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

*equal contributors

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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:

  1.  Identify studies of HMRE programs and their participants that examine economic stability and mental health as predictors or outcomes of Black couples’ relationships.
  2. 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.

Methodology of Annotated Bibliography


This annotated bibliography summarizes articles focused on HMRE programming with an emphasis on engaging Black families. A key goal was to identify the extent to which HMRE programs are tailored to intentionally support Black families, including Black participants’ experiences related to economic stability and mental health, either as part of the program content or as an outcome of participation. Notably, literature on these topics remains quite limited. First, despite still providing information useful to the design and implementation of programs, relatively few of the included studies explicitly focus on Black couples in terms of their design or the research questions explored. Second, although the studies included in this resource focused on a range of outcomes, relatively few focus on outcomes related to economic stability and mental health. This is not surprising given that these are not typical components of more traditional HMRE programs, which generally focus on relationship skills such as communication and conflict management. However, in more recent years, there is increasing recognition in the HMRE field about the value of integrating economic support services into HMRE programs and taking a more comprehensive view of family well-being that considers families’ physical and mental health. Moving forward, we suggest that HMRE research and practice consider the following three recommendations.

1. Prioritize cultural relevance in designing, implementing, and evaluating HMRE programming for Black families.

The limited number of HMRE programs included in the reviewed studies highlights how few programs work intentionally with Black families and emphasizes the need to diversify programming and research. Although all studies had samples in which 50 percent or more of the participants identified as Black, most—excepting research on the African American Strong Relationships and Marriage Strengthening curriculum and the Protecting Strong African American Families program—were not explicit in whether or how they designed their program for Black families.

Further, not all studies with a large proportion of Black participants considered the unique strengths and experiences of Black individuals, couples, and families, nor did they acknowledge the role of racism and other historical and structural factors that influence Black families’ experiences and opportunities.

Considerations for future research:

  • Rather than perpetuate a narrative of challenges and risk among Black families, more research should leverage the unique strengths and assets of Black families that contribute to positive, stable relationships for Black couples. These factors should be considered in a study’s motivation, methods, and interpretation of findings.
  • Conduct more qualitative and quantitative studies of relationship formation and stability among Black couples across different types of HMRE curricula and in more diverse demographic locations within the United States.
  • Conduct culturally responsive and equitable evaluations to assess the effectiveness of more tailored and culturally responsive approaches to HMRE that focus on the unique cultural, social, political, and economic issues that affect Black couples. Such evaluations should also address the diverse experiences and contexts in which Black families live.

Considerations for future HMRE practice:

  • Incorporate culturally relevant teaching practices to reach Black families and communities. For example, apply a cultural assets framework that incorporates elements of Black family life, including cultural values, traditions, and practices that shape, sustain, and support Black family life (e.g., extended kin and social networks, optimism, and role flexibility).31
  • Include more culturally relevant components found to enhance relationship and stability among Black couples. For example, consider faith and prayer, church, kin support, and social support.
  • Acknowledge, in programming, the effects of historical racism, discrimination, and societal barriers on marriage among Black couples.

2. Recognize economic hardships as a critical component of union stability.

Economic stability has proven vital to the health of Black couples’ relationships. The studies included in this annotated bibliography that focused on economic support for Black couples highlighted the salience of economic stability for healthy relationships.

Considerations for future research:

  • Conduct research to document the structural factors that contribute to economic hardship for Black couples, as well as the factors that contribute to economic success and stability.21
  • Further explore diverse (i.e., SES) samples of Black couples to gain a better understanding of where race and class intersect to inform these couples’ experiences and, in turn, their needs.

Considerations for future HMRE practice:

  • Make economic supports, financial literacy, career preparedness, and job skills training central to integrated HMRE programming for Black families.

3. Consider mental health as a mechanism for relationship quality and stability.

Some of the studies included in this annotated bibliography assessed psychological distress in participants, but this was not a common outcome. The studies that measured psychological distress often did so in relation to co-parenting. Consistent with the literature on mental health, these studies found that improved mental health (lower psychological distress) was associated with better co-parenting relationships. Accordingly, not all studies considered external factors (i.e., racism, economic instability, and poverty) and the potential stress associated with these factors among Black couples. Relationship education may ultimately prove futile for couples experiencing significant external stressors if those stressors are not addressed. Assessing participants’ levels of psychological distress at the beginning of and throughout the program can provide valuable data to inform HMRE programs and their collaboration with external mental health services for additional support.

Considerations for future research:

  • Conduct research to explore how the unique strengths and assets of Black families support psychological well-being among Black couples, and to learn more about promoting those factors effectively to sustain healthy relationships.
  • Conduct applied research and evaluation that explore the direct and indirect associations between HMRE program supports and participation and mental health outcomes.
  • Test whether the benefits of HMRE program participation are reduced if partners’ mental health and psychological stress are not addressed.

Considerations for future HMRE practice:

  • Establish connections and develop partnerships with mental health service providers for referrals and resources for Black families. Also consider Black couples’ family and social networks as a source of support that can contribute to improved psychological well-being.
  • Establish relationships with civil rights organizations that directly combat racism within systems, institutions, and communities that may contribute to Black couple’s stress.
  • Use pre/post surveys that include relevant scales to capture mental health or psychological distress levels throughout different stages of program participation.
  • Design culturally responsive programs that target Black couples’ prime stressors while leveraging the factors that help partners cope with stress, thereby supporting participants’ ability to address stress.

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