That's The Way Love Goes: An Examination of the Romantic Partnering Experiences of Black Middle Class Women

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Research on romantic partnering has traditionally focused on the process of relationship formation, marital stability and permanence, and the problems created by distress in relationships. Over the last several decades, declines in marriage, increases in divorce and remarriage, and delayed and non-marital childbirths has led scholars to investigate the factors that contribute to these patterns. In addition to overall changes in romantic partnering arrangements, it important to acknowledge that there are deep racial and gender-based inequalities in dating, romantic relationships, and marriage. Specifically, for Black Americans scholars have focused much of their inquiry on the processes and patterns involved in romantic relationship and family formation among low-income and economically disadvantaged Black women, with emphases on the availability of Black men as viable partners, marriage as a way to escape poverty, and non-traditional family forms. Less attention, however, has been paid to the romantic and intimate lives of middle class Black women. While it is entirely possible that the romantic beliefs, aspirations, and actions of middle class Black women are similar to low-income Black women, it stands to reason that women who have more education, higher incomes, and greater access to resources and ability to deploy these resources will approach and engage in romantic interactions in ways that are distinct and nuanced.

Drawing on 52 in‐depth interviews with Black middle class women, I examined how these women approached and engaged in romantic interactions and relationships. Three studies are presented here. The first study explored how parents’ behaviors, socialization practices, and messaging shaped Black middle class women’s attitudes, beliefs, expectations, and actions in romantic or intimate relationships. I outlined existing research on the transmission of beliefs and knowledge and present a brief summary of the ways that socialization, family structure and familial characteristics, and social learning and interactional characteristics in the family of origin informed individuals’ beliefs about love and dating. Using intergenerational transmission and social exchange theories to guide this study, results indicated that respondents perceived that their parents employ four types of messaging about romantic relationships and partnering – practical, progressive, protective, and principled.

In the second study, I explored the nonlinearity of romantic experiences and relationships for middle class Black women and considered what role emotions play in these romantic encounters. I examined the relationship between Black middle class women’s location in the marriage market and the kinds of nonlinear relationships Black middle-class women participate in. The marriage market structures the kinds of romantic opportunities that Black middle-class women have, the opportunity to engage in relationships, and the emotions they experience in these engagements. In this study, I queried a finding I found early on in my analysis of the data. If marriage, which was a goal for more than 95 percent of the unmarried respondents in this study, was not a viable or immediately present option for these women, what kinds of relationship arrangements did they engage in and why? Results showed respondents initiated and evaluated romantic interactions and commitments, decided to end or reengage with romantic partners, and determined whether a relationship is worth maintaining or not. I paid particular attention to respondents’ emotions throughout these processes and the bidirectional influence of women’s emotions on their relational experiences. An appreciation for the role of uncertainty in the lives of respondents grounded these analyses as I took into account how relational, economic, and interpersonal insecurity was related to the aforementioned outcomes.

In the third study, I investigated marital satisfaction among Black middle class women. To do so, I considered women’s relational aspirations and experiences and define the expectations, characteristics, and conditions a romantic partner or relationship met in order for women to express contentment or happiness in their marriages. Additionally, I identified shared themes associated with respondent’s marital dissatisfaction.

Despite some clear racialized and gendered inequalities, results indicated that Black middle class women are reflective, strategic, hopeful, and committed to establishing fulfilling romantic interactions. I argue that traditional findings on the romantic partnering practices and processes largely ignore the relationship between the intergenerational transmission of beliefs and values about romantic love, intimacy, and commitment, the ways that race, class, gender, power, and inequality intersect to create a sometimes uneven, unpredictable, movement-filled romantic landscape for Black women, and the role of emotional and financial safety and security, balancing marriage, career, and motherhood, and the desire for personal responsibility influence marital satisfaction among middle-class Black women.






Ford, LesLeigh (2018). That's The Way Love Goes: An Examination of the Romantic Partnering Experiences of Black Middle Class Women. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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