“Black Marriages Matter”: School of Family Life Professors Study Qualities of Successful Black Marriages

Past research on Black families has focused on topics like the causes of single-family households or the impacts of divorce, rather than the skills and support needed to thrive. Antonius Skipper, assistant professor at Georgia State University, is working to include more in academia that focuses on attaining and nurturing successful Black families, as well as providing a more positive outlook on the Black family in general.

In collaboration with Loren Marks and David Dollahite, both professors in our School of Family Life, Skipper published the study “Black Marriages Matter: Wisdom and Advice From Happily Married Black Couples.” The study was published in the journal Family Relations

Marks shares the following about his experience with the research, “We hope that our efforts and the remarkable families we interviewed will influence research and broader culture by providing something beautiful to consider: long-term, loving marriages. There is so much division and contention and animosity in the world today. What a refreshing contrast to take a deep look at unity, harmony, and love in lasting marriages — and how these relational qualities are developed, nourished, and maintained.”

The gap between the number of Black Americans who want to marry (80% according to research cited in the study) and those who do get married (29% as reported by the U.S. Census) shows how important it is to switch the focus from deficit-based research to “strength-focused discussions.” Much of the previous academic rhetoric has made a successful Black marriage look unattainable.

In-depth interviews were held with 35 couples from several different states and the findings have powerful implications for couples of all backgrounds. However, they are especially important for the Black community, which fights against the long-perpetuated idea of the broken Black family along with other systemic barriers. The study outlines the following three principles and skills:

Cultivating Open Communication 

The interviewees shared that the ability to have conversations about potentially uncomfortable topics is crucial to a successful relationship. In order to avoid things from becoming barriers, it’s important to take care of them when they’re just a small issue. Like a snowball rolling down a hill and picking up mass and speed, a tiny conflict that isn’t resolved can turn into a much bigger problem later. One interviewee shared, “Whatever problem[s] arise in the young couple’s life, they should nip it in the bud. Don’t hold it in because [you] don’t want to hurt their feelings or they don’t want to hurt your feelings. … We must bring it out, sit down, and talk.” Many respondents shared that open and frequent communication and the sharing of feelings can contribute to conflict resolution, personal growth, or simply be a means of expressing love and appreciation. 

Flexible Roles and Responsibilities 

Whether because of personal preferences or a change in employment or lifestyle, interviewees shared that a willingness to “play any role on [the marriage’s] team” was vital. Using a biblical reference, one woman shared, “You need to be the Eve for your Adam. Every Eve has her Adam, and you need to be the Eve your Adam needs. I’m the Eve my Adam needs right now. If he needed another Eve to support him where he’s at, then I’d be that Eve.” This flexibility allowed couples to conquer many difficult situations, especially ones that come disproportionately to Black families. 

Money and Marriage 

Interviewees wanted people to recognize that “the crux of almost every issue” is finances. If you can manage your money from the beginning and facilitate conversations about it (there’s that open communication popping up again), then a load of stress will be taken off your marriage. When it came to money, many participants shared how important it was to play to the other’s strengths. “I feel that [each spouse is] supposed to stay with [their] strong things. … I think that’s why we’ve stayed together so long. … The things that she do well, I don’t even tread on that part. The things that I do well, she just lets me do that part of it … Let me tell you right now, no two people can handle the money … if you have two people [and] both [are] paying certain bills and stuff like that, it never works out. … You have to get one person that [will] handle the money” (quote). Existing research suggests that African Americans experience a disproportionate amount of financial strain, which makes the principles shared in the study especially powerful. 

The study contributes to a larger trend that is trying to flip the script on Black families. Rather than seeing them through the lens of shortcomings, many of which have been created and perpetuated by barriers that lie beyond their control, we can view the relationships Black families have as another example of enduring and happy marriages. This research can help Black couples and singles have more power over things within their control to obtain marital stability.

The Connection Between Religion and Families: A New Book

A recent publication from professors in the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences provides answers to the questions of how religion affects marriage, ways parents should talk to their children about their religious beliefs, and whether practicing a faith — whether it’s Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or yet another belief system — strengthen families. in their 2017 book, Religion & Families: An Introduction, BYU School of Family Life professors Loren D. Marks and David C. Dollahite write about how religion strengthens faithful familiesThe two researchers wrote the book for emerging adults, in the hopes that it could help them navigate important decisions as they transition into marriage and parenting.

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How Does Religion Strengthen Families?

Relying on existing research and their own American Families of Faith project, Dr. Marks and Dr. Dollahite teach relationship-building, faith-promoting lessons to their readers. The American Families of Faith project draws rich data from lengthy in-home interviews of 200 religious families living all across the United States. The diverse sample includes Christian, Jewish, and Muslim families, as well as immigrants and ethnic minorities, so Religion & Families provides a broad look at the connections between religion and family.

Perhaps the most useful way to study the nexus of religion and family is to explore three dimensions identified by the authors:

  • Religious beliefs
  • Religious practices
  • Religious community.

“Family members who consciously consider and discuss how their religious beliefs, practices, and community can work together for the good of their marriage and family relationships are likely to discover ways to increase harmony between these dimensions,” Marks and Dollahite write. Dollahite, when interviewed about the book, said: “We all ‘live into’ our answers to life’s biggest questions in patience and faith. As we face the realities and challenges of marriage and family life, the confident idealism of youth evolves into a mature and realistic optimism…. We hope that the kinds of information provided about the healthiest way to live one’s faith in marriage and family life in Religion and Families can help young adults be more likely to make that transition more smoothly.”

“There will always be one more unanswered question related to our faith that we do not currently have the answer to,” Marks added. “That question is not a reason to abandon the ship of faith. It is motivation to get to know the captain better. Part of my testimony is that God is a lot smarter than I am.” In other words, we can all build our lives, our marriages, and our families on faith, patience, and trust.

When Husbands and Wives Share Beliefs And Commitment

The American Families of Faith project, a national long-running research project led by Marks and Dollahite, allowed them to connect their three dimensions of religion (beliefs, practices, and community) to marriages, father-child relationships, and mother-child relationships. The findings suggest that husbands and wives enjoy greater marital satisfaction when they share beliefs and are similarly committed to those beliefs. What’s more, spouses can strengthen their marriages by participating together in meaningful rituals, including service attendance and holiday traditions.

As far as children are concerned, Dr. Marks and Dr. Dollahite’s research indicates that parents and children have more positive emotional experiences when they engage in “youth-centered conversations.” In these conversations, parents listen while kids do most of the talking and ask for understanding. The conversation is open, the parent helps the child connect religion to his or her life, and the parent-child relationship becomes richer and deeper.

Dr. Marks explained that visiting those families’ homes and observed those relationships, he learned how he could be a better partner and parent. Regarding their examples, he says: “We hope that we can convey enough of the exemplary power of these faithful families to young adults that a fire and hope will be kindled that they can do likewise. Gratefully, through their interviews, these families also tell us how they did it — and this may be the book’s most important contribution.”

Family-Centered Priorities Cut Across and Supersede

Elder L. Tom Perry, who attended a 2014 marriage and family colloquium at the Vatican, reported that all major religions value family life. He said: “It was remarkable for me to see how marriage and family-centered priorities cut across and superseded any political, economic, or religious differences. When it comes to love of spouse and hopes, worries, and dreams for children, we are all the same.” Dr. Marks and Dr. Dollahite share a similar message in their book. In each chapter, they remind their readers that practicing a religion can lead to healthier marriages and happier family life.

 

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Religion & Families: An Introduction is available for purchase on Amazon, Google Play, Target.com, and Walmart.com.