The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

African-American Marriage: Professions, Prayers, and Permanence

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

At a time when a distressingly small fraction of African American young people enjoy the benefits of a stable parental marriage, a team of Iowa State researchers is asking: What does foster marital permanence among African American parents? In their recently published study answering this question, these researchers highlight the importance of success in school and careers for African American men, and the importance of religious faith for African American women.

To identify the characteristics of African American parents who stayed together, the Iowa State scholars examined data collected between 1997 and 2003 from 207 African American couples with a 9- to 11-year-old child at the beginning of the study period.

Not surprisingly, one of the predictors of household stability was the nature of the family constellation at the beginning of the study period. Underscoring it as “a significant positive predictor of relationship stability,” the researchers noted “the presence of both biological parents” in the study child’s home at the beginning of the study period. Somewhat to their surprise, the researchers find that in their multi-variable statistical model marriage does not independently predict relationship stability. However, the researchers are quick to note that “marital status and biological-family status were highly correlated” to begin with, so that with a sample of just over 200 families, marital status did not reach statistical status independent of biological-family status.

But in a curious way, the importance of marriage in stabilizing household relationships emerges in the relatively small number of households involving non-biological parenthood. The researchers indeed recognize the need to explain “the high stability of the 20 couples in which neither individual was the parent of the [study] child.”  “In the African American community,” they point out, “when neither biological parent is able to care for a child, a member of the extended family often takes on child-rearing responsibility.” And in these circumstances, “families may ‘screen’ such substitute caregivers, selecting the individuals who can provide the most stable home, which may be one reason that the nonparent couples were all married and had very stable relationships” (emphasis added).

Marriage merits further attention in the overall pattern that the researchers limn as they compare differentials in five-year relationship stability separating the various kinds of households the study children were living in at the beginning of the study period: as already noted, “the most stable couples were the married nonparents (95% intact).” But the researchers find almost the same level of five-year relationship stability among “the married biological parents (91% intact),” with a slight drop to “the cohabiting biological parents (86% intact).” The dramatic drop in five-year relationship stability comes in “the married stepfamily couples (51% intact) and the cohabiting step-family couples (38% intact).”

Few will find it surprising that African American parents in a first marriage are more likely to stay together than are peers who are cohabiting or who are in a re-marriage that has created a step-family. Perhaps the more pressing question is, what fosters marriage among African Americans in the first place? The Iowa State researchers deliver a gendered response to this question. African American men, it appears, find the key to the wedding chapel through education and employment. The researchers report that among the couples they surveyed “men with higher education and income were more likely to be married than in a cohabiting relationship.” Indeed, the data indicate that “African Americans place greater emphasis on economic security and upward mobility as requirements for marriage than do European Americans.”

Among the African American women in this study, the researchers found that religion buttressed stable relationships. The researchers limn an unmistakable track of statistical correlations “from women’s religiosity to marital status, to her relationship quality, to relationship stability.” The data indicate that “religious women [in the study] were more likely to marry than to cohabit, and married women rated their relationships more positively than did those who were cohabiting; women’s relationship quality was associated with stability.” These data also establish that, when compared with secular-minded peers, “religious women [in the study] were more likely to be in couples that included the [study] child’s biological father, which predicted relationship stability.” The researchers recognize that for the African American community as a whole “religious involvement . . . has long-term protective influence on intimate relationships.” However, their data suggest that “religiosity was more influential among African American women than among men.”

As the researchers reflect on their findings, they sensibly reason that “opportunities for educational and occupational achievement must be increased to increase rates of marriage among African American men.” Also appropriate is their concluding stress on “the enduring resource factor of religious involvement” as a foundation for the “stable relationships” found among “religious individuals[, who] are likely to be committed to marriage and to be in biological families rather than stepfamilies.”

It would appear that hopes for enduring African American marriages rest especially on men who have found their way through college into relatively high-income employment and on women who have found their way into the church pews.

(Carolyn E. Cutrona et al., “Predicting Relationship Stability Among Midlife African American Couples,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 79.6 [2011]: 814-825.)