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In recent decades, the United States has witnessed an increase in the immigration of peoples of African descent (that is, Africans and Caribbean blacks). Although this has led to a greater percentage of individuals who are categorized as black or African American, the historical relationships and patterns of immigration to the United States among these groups differ greatly and contribute to diverse patterns of marriage and divorce. The current entry focuses on the experiences of native-born African Americans whose U.S. history has been traced back to the early 17th century.
In the past, African Americans were depicted as a homogeneous group, which concealed the diversity among them. Currently, scholars agree that among African Americans there is a great deal of heterogeneity in levels of income, educational attainment, employment status, family structure (single-parent, two-parent, grandparent, and multigenerational), geographic residence (urban, suburban, and rural), and political views. As is the case for other Americans, these different traits influence who is likely to divorce. At the same time, the majority of research on divorce rates among African Americans indicates that being a minority member of American society influences the way marriage develops and dissolves. Regardless of educational, social, and economic achievements, African American families continue to face extraordinary social and economic challenges (for example, housing and employment discrimination) that affect marital quality. These structural conditions are associated with African Americans’ risk of divorce. Researchers therefore have proposed various structural explanations for the differential rates of marital stability among members of this population.
Structural and Social Risk Factors
The impact of socioeconomic factors on marital quality is widely discussed in research on African American families. Socioeconomic factors, such as income and education, are related to the availability of personal (such as control and communication) and social resources and knowledge of how to obtain these resources when needed. The educational attainment of both spouses is directly related to a couple’s risk of divorce, and research shows that couples with higher socioeconomic status are less likely to divorce. Economic challenges, in contrast, can cause stress and strain and are associated with poor marital quality, resulting in higher rates of divorce among African Americans. The assumption underlying much of this research is that, given the lower socioeconomic position of many African American families, African Americans are faced with burdensome work and family situations, have few resources, and thus are less able to fulfill traditional marital role expectations.
The employment status of husbands and wives is also related to rates of divorce. Although some studies find that wives in the labor force have greater marital well-being, other studies show that wives’ employment is associated with a greater chance of divorce. Couples with wives earning more than husbands or wives with more demanding jobs often experience increased marital conflict about work, ultimately resulting in divorce. Among African Americans, as a result of economic necessity, wives have a long history of working outside the home. In fact, African American mothers have the highest labor force participation of mothers of any racial or ethnic group. Because African American women’s employment often increases economic security, African American husbands tend to be very tolerant or accepting of working wives. Thus, among African Americans, economic stability and strain may better predict marital stability.
Another prevailing structural explanation focuses on the sex ratio of African American males to females. The marriage market for African Americans may be different from that for other Americans, as there are fewer marriageable African American men than women. This unbalanced marriage market may decrease the number of possible husband-wife combinations and may influence one’s selection of a mate and the likelihood that one stays within a marriage. Higher mortality rates and inadequate healthcare reduce the number of African American men in the marriage market. In addition, lack of access to educational and occupational opportunities among African American men further constrains their ability to perform the traditional provider role in marriage. Moreover, there has been increasing attention paid to the impact of mass incarceration on African American family life. In the last three decades, the United States has witnessed an astronomical increase in rates of incarceration that continue to disproportionately impact people of color, particularly African American men. Taken together, these factors converge in ways that may compel African American women to delay or even forgo marriage altogether. This situation increases the probability of unmarried African American females and the available pool of mates for African American men. In turn, spouses might value their present marriage more or less if the potential for meeting another available mate is compromised or benefited given the sex ratio. When marriage is undermined by an unbalanced sex ratio, couples may be more likely to divorce.
Social challenges are also associated with divorce. There are a number of premarital social conditions (that is, cohabiting before marriage, parental divorce, and premarital childbearing) that may threaten marital quality for all newlywed couples. Premarital cohabitation is associated with lower marital well-being and a greater likelihood of divorce. The experience of living together before marriage fosters uncertainty and less commitment to the marital relationship. Parental divorce is associated with the transmission of negative marital interactions learned during the divorce process. These behaviors are observed and imitated by children as they grow older and marry, and they are associated with low marital quality and often interfere with the couple’s ability to form a stable marriage. Additionally, when couples enter marriage with a premarital child, it precludes the traditional “honeymoon aura” associated with newlyweds’ adjustment to marriage and requires a different type of parenting negotiation from having children after the marital union. This type of parenting is associated with low marital quality and divorce. African Americans are more likely to experience these social risk factors, and thus their marriages are more vulnerable to marital dissolution.
