Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health
Volume 37, Number 4, December 2005

Differences in Early Romantic Relationships Do Not Account for Racial Gap in Youths' Marital Expectations

Racial differences in early experiences with intimacy and commitment do not explain why white adolescents have a higher expectation than blacks of marrying in young adulthood.1 In a study based on a nationally representative sample of adolescents, larger proportions of white men and white women than of their black counterparts had had a serious relationship. However, in analyses that took these patterns into account, white adolescents of both sexes still rated their chances of marrying by age 25 higher than did their black peers.

The analyses used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), for which a sample of adolescents in grades 7-11 were interviewed in their homes in 1995 and again in 1996. At both interviews, adolescents were questioned about social and demographic factors. Marital expectations were assessed by asking adolescents to rate their chances of being married by age 25 on a scale ranging from 1 (almost no chance) to 5 (almost certain). Romantic relationships were assessed by asking adolescents to describe their "special romantic relationships"—ones with unrelated individuals whom adolescents said they had held hands with, kissed and told they liked or loved. The most recent heterosexual relationship initiated between interviews was used in analyses; these relationships were grouped into five types, reflecting such characteristics as levels of physical and emotional involvement. Ratings for marital expectations and distributions of relationship types were compared via t tests; associations of relationships with marital expectations were tested with ordinary least squares regression analysis.

The 12,973 adolescents studied were 17 years old, on average. Fifty-four percent were white, 21% were black, 9% were of Mexican origin and 17% belonged to other racial or ethnic groups. About half each were men and women.

In each racial or ethnic group, the majority of adolescents of both sexes (64-84%) rated their chances of being married by age 25 as even or better at the second interview. However, expectations of marrying by that age were significantly higher among white men than among their black counterparts (mean score, 3.2 vs. 2.8), and among white women (3.4) than among blacks (2.9) or women of "other" races or ethnicities (3.3).

At the second interview, 39% of the adolescents reported a current or recent romantic relationship that had begun since the first interview. Thirty-seven percent of these relationships were classified as serious ones involving sex, 21% as serious ones not involving sex, 18% as group-oriented ones, 17% as physically oriented ones and 7% as ones with a low level of involvement.

The occurrence and types of romantic relationships varied by race or ethnicity and sex. Overall, similar proportions of white and black adolescent men had not had any such relationship (63