This study’s purpose was to explore the reasons Black women are disproportionately single according to the unique viewpoint of married Black men. The sample comprised 52 married Black men who resided in northeast Georgia (mean age = 43). Qualitative interviews were conducted in 2010 as part of the Pathways to Marriage study. The authors analyzed the data in a collaborative fashion and utilized content analyses to explore the relationships in the data which were derived from qualitative interviews with the men. Findings on the reasons for the disproportionality of singlehood among Black women reflected these four themes: gender relations, marriage education and socialization, individual development, and a preference for gay/lesbian relationships. Recommendations for future research are discussed.
Recent estimates highlight an important trend–Black women are less likely to enter into marriage or remarry than are Black men or women from other racial and ethnic groups (American Fact Finder, 2011; Banks, 2011; Taylor, Tucker, Chatters, & Jayakody, 1997; Wanzo, 2011). Furthermore, 7 out of 10 Black women are unmarried and 3 out of 10 may never marry (Banks, 2011). Thus, the disproportionate number of Black women who are single has been well-documented. This demographic pattern is so noticeable, that it has even received considerable attention from popular media (e.g., CNN documentary titled, “Black in America;” ABC News Nightline special titled, “Why Can’t a Successful Black Woman Find a Man?”).
Social scientists have found considerable heterogeneity in Black women’s reasons for remaining single. Among those desiring to marry, scholars have identified barriers related to economic instabilities, challenges that undermine long-term relationship success (e.g., difficulty trusting, current relationship problems, pain from past relationships, inequities in human capital between partners, fears of divorce) and concerns about readiness for marriage (e.g., lack of skills and preparedness for marriage) (Banks, 2011; Bulcroft & Bulcroft, 1993; Edin & Reed, 2005; Gibson-Davis, Edin, & McLanahan, 2005; Hatchett, 1991; Holland, 2009; King, 1999; Marbley, 2003). Other work suggests that some women are happy to remain unmarried, given their uncertainties about the permanency of marriage or their desire to concentrate on their professional lives (e.g., education, jobs) and personal responsibilities (e.g., parenting) (Banks, 2011; Collins, 2000; Holland, 2009; King, 1999). Boyd-Franklin and Franklin (1998) have counseled Black women in clinical settings on these issues. They have noted that Black women are frequently provided with conflicting messages about intimate relationships by elders in their families and communities. Boyd-Franklin and Franklin (1998) wrote:
One is a message of independence (e.g., ‘God bless the child who has her own.’), with its implication that Black men cannot be trusted to stay with and provide for women. The other is a message that a woman’s utmost goal is to find a Black man who will take care of her (Boyd-Franklin & Franklin, 1998, p. 272).
These contradictory statements have created situations in which either women do not form lasting intimate relationships with men or women experience difficulties in their intimate ties (Boyd-Franklin & Franklin, 1998).
Though prior work has sampled Black women to learn more about reasons for remaining single, very few studies consider the perspectives of married Black men. We focused on the opinions of these men for three reasons. First, while previous research has examined union formation from the perspective of Black women, rarely is the perspective of married Black men reported in studies of marriage patterns in the Black community (Marks, Hopkins-Williams, Chaney, Neseruk, & Sasser, 2010; Taylor, Chatters, Tucker, & Lewis, 1990). The voices and perspectives of Black men who could provide in-depth accounts are largely absent from the literature (Marks, 2005; Michael & Tuma, 1985). To respond to our inquiry, the men in the present study offered opinions about relationships by reflecting on their own dating and marital histories, as well as their observations of intimate ties in their families and communities. We obtained perspectives from men who value marriage, as evidenced by their commitment to enrolling in and completing a marriage enrichment program. From this perspective, obtaining the opinions of married men is particularly important since men traditionally initiate marriage proposals. Second, as parents/caregivers and mentors, these men play an important role in teaching younger generations about relationships (author citation; Elder, 1997; Furstenburg & Hughes, 1995). Third, Black men’s opinions could help researchers better understand the factors that continue to challenge relationships between Black men and women.
