Understanding Racial Differences in Marital Disruption: Recent Trends and Explanations

By Sweeney, Megan M.; Phillips, Julie A. | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Understanding Racial Differences in Marital Disruption: Recent Trends and Explanations


Sweeney, Megan M., Phillips, Julie A., Journal of Marriage and Family


We use data from the Current Population Survey to investigate racial differences in recent patterns of marital disruption. Although a leveling in the trend of disruption has occurred for White women since 1980, our results suggest less stabilization in rates of disruption among Black women. We also observe significant differences by race in the effects of key compositional factors on the risk of marital disruption, including age at marriage, education, premarital childbearing, and region of residence. Differences in population composition with respect to these characteristics, however, cannot alone explain the overall racial gap in disruption.

Key Words: divorce, family, race, United States.

Social scientists have devoted relatively little attention to documenting racial differentials in recent patterns of marital disruption, despite tremendous historical interest in understanding racial differences in family life in the United States (e.g., Cherlin, 1992; Moynihan, 1965; Wilson, 1987). This is particularly surprising given negative economic, emotional, and health outcomes associated with divorce (Amato, 2000; Holden & Smock, 1991; Waite, 1995), evidence of higher levels of disruption among Blacks than Whites (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002; Raley & Bumpass, 2003), and the considerable attention paid to racial differences in patterns of marriage formation (e.g., Bennett, Bloom, & Craig, 1989; Lichter, LeClere, & McLaughlin, 1991; Raley, 1996). Our study used data from multiple years of the June Current Population Survey to improve our understanding of racial variation in marital disruption, both by examining within-race patterns of disruption and by investigating between-race differences in the correlates and level of disruption.

We asked three sets of specific questions in the current research. First, we asked whether the leveling of trends in divorce observed in the United States since 1980 was experienced for both Black and White women. Recent race-specific period trends in marital disruption have not been well documented, which is particularly surprising given that historical fluctuations in levels of marital disruption in the United States are generally better accounted for by period than by cohort effects (Teachman, 2002; Thornton & Rodgers, 1987; but see Ono, 1999). Although population-level demographic trends tend to reflect the experience of the majority White population in the United States, social scientists and policy makers may overlook an important contributor to the economic and emotional well-being of adults and children if they erroneously assume stability in patterns of marital disruption among African Americans.

Second, to investigate potential racial variation in the culture of marriage and divorce, we explored differences between Black and White women in the effects of potential risk factors for marital disruption. Prior research points to historically rooted racial differences in family norms, such as the level of stigma associated with nonmarital childbearing and the conditions under which a marriage should be ended (Pagnini & Morgan, 1996). Several studies indicate that the destabilizing effect of age at marriage and premarital childbearing may be somewhat stronger among Whites than among Blacks (Billy, Landale, & McLaughlin, 1986; Heaton & Jacobson, 1994; Castro Martin & Bumpass, 1989; Teachman, 1983, 1986), and racial differences are also found in the effects of risk factors such as education and region of residence (Greenstein, 1990; Heaton & Jacobson). Few prior studies conduct formal statistical tests of racial differences in the effects of these covariates, however, or examine whether the effects of risk factors for disruption may have changed over time for Blacks and Whites.

Third, we investigated whether variation in the composition of populations of married Black and White women with respect to key risk factors can explain observed differences in the level of marital disruption experienced by these groups in recent years. …

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