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Study finds keys to long-lasting African-American marriages
MISSISSIPPI STATE – African-American couples with long and satisfying marriages credit God, love and communication as keys to their enduring relationships, researchers at Mississippi State University have found.
“Although research shows that marriage is associated with numerous benefits for women, men and children, when we looked in the research literature, we found that relatively little was known about African-American marriages, especially African-American marriages that stand the test of time,” said Tommy Phillips, assistant professor in MSU’s School of Human Sciences. “We also found that, consistent with research on African Americans in general, the studies of African-American marriages that have been conducted have focused mainly on problems and weaknesses rather than strengths and assets.”
The current body of research on African-American marriage investigates marriages that end in divorce and the reasons African-Americans are less likely to marry at all. But Phillips said he believes far more can be learned from studying marriages that last. Along with his MSU colleague Joe Wilmoth, and Loren Marks, associate professor in the School of Human Ecology at Louisiana State University, Phillips studied 71 African-American couples who had been married an average of 32 years.
The couples were asked to share the top reasons their marriages have lasted so long, the biggest challenges they had to overcome and what they most often disagreed about.
The responses revealed 51 percent of the couples believe God is the top reason their marriages have stood the test of time. Love ranked second, at 31 percent. Good communication came in third. Communication was also identified as a challenge and the thing couples disagreed about the most.
“I believe this communication paradox illustrates just how important it is for couples to talk to each other, even when it doesn’t go well,” Wilmoth said. “Although these couples argued about communication often, making the effort to deal with issues showed they were invested in the relationship.”
Participating couples were recruited by contacting clergy at historically black churches in Mississippi.
“When we looked for ways to find African-American couples with long-lasting marriages, we discovered the most reasonable way to contact them was through their churches,” Wilmoth noted. “We believe our sample is reasonably representative because almost 90 percent of African Americans identify themselves with a church, and those who are married are even more likely to attend.”
The study showed that these couples, who had been married from 15 to 60 years at the time of the study, reported spending “quite a bit” or “all” of their time together.
“This is consistent with what other research has found, which serves as a reminder to all couples that they need to cultivate their relationship as friends,” Wilmoth said.
Phillips said their study’s results make a much-needed positive contribution to research on marriage among African Americans and provide the information necessary to paint a fairly accurate portrait of long-lasting African-American marriages.
“The couples who participated in this study reported being happily married, attending church frequently, praying often and believing that their faith plays a large role in the longevity of their marriages,” he said. “They also tended to share the same faith – in fact, all of the husbands and wives in the sample were same-faith couples.”
One challenge to long-lasting unions is that marriage is often perceived as having too many problems and not enough benefits, Wilmoth said.
“American culture often suggests that marriage is not a viable option for African-American couples, but our study presents a group of African-American couples who are happily married after many years together,” he said. “This finding is important to recognize in light of the benefits of marriage to children and to society.”
Phillips said the study shows these couples have faced difficulties and challenges over the years but have worked through them to remain married.
“This study’s results suggest that the inevitable challenges and disagreements of marriage need not be destructive and need not lead to the dissolution of the marriage,” he said.
The researchers hope their findings will help couples, counselors, pastors and professors gain insight into what makes African-American marriages last.
“We learned more about not only what destroys marriage, but also what nourishes it,” Phillips said. “By learning what factors promote stability and happiness, we can focus on key sources of strength and support to help African-American marriages endure.”