The Puzzle of Black Women’s Marriage Patterns

Yesterday I posted an excerpt from the introduction to my recently published book, Is Marriage for White People?. Today, Thursday and Friday I will examine three central issues the book examines.

Black women more frequently than any other group of women marry men who are less educated or lower earning than they are. More than half of college educated black wives have husbands who are less educated than they are. These relationships are more prone than relationships among socioeconomic equals to be conflict ridden and prone to divorce. Two different types of problems arise.

One problem is that both spouses may be uncomfortable with a situation in which the wife earns more than the husband. When the wife supports the family because the husband cannot, the husband may feel threatened, emasculated. Less discussed but not less important is that the wife may also think less of a husband who earns less than she does. Professionally accomplished wives may support their family financially, but they were not raised expecting to do so.

Of the empirical findings that support this interpretation, my favorite is this: When the husband earns the bulk of the income, the spouses are equally likely to have final say about financial decisions. When the wife earns the bulk of the income, in contrast, the wife is twice as likely as the husband to have final say about financial decisions. This finding mirrors a pattern that I noticed among the couples whose stories I recount in the book: His earnings are joint, but her earnings are hers. This is but one aspect of the incomplete transformation of gender roles.

A second problem is that professional women with working class husbands often experience a sort of cultural conflict. Although they share the same race, their educational and professional experiences differ and as a result their aspirations, outlooks and values may be distinct as well.

The prevalence of what I term marry down relationships thus contribute to striking racial disparities in divorce rates. Although good data about the likelihood of divorce is difficult to come by, as many as 2 out of every 3 marriages among African Americans end in divorce. Data do confirm that half of African American marriages dissolve within 10 years, compared to a third of whites’ marriages.

Marrying down has not been given much attention in the media or even by scholars, but for African Americans it undermines the well-being of adults and children alike.