the possibility that only healthy, strong marriages are able to weather the harsh conditions of economic deprivation.

Keep in mind that these findings are not meant to imply that economic disadvantages have no ill effects on other groups of people. Data do, however, suggest that African Americans in the United States are disproportionately impoverished (U.S. Census Bureau News, 2005). Thus, economic constraints may be particularly detrimental for them. The picture still remains incomplete; in order to better understand the aforementioned findings and those like them, an examination of context and the role context plays in the lives of African Americans is needed.

Completing the Picture

My research focuses on African American married couples, and I take a contextual approach as a means of understanding the behavioral and cultural processes underlying African American marital relationships. Relationships do not function in a vacuum. They function within a complex context involving social factors, individual characteristics, and psychosocial resources which may contribute to the manner in which spouses interact with their partners. That context must be acknowledged if we want to develop a better understanding of marital behaviors and attitudes. Of particular interest are contextual factors that are specific to any group under study. Thus, for my work, “completing the picture” entails considering factors that may not be addressed in models of marriage developed using the majority population. Veroff and colleagues underscored the salience of context when noting that African American couples “. . . interpret their marital experiences in the context of their social worlds, their . . . kin, [and] their economic situations—all within a backdrop of institutional racism” (Veroff, Douvan, & Hatchett, 1995, p. xiii). Their work reminds us that context can shape lives. It also reminds us that, just as with relationships in general, marriage in particular is embedded within one’s culture. The framework presented here (see Figure 1) illustrates how various stressors experienced by African American couples may contribute to marital outcomes either directly or indirectly. The framework reflects the general importance of context as well as specific aspects of context that may be particularly relevant to African American couples.

Figure 1.
Conceptual framework: A model depicting factors associated with African American marital outcomes (Bryant, Wickrama, Bolland, Bryant, Cutrona, & Stanik, in press)

My research team and I acknowledge that some of the stressors (e.g., discrimination and financial strain) described in Figure 1 may apply to other racial/ethnic minority groups residing in the United States. Our work focuses on African Americans, because their marital circumstances differ considerably from those of most other minority groups (and from those of Whites). For example, as mentioned earlier, (a) rates of marriage for other groups are higher than rates for African Americans; (b) African Americans tend to report lower marital satisfaction; and (c) African Americans tend to think about divorce more than do Whites. Latinos do contend with experiences of financial strain and discrimination similar to African Americans, but their reported higher marital quality and lower rates of marital dissolution tend to be more similar to Whites (Bulanda & Brown, 2007).

Exploring the Framework

Marital dissolution and quality matter because the maintenance of happy and stable unions has been linked to increased well-being (Bryant & Conger, 2002; Simon & Marcussen, 1999). Given the link between marriage and well-being, there is a need to carefully and more systematically examine African American marriages – taking into consideration the unique life circumstances and the cultural norms of this group. African Americans’ fewer socioeconomic opportunities lead to lower levels of socioeconomic status; this, in turn, leads to greater exposure to a multitude of stressors (Duncan & Magnuson, 2005; Mills & Combs, 2002). Significant sources of stress for African Americans (as illustrated in the conceptual framework depicted in Figure 1) include financial strain, adverse work conditions, family obligations, children, racial discrimination, and minority stress (Bryant & Wickrama, 2005; Cutrona, et al., 2003; Murry, Brown, Brody, Cutrona, & Simons, 2001). A brief review of these sources seems in order; thus, the paragraphs that follow will focus on the component of the framework that addresses the aforementioned sources of stress. Afterwards, the empirical project testing the conceptual framework will be described.

Financial strain. As discussed earlier, previous research has consistently documented that chronic stressful conditions, such as financial strain, have deleterious effects on both general well-being and marital relations (Ader, Felton, & Cohen, 1991; Brock & Lawrence, 2008; Langer, Lawrence, & Barry, 2008). Economic factors, in particular, may directly impact couple interactions and marital outcomes of African Americans (Brown, 1996; Bryant, Taylor et al., 2008; Cutrona, et al., 2003; Taylor, Tucker, & Mitchell-Kernan, 1999). For example, marriage rates of African Americans have tended to decline following increased levels of unemployment among African American men (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1994a, 1994b, 2008, 2009a, 2010); furthermore, among African Americans who are already married, increasing unemployment of men has typically been associated with marital dissolution (Bulanda & Brown, 2007; Taylor, Jackson, & Chatters, 1997). Researchers have noted that “economic problems figure prominently in African-American divorce” (Tucker, 2000, p. 183). Financial strain may adversely affect African American marital relationships by increasing the likelihood that these couples will end up living in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Economically disadvantaged African Americans are more likely than economically disadvantaged Whites to live in inner-city communities where high-quality resources are less accessible (McLoyd et al., 2005).

