Understanding the Disproportionately Low Marriage Rate among African Americans: An Amalgam of Sociological and Psychological Constraints

By Chambers, Anthony L.; Kravitz, Aliza | Family Relations, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Disproportionately Low Marriage Rate among African Americans: An Amalgam of Sociological and Psychological Constraints


Chambers, Anthony L., Kravitz, Aliza, Family Relations


African Americans have the lowest marriage rate of any racial and ethnic group in America. Although the low marriage rate among African Americans has been largely examined through a sociological lens by documenting structural barriers, which has important policy implications, researchers have not sufficiently examined the psychological and interpersonal barriers to marriage or the interpersonal manifestations of sociological constraints. Examining this problem on an interpersonal, microsystem level of analysis is integral, as no policy can repair the fragility of African American relationships or change what happens between a couple behind closed doors. We present the disproportionately low marriage rate problem as a complex matrix of sociological and interpersonal constraints demanding a culturally sensitive, contextual analysis for understanding the question "Why are African Americans not getting married?" We address this question in the context of constraint theory and relationship development. Policy, education, and clinical implications are discussed.

Key Words: African American couples, African American marriage, dating couples, premarital couples, relationship development, transition to marriage.

The Zeitgeist of African American marriages in the 21st century is abysmal. African Americans have the lowest marriage rate, the highest divorce rate, the highest rate of children born outside of marriage, and the highest rate of never married persons compared to all racial and ethnic groups. According to the U.S. Census (2003), 42% of African American adults are married compared to 61% for Caucasians and 59% for Hispanics, and 68% of African American births are to unmarried women compared to 29% for Caucasians and 44% for Hispanics. Furthermore, 62% of African American households are headed by a single parent, compared to 27% for Caucasians and 35% for Hispanics. It is often said that if you want to tear down any society, neighborhood, or community, then tear down the family. Accepting that there is some validity to that premise suggests that many of the problems plaguing the African American community began with the breakdown of the family. Although we do not believe that strengthening African American marriages and families is the panacea for all of the problems that face African Americans, we do believe that it is an essential part of the solution.

Blackman, Clayton, Glenn, Malone-Colon, and Roberts (2005) conducted a comprehensive literature review aimed at delineating the benefits of marriage for African Americans and found that healthy marriage promotes the financial, social, familial, and psychological well-being of African Americans and appears to benefit African Americans financially more than Caucasians. Additionally, African American children receive important benefits from their parents being happily married; they are less likely to be delinquent, have fewer behavioral problems, have higher self-esteem, are more likely to delay sexual activity, and have better educational outcomes.

In this article, we address the question of why African Americans are not getting married. There have been a number of explanations offered for the disproportionately low marriage rate among African Americans, primarily sociological explanations, which have important policy implications. Examining this problem on an interpersonal, microsystem level of analysis is integral, however, as no social policy can change what happens between a couple behind closed doors. Furthermore, it is important to examine the interaction between macroand microsystem variables in order to have a more complete understanding of the relationship difficulties confronting African Americans. We believe that the disproportionately low marriage rate problem is a complex matrix of sociological and psychological and interpersonal constraints. Thus, in this paper we seek to bridge two historically distinct literatures (sociological and psychological and interpersonal literatures) to provide a more comprehensive understanding of not only why African American couples are not getting married, but how sociological and community factors translate into interactional difficulties between members of a couple. …

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