Black couples are talking about their love lives as part of a study under way at Loyola University in Chicago.
“Most research on relationship function focuses on white couples,” said Tracy DeHart, a social psychologist at Loyola. The data pool focused strictly on black couples is small, she said.
DeHart and Anthony Burrow, a developmental psychologist at Cornell University, are leading a study on 150 black couples to fill in the gap. There might be experiences specific to black couples that aren’t being examined, DeHart said, adding that the project has been under development for about three years.
“Our relationship functioning is so closely linked to our mental and physical health,” DeHart said. The unique factors that lead to stress in black couple interaction should be noted, she said.
The study, which began in January and is funded by the National Science Foundation, explores couples’ interactions through a three-week diary. People report on how they feel about themselves, their relationships, their positive and negative experiences, she said.
Burrow, a former professor at Loyola, said the study will evaluate the couples every day in real time.
“We not only get a sense of how their daily experiences shape their moods,” he said, “we also can see how an individual’s daily experiences, if shared with their partner, may impact their partner’s well-being.”
Clinical psychologist Melissa Blount said: “There are universal truths that exist in all relationships. From my experience, when people are in love and they’re hurting it all looks the same.”
From a social, cultural and economic standpoint, she said, couples face different issues. Unemployment, health problems and “residue of racial discrimination,” Blount said, are concerns she’s found specifically damaging to black relationships.
“Your availability to resources and tools are limited when your finances are limited,” said Blount, who spent three years counseling couples in Chicago. “That makes it harder for your relationship to thrive and survive.”
Also, if a person is under pressure because of real or perceived racial discrimination, she said, it will impact his or her partner.
Upbringing and finances are the major differences between blacks and whites, said Clifton Jackson, 36, who has been with his girlfriend Bertrice Horton, 32, for two and a half years. They are not participants in the Loyola study.
The environments in which many black people are reared shape how they behave in relationships, he said. Jackson adds that he was taught to lead in a relationship and that’s what he does.
“You have to learn how to love and have a relationship,” Jackson said.
Burrow said that there is no evidence proving whether black couples are different from other racial ethnic groups.
“The whole objective here is not to compare,” he said, referring to the study. “I think historically what happens is either black or other minority ethnic groups are left out of the conversation all together, or there is a comparison in which one group ends up being viewed as the standard.
“We want to supply a research-based understanding of African-American couples’ romantic relationships functioning to a literature that has already recognized the importance of romantic relationship functioning, but has not fully explored what this looks like in a specific cultural context.”
The purpose is to leave the possibility open that black couples’ relationships could be similar with everybody else’s, Burrow said, but to also leave open the potential to find specific cultural “nuances that really shape or impact this particular experience.”
Seventy-five couples are participating and applications are still being accepted. The study will last through the fall, and results are expected to be released as soon as next year.