An Annotated Bibliography on Research That Explores Black Families’ Participation in Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education, Economic Stability, and Positive Mental Health
Tia Dickerson*, Elvis Gyan*, Mindy E. Scott, Ria Shelton, and Lisa Kim
This annotated bibliography provides healthy marriage and relationship education (HMRE) practitioners and researchers with a summary of the research conducted to date on the effectiveness of HMRE programs for Blacka couples. Specifically, it has two goals:
- Identify studies of HMRE programs and their participants that examine economic stability and mental health as predictors or outcomes of Black couples’ relationships.
- Describe other basic research questions that have been explored using data from HMRE programs with Black participants.
The annotated bibliography also provides key reflections and recommendations for future research and practice.
Broadly, many Black Americans value romantic partnerships, marriage, and children, and many Black couples and children can and do thrive across diverse types of family structures.1 HMRE research and practice should prioritize Black families’ inherent cultural and familial strengths while also acknowledging the role of socially structured oppression and racial discrimination that affect the intersecting experiences of family formation, economic success, and mental health among Black families. The studies included in this annotated bibliography describe a range of HMRE programs, with a focus on program design, implementation, and outcomes for Black families. By using this resource, HMRE researchers and practitioners will be better positioned to access and apply research-based guidance for supporting Black families through HMRE.
While most adults in the United States eventually get married, researchers and practitioners have given a great deal of attention to how patterns of marriage and family formation differ by race and ethnicity, as well as by socioeconomic status.2 Research on marriages among Black couples for example, tends to highlight Black peoples’ reduced likelihood to ever marry,3,4 as well as the increased instability in their unions once married relative to their White counterparts.2 However, it is important to acknowledge that many Black marriages are successful, and it’s valuable to take a more strengths-based approach to support strong, happy, and enduring marriages and relationships among Black families.5
We also consider the historical and structural factors that contribute to the marginalization of Black men and women, and which influence their likelihood of marriage and marital stability.6-8 The majority of Black individuals desire marriage9 but factors such as mass incarceration, unequal job opportunities, racial segregation, and discrimination can uniquely shape Black people’s relationship expectations, opportunities, and outcomes through multiple processes; these factors are also important determinants of both their likelihood to marry and the stability of their marriages once formed.,10-13 Economic barriers imposed by structural racism play a critical role in shaping Black couples’ opportunities for marriage and marital stability.14-16 For example, the negative economic consequences of incarceration are particularly strong for Black families due to discrimination within the criminal legal system.14 When an individual has a criminal record, it allows for legal discrimination in employment, constraining Black men’s ability to provide financial support to their families.17,18 Yet finances and economic stability are important determinants of Black men’s likelihood to marry,19 and of the stability and strength of marriages among Black couples.20,21
Economic stability is important to relationship stability, in part because it contributes to reduced stress and positive mental health,22,23 which in turn support healthy relationships.22 Black people’s increased exposure to stress has been linked to experiences with racial discrimination.24,25,26 For example, research has revealed that experiences with racism negatively affect mental health in Black persons.27,28 Similarly, in a study of Black families, Murry et al. (2001) found that self-reported experiences of discrimination increased depressive symptoms in wives, which led to negative marital interactions.29 Finally, Kerr et al. (2018) found that African American fathers that perceived more frequent racial discrimination in their daily lives reported poorer relationship quality.30 Despite these encounters with racism and discrimination, Black families still thrive, in part due to the support and resources provided by family members and social networks that help individuals and couples cope with and survive racist and hostile environments.31
These findings represent the complex ways in which structural racism affects Black couples through multiple overlapping processes that influence their economic stability, stress, and mental health, and—in turn—their relationship quality and stability. The findings also highlight sources of resiliency and strength within Black families and Black communities and the important role of healthy relationships. HMRE programs have the potential to address these intersecting processes; although they generally focus on improving relationship quality and stability by building skills such as communication and conflict management, some programs also focus on improving couples’ economic stability.32,33 In addition, HMRE programs may aim to improve health outcomes, including psychological well-being, a component of mental health.34 Although federal funding limits HMRE programs’ ability to offer mental health treatment, practitioner referrals can be an important part of the resources provided. However, limited attention has been paid to how HMRE programs for Black couples—in addition to the associated research and evaluation conducted with Black participants in HMRE programs—contribute to our understanding of Black marriages and relationships.