“Race matters, even in marriage,” Charlandra Bryant said to open her talk on the marital functions of African American couples.
Bryant asked the crowd that gathered for the Annual Life Sciences & Society Program Symposium on Saturday, October 7, to name successful African American couples.
After naming the Obama’s, many people’s minds come up empty, and Bryant attributes this to the tendency of the media and literature to highlight single African American households.
Few studies explore how African Americans’ marriage quality relates to interactions between the couple.
Bryant wanted to explore factors like entering marriages with kids and poverty that are unique characteristics to African American relationships. Her project dives into the connection between African American marriages and health.
Over the years, she has collected data from hundreds of newlywed African American couples. The couples’ variance in other key demographics like age, education level and income, produced a result that realistically encompassed African American marriages.
Weight was one aspect of Bryant’s research that impacted the health of a relationship.
She found that heavier husbands were more likely to be depressed, but their weight did not affect their wives’ happiness. However, if a wife was heavier, the husband often showed more signs of depression.
While this effect was interesting, Bryant said the most revealing part of this research was that if couples felt very close to their partner the link between depression and weight decreased. This behavioral closeness, in sum, improved their lives.
The effect of stepfathers on relationships was another theme Bryant explored. Her research explored how stepfathers affected things like commitment, trust, marital happiness and love. Not surprisingly, she found stepfathers who had positive relationships with their stepchildren reported better marriage quality.
Bryant’s work found that wives who experienced racial discrimination also reported less physical affection and hostile husbands. She said this association stumped her for a while.
Now, she theorizes that husbands may be frustrated by their lack of ability to help their wife to deal with the discrimination, so they displace their anger towards their wives, such as perhaps raising their voice asking “Why didn’t you stand up for yourself?” The wife who could be sensitive to the experience could interpret this as a hostile behavior.
The Role of Genes
Little is known about the effect that genes play in social relationships, Bryant explained, but that didn’t stop her from asking questions.
For one study, male participants were asked to spit into a cup. Those samples were then paired with participants’ responses on hostility and warmth within their marriages along with depression and marriage satisfaction.
It found men at high-risk for depression were more responsive to positive and negative effects. In essence, husbands with a higher risk for depression can actually report higher levels of marital satisfaction when they receive high levels of warmth than the husbands who are at low-risk for depression.
While individuals can’t change their genetic makeup, Bryant said knowing if your spouse is susceptible to depression could help in your relationship.
The goal of Bryant’s ongoing research is to help improve intervention techniques. She said not all interventions work for everyone; sometimes they need to be culture-specific so she hopes her findings can help improve the techniques used for African American couples.
The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, started Friday, Oct. 6 and Saturday, Oct. 7. It features six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. The event will conclude on Friday, Oct. 13 with its last speaker, Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case on marriage equality.