Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Premarital Characteristics, Selection into Marriage, and African American Marital Disruption*

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Premarital Characteristics, Selection into Marriage, and African American Marital Disruption*

Article excerpt


Research on marital stability among African Americans has a long history, dating back to the time of DuBois (1899). Ruggles (1997) documents that the marital disruption rates of African Americans have been substantially higher than Whites' since at least the late 1800s. Marital disruption is also more prevalent among Blacks than among Hispanics (Sweet & Bumpass, 1987). There is some evidence that the marital disruption gap between Blacks and non-Blacks has narrowed somewhat since the mid-1900s (Teachman, 2002), but the gap nevertheless remains large.

Previous empirical examinations of the causes of racial differences in marital disruption have focused on economic and demographic factors. It is clear that African Americans are disadvantaged socio-economically in ways that are associated with higher marital disruption risk, but after accounting for the impact of those factors, a large difference in disruption rates remains unexplained. (Hoffman & Duncan, 1995; Tzeng & Mare, 1995; Kposowa 1998; Orbuch, et al., 2002). Several authors have suggested that unexplained differences in family patterns may reflect differences in attitudes and norms regarding families and relationships (e.g., Cherlin, 1992; Heaton & Jacobson, 1994). But I know of no published research that attempts to directly assess the potential effect of attitudinal differences on racial gaps in marital disruption.

As noted above, Teachman (2002) has documented narrowing of the marital disruption gap over the latter half of the 20th century. He hypothesizes that attitudes are important in explaining that reduction, though indirectly, through selective entry into marriage. African American marriage rates have declined sharply since the mid-190Os and a large literature suggests that African Americans, facing poor marriage options, have responded by choosing not to marry (Edin, 2000; Wilson, 1987). Teachman hypothesizes that African Americans' decreasing marriage rates produce a situation where "blacks who marry are likely to be selective of individuals who are committed to marriage and therefore are less likely to divorce" (p. 345). If Teachman is correct, then attitude-driven selection into marriage has helped diminish the marital disruption gap.

A fundamental empirical difficulty in the study of the effects of attitudes is that the causal relationship between attitudes and life events can run in both directions (Lesthaeghe & Moors, 2002). For example, although one's general attitude towards divorce may affect marital disruption risk, being in a low quality marriage in which divorce seems probable and/ or desirable may well alter how one feels about the acceptability of divorce. Recursivity is a particularly salient problem when dealing with attitudinal causes, but it can, of course, also be an issue with other potential explanatory factors, such as employment (Akerlof, 1997; Rogers 1999).

In this paper I use data from the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) to analyze the effects of a wide range of premarital characteristics, including expressed attitudes, on the African-American/non-African American marital disruption gap. I also analyze patterns of selection into marriage, assess whether this selectivity appears to be greater for African Americans than for others, and estimate the impact of such selectivity on differences in marital disruption risk in the early years of marriage. I focus on premarital characteristics, both for the sake of analyzing selection into marriage and in order to address problems of recursivity in the analysis of the impact of attitudes on disruption risk.

I find that there are certain racial differences in the premarital attitudes of individuals who marry, but those differences do not contribute to African Americans' higher rates of marital disruption. However, as hypothesized by Teachman, selection into marriage does have a large negative impact the marital disruption rates of African Americans. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.