Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Newlywed's Narrative Themes: Meaning in the First Year of Marriage for African American and White Couples

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Newlywed's Narrative Themes: Meaning in the First Year of Marriage for African American and White Couples

Article excerpt

Researchers have devoted special attention to examining divergent marriage patterns among African Americans and Whites (Bennett et al., 1989), as well as attitudinal and motivational factors that influence the decision (Bulcroft and Bulcroft, 1993) or desire to marry (South, 1993). These are important topics to address in research on contemporary marriages, particularly with regard to African American marriages for which researchers have reported not only a noticeable decline, but also considerable divorce and separation (Cherlin, 1992; Norton and Moorman, 1987). Recent U.S. Bureau of the Census (1992:7) data indicate that under one-half (43 percent) of African American adults 18 years old or older were currently married in 1992, down from 64 percent in 1970. Sixty-four percent of White adults 18 years old or older were currently married in 1992, down from 73 percent in 1970. The ratio of divorced to married persons rose for both African Americans and Whites from 1970 to 1992. African Americans had a divorce rate of 310 divorced persons per 1,000 married persons in 1992, up from 83 per 1,000 in 1970. Whites had a divorce ratio of 142 divorced persons per 1,000 married persons in 1992, up from 44 per 1,000 in 1970. Given such divergent marriage and divorce patterns over these two decades, there is an important research question to address: What does marriage mean for those African American couples who do marry? Because researchers have not adequately addressed this question for either African American or White couples, we undertook research that analyzed narrative themes in the first year of marriage for both groups of couples. To address the question of meaning, we used data from a study of the early years of marriage in a representative urban sample of African American and White newlyweds. These data were audiotaped narratives in which couples related how they met, their courtship, wedding, their life since the wedding, and their thoughts about the future (Veroff et al., 1993a/b). We examined these narratives in the current study for dominant themes that emerged in the first year of marriage. Three research questions guided the present inquiry: 1) What are the key themes in marriage stories told by African American and White newlyweds? 2) How are the newlyweds similar or dissimilar on such themes? 3)

What do themes in newlyweds' marriage stories reveal about the meaning of marriage in the first year for African American and White couples?

Scholars have argued (Mishler, 1986; Riessman, 1990) that spontaneous accounts elicited in narratives reveal the meaning that people make of their personal experiences, and the concept of "theme" has been used by many anthropologists (Agar, 1980; Cohen, 1948; Opler, 1945) to pinpoint recurring ideas, beliefs, and values that make up meaning in cultural groups. Themes that emerge from narratives told by couples facilitate understanding newlyweds' perceptions of their marital experiences. The comparative analysis of themes in African American and White newlyweds' narratives can clarify how the meanings assigned to marriage by different racial groups are similar or distinct. The results of this comparative study can guide family practitioners in designing more appropriate interventions and finding resources for newlyweds of different racial backgrounds.

The first year of marriage is the time when couples are likely to be developing norms for their marriages (see McGoldrick,1980). The thematic content in newlyweds' narratives may be particularly important for understanding the development of couples' marriage norms and the meaning of marriage in the first year. As Berger and Kellner (1964) indicate, during the early stage of marriage, couples are working out a joint reality that may be the normative foundation for the rest of their married lives. Through a symbolic conversation, newly-married couples create shared meanings about their individual inner world now experienced together (Berger and Kellner, 1964). …

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