Work and occupational status. Adverse work conditions, jobs requiring minimal skills, and jobs involving little to no self-direction negatively affect the manner in which individuals view themselves (Basic Behavioral Science Task Force of the National Advisory Mental Health Council, 1996; Kohn & Schooler, 1978). Since many African Americans are employed in such occupations (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2009b), examining the role occupational prestige plays in the marital functioning of this group is warranted. Job autonomy and job prestige is fairly high for some of the working wives in the sample. Consequently, we are working on comparing the impact of wives’ occupational status on husbands’ likelihood of exhibiting egalitarian behaviors.

Duties and obligations to extended family members. Researchers underscoring the strengths of African American families have specifically highlighted familial ties extending beyond the nuclear unit (Billingsley, 1968, 1992; Franklin, 1997; McAdoo, 1997; Sarkisian & Gerstel, 2004; Staples & Johnson, 1993; Taylor et al., 1997). The African American extended family has been defined as “a multigenerational, interdependent kinship system . . . welded together by a sense of obligation to relatives” (Martin & Martin, 1978, p. 1). A critical component of this definition is the sense of familial obligation. Along with this sense of obligation is a willingness to take in or care for relatives (both real and fictive) as needed. This promotes a strong set of normative expectations about social and financial support (Roy, 2005). These expectations may lead some couples to provide support at the expense of their marital well-being. The framework proposed provides a means of exploring pathways through which obligations may ultimately impact marital outcomes. Furthermore, the framework helps foster our understanding of marital processes by organizing, in a systematic way, the various pathways through which stressors such as obligations may operate.

Children. The presence of children at the onset of marriage is particularly salient for African Americans (Orbuch et al., 2002). In one study Orbuch reported that 55% of the participating African American couples entered marriage with children – in contrast to 22% of the White couples under study. In my own project a large percentage of African American couples entered their marital union with at least one child. Furthermore, over 60% of the couples had children living in their homes within the first year of marriage (Bryant, Bryant, & Stanik, 2009). The literature, however, has virtually ignored the effects (short and long term) of this.

Discrimination and minority stress. Racial discrimination has been described as a “ubiquitous, continuous contextual variable in [the] lives” of African Americans (Murry et al., 2001, p. 917). Day-to-day experiences of racial discrimination serve as a significant daily stressor that can contribute to emotional distress (Harrell, Hall, & Tallaferro, 2003). Some researchers have reported that exposure to high levels of racial discrimination detrimentally impacts mental and physical health (Pavalko, Mossakowski, & Hamilton, 2003; Tucker, 2003); however, “research exploring the . . . social effects of racism among Blacks is virtually nonexistent” (Clark et al., 2002, p. 319). Our framework proposes pathways by which the social effects can be tested. This is of great consequence because chronic discrimination may lead to irritability and negative emotions, which in, turn are likely to affect marital well-being (Murry et al., 2008; Tucker, 2003).

Assessing the Framework

We are assessing the framework using  a sample of African American couples – couples in the early years of their marriages – who are tracked over time.  The couples were identified through a marriage license bureau in the South.  Data are collected via face-to-face interviews with husbands and wives.  Although both spouses in the marriage are interviewed, they are interviewed separately. The average length of the interviews is about two hours.  Ages of the newlyweds ranged from 20 to 75 years. The mean age for husbands and wives was about 35 and 32.5, respectively.  Income ranged from below the poverty level to over $100,000; education levels ranged from grade school to advanced professional degrees.  Over 50% of the husbands and over 60% of the wives had more than a high school education. More than half of the participants entered their current marriage with children. In addition to answering questions about income, financial strain, employment, work hours, children, neighborhoods, experiences with discrimination, and health (physical/mental), participants also answer questions about spirituality/religiosity, social networks, problem-solving, and positive/negative affectivity.  Numerous questions address spouses’ behaviors (warmth/hostility) toward their partners as well as feelings about marriage/divorce.      

This project is still underway; however, all 700 couples have completed their first interview.  They are interviewed once a year each year. Most have completed their second and third interviews, while others are in the process of scheduling those interviews.  A complete description of the conceptual framework discussed here is currently in press (see Bryant et al., in press).   Empirical articles are forthcoming.  Some findings from those articles suggest that although husbands’ and wives’ perceptions of community disorder are strongly associated with one another, husbands’ perceptions (but not wives’) are directly associated with their hostile behaviors toward their wives (Wickrama, Bryant, & Wickrama, in press).  


Context is an integral component of the proposed framework. The framework underscores the complexity of intrapersonal, interpersonal, familial, community, and environmental factors affecting marriages among African Americans. This framework is especially significant because it incorporates race-specific factors – thereby acknowledging and underscoring context. Interpersonal interactions and the way one perceives such interactions are intricately tied to race and culture. Although there is a place for universal frameworks, the utility and applicability of such frameworks may be less effective with African Americans or other racial/ethnic minority groups. After all, one model may not fit all.


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