Perceived Happiness outside of Marriage among Black and White Spouses

By Rank, Mark R.; Davis, Larry E. | Family Relations, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Perceived Happiness outside of Marriage among Black and White Spouses


Rank, Mark R., Davis, Larry E., Family Relations


PERCEIVED HAPPINESS OUTSIDE OF MARRIAGE AMONG BLACK AND WHITE SPOUSES*

Mark R. Rank and Larry E. Davis*

In this article, we explore two major questions that have been virtually ignored in the literature on Black and White families. First, do Black and White couples perceive different levels of happiness when they are asked to consider what their lives would be like if separated? Second, what factors might explain any racial differences? In order to answer these two questions, we rely upon data from the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH). Our results indicate that both Black wives and husbands are considerably more likely to perceive that their happiness outside of marriage would be higher than their White counterparts. Part of the explanation for this effect is that Black wives and husbands perceive that other aspects of their lives would not be as damaged by a divorce as compared with their White counterparts. Assuming that individuals are inclined to act in what they perceive to be in their own best interests, these findings are consistent with the higher rates of marital dissolution and lower rates of marriage and remarriage in the Black community.

During the past 30 years, few family research topics have generated more heated discussions than that of racial differences in household composition. Since the controversial Moynihan Report in the mid-1960s, practitioners and policy analysts have sustained a keen interest in the changing structure of Black families. Attention has been focused on both the strengths and shortcomings of the Black family's unique composition in relation to national averages (Auletta, 1982; Banfield, 1968; Billingsley, 1992; Edelman, 1987; Hacker, 1992; Ladner, 1971; Liebow, 1967; Moynihan, 1965; Rainwater, 1970; Stack, 1974; Wilson, 1987).

However, because the structure of the White family of the 1990s resembles that of the Black family of the 1960s, interest has also been raised regarding the links between Black and White families (Moynihan, 1986). It has been argued that the steady rise in the numbers of single-parent Black families is but a harbinger of the future structure of White families (Murray, 1994).

Yet, despite their similarities in trends, Black and White families continue to differ widely. Overall, Blacks have higher rates of childbearing outside of marriage along with lower average ages at the onset of childbearing, lower marriage and remarriage rates, and experience a greater risk of divorce (Cherlin, 1992; Jaynes & Williams, 1989; O'Hare, Pollard, Mann, & Kent, 1991; Ruggles, 1994; South, 1993; Taylor, Chatters, Tucker, & Lewis, 1990; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995a; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1995).

One concept that is often discussed in understanding these family behavioral and structural differences is that of alternatives. The argument frequently expressed is that the alternatives available to Blacks and Whites differ substantially, resulting in differences in family structure. For example, in seeking to understand the rise of out-of-wedlock births amongst Black women, Wilson (1987) focuses on the lack of economically stable men. According to Wilson, this shortage of economically viable marriage partners constrains the choices available to young Black women residing in inner city areas. It is the lack of a marital alternative that, Wilson argues, is a major factor in explaining out-ofwedlock births among low-income Black women.

Yet, interestingly, most of the research on divergent racial alternatives has focused on individuals outside of marriage. In this study, we take the opposite tack. Here we confine our analysis to those within marriage, looking at the differential racial perceptions of happiness outside of marriage. In other words, for Black and White spouses, do their perceptions differ in terms of how happy they feel they would be outside of their current marriage? In addition, what factors might help to explain any racial differences? …

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