Marriage uniquely offers benefits in physical, psychological, and financial well-being (Blackman, Clayton, Glenn, Malone-Colon, & Roberts, 2005; Malone-Colon, 2007). Children raised in marriage-based households also exhibit more favorable developmental outcomes over time (Blackman et al., 2005; Malone-Colon, 2007; Marks et al., 2010). For many Black adults who do wish to marry, marriage seems an elusive goal (Allen & James, 1998; McLoyd, Cauce, Takeuchi, & Wilson, 2000; Taylor et al., 1997). They are not turning away from marriage; on the contrary, members of the Black community still respect the institution of marriage and its symbolic value (Banks, 2011; Edin & Reed, 2005; Marks et al., 2008). Given that stable, satisfying marriages have been associated with positive outcomes (e.g., Blackman et al., 2005, Malone-Colon, 2007), single Black women may not be reaping the rewards that marriage offers.
Therefore, the purpose of this study was to explore reasons that Black women are disproportionately single; we explore those reasons using the perspectives of 52 married Black men. Married Black men offer a unique perspective on this important demographic trend in our country. Very few studies of relationships include the opinions and voices of men, particularly Black men. In this respect, this investigation makes an important contribution to the literature. Next, we outline relevant literature concerning the influence of macro-level (e.g., education, employment, sex ratio) and micro-level factors (e.g., gender relations, interpersonal trust) on relationships.
The Mundane Environmental Stress Model served as a conceptual guide to help elucidate the processes by which structural factors may impact intimate relationships. The Mundane Environmental Stress Model describes how mundane stress, in addition to ongoing experiences with discrimination and racially-linked events, impact psychological well-being and relationship orientations (Carroll, 1998; Clark & Haldane, 2000; Peters & Massey, 1983). Another comparable framework—the Vulnerability-Stress-Adaptation Model—is a useful tool for understanding factors that could explain non-marriage among Black women. The model emphasizes three components—stressful events (e.g., economic inequality, incarceration), adaptive processes (e.g., strategies for responding to relationship stress such as independent spirit and focus on completing one’s education), and enduring vulnerabilities (e.g., individual characteristics that shape the relationship like personal history and experiences) (Chambers & Kravitz, 2011). Both models highlight how structural inequalities in education, employment, sex ratio, and incarceration may set in motion family processes that undergird men and women’s abilities to form and maintain stable unions (Ooms & Wilson, 2004; Pinderhughes, 2002; Waller, 1999). For example, observable challenges might be reflected in an individual’s inability to meet roles and responsibilities because of structural inequalities. Therefore, it is critical to consider the influence of such macro-level influences on intimate ties and understand how these influences differentially shape relationship experiences for men and women (Clark & Haldane, 1990). Next, we discuss empirical work on the impact of education, employment, sex ratio, and incarceration on relationships.
Education and employment
Educational achievement and employability have been linked to Blacks’ entry into marriage and their marital satisfaction (Banks, 2011; Bowleg, 2004; Lichter, LeClere, & McLaughlin, 1991). Particularly among men, as incomes rise and jobs become more secure, the probability of marriage increases (Gibson-Davis et al., 2005; Hill, 2009; Smock, Manning, & Porter, 2005). Though marriage is delayed when Black men pursue postsecondary education, the probability of marriage increases (Marks et al., 2008; Marbley, 2003; Oppenheimer, 2003).
Among Black men, scholars have noted a decline in well-paying jobs, and consequentially, a rise in unemployment and underemployment (Browning, 1999; Marks et al., 2008; Staples, 1985). Ethnographic work has highlighted how compromised educational and economic opportunities, as well as perceived loss of freedom, undermined the likelihood that men will marry (Anderson, 1999). Furthermore, economic opportunities have waned for Black men and Black women with criminal records; blocked opportunities in the labor market and the continuous surveillance and follow-up often required after imprisonment hinders one’s ability to participate in the workforce (Clayton & Moore, 2003). This reduction in employment prospects for Black men has been termed the “depletion effect” (Clayton & Moore, 2003). This effect undermines family formation and promotes joblessness and loss of power in relationships (Clayton & Moore, 2003).