Strengths and Resilience
Although structural and social factors explain how discrimination and limited access to economic opportunities impact African Americans’ marital quality, scholars are also beginning to acknowledge that in order to understand relationships fully, researchers must attend to what has been called the sociocultural ecology in which relationships reside. These sociocultural ecologies are the norms, cultural meanings and circumstances, and people outside the marital dyad that affect the functioning and success of the relationship. These factors also influence resiliency and the ability of a given family to recover from setbacks. Resiliency is the ability and competency of individuals and families to exhibit positive consequences given the stress associated with adverse and distressing situations, such as divorce. By using a risk and resilience perspective in the context of divorce, it is possible to examine the processes and factors that lead to successful adjustment to marital transitions.
The ability to emerge as a well-adjusted and functional individual or family, given multiple risk factors associated with divorce, is the direct result of certain strength-based factors that promote positive outcomes. Therefore, although African Americans may experience a high rate of divorce, African American families have unique strengths that protect them from the possible risks associated with divorce. These factors often lead to less stigmatization, more supportive resources, and more effective coping strategies for managing the dissolution of a marriage. The family strength-based factors associated with positive outcomes among African Americans during or after divorce are multigenerational households, close ties to grandparents, and church and friend support systems.
Multigenerational living arrangements are beneficial in that they provide extra resources, including economic, emotional, and social support for all family members. The resources are important for maintaining a healthy standard of living or for meeting the basic needs of family members, as well as providing an exchange of assistance across generations. Child support and alimony are very minimal for African American divorced single mothers. Because African American single mothers are likely to live in multigenerational households, this living arrangement often provides necessary childcare so that single mothers can pursue and maintain employment or attain higher educational status. This has direct consequences for African American children, who benefit socially, cognitively, and academically when their single mothers are employed. Given the lower rate of remarriage among African Americans, the multigenerational family provides a functional, mutually beneficial network from which to give and receive care.
The role of grandparent ties and their beneficial links to African American individuals undergoing adverse or stressful circumstances, such as divorce, is another strength-based factor that is widely documented. African American children have greater opportunities to interact and be involved with their grandparents. In particular, African American grandmothers are critically important for their grandchildren’s mental and physical health, as well as their academic achievement. African American adult children also depend on older family members for economic and housing assistance. When adult children are in the divorce process and experience financial hardships, older generations are usually their first source of help.
There is also strong evidence to suggest that church and friend support is critical for the resiliency of African American family life and functioning. The church can provide a religious role in individuals’ lives, but what is even more important for positive adaptation in times of stress is the special support system that the church and its members provide. Black churches have proven to be responsive to the needs of communities that have limited access to general societal support systems. Church members exchange instrumental, financial, emotional, and spiritual assistance with one another. This support may include food, clothing, care during illness, advice, encouragement, and informational resources. Although socializing with church members may reinforce norms that uphold the perpetuity of marriage, African Americans feel less ostracized in their communities when they leave troubled marriages and thus continue to rely on support from church members.
Among divorced African American individuals, close friendships are also associated with individual well-being. Although the family is often the primary source of financial support, friends are an important source of affective support during stressful life events such as a divorce. Because some family relationships may be disrupted during a marital dissolution or separation, friend support may become even more critical to help reduce the deleterious effects of divorce and increase the chance of positive adjustment for African Americans. In this way, friends can become a closer and more reliable source of emotional support if individuals are not connected to their family network.
Impact on Children
The rise in divorce has increased the number of children living in single-parent families and has implications for children’s social, emotional, and academic development. Divorce has implications for all children; however, because of the low incidence of remarriage in the African American community, African American children of divorce are especially disadvantaged. An immediate consequence of divorce for children is the change in their socioeconomic status. Children of divorced families tend to move to lower socioeconomic status residential neighborhoods. Accompanying this change in residential status is usually a decline in the quality of schools: lower teacher expectations, poor school performance, decrease in educational attainment, and higher incidences of delinquent behaviors. Given the current trends of racial segregation in U.S. neighborhoods and the subsequent concentration of poverty in predominantly African American low-income communities, African American children of divorce are likely to attend underperforming schools.
The extended family networks of African Americans provide additional economic, social, and material resources for single parents and their children. This additional support promotes resilience in African American children. For example, some African American children from single-parent families have the same or higher perceptions of self-image and self-esteem as well as levels of assertiveness when compared with children from two-parent families or single-family households in other communities. In part, these outcomes reflect the fact that African American children of divorce and never-married parents are not considered illegitimate and thus avoid the stigmatization felt by many children of divorce in other communities. As a result, African American single parents are able to enlist the support of family and friends in raising their children. Although much has been written about the positive influence of African American grandmothers, only recently has attention been paid to the contributions of grandfathers, brothers, uncles, and male friends of the family who often provide guidance and counseling for young boys in single-mother-headed households. These social networks in African American communities offer invaluable resources to divorced parents and their children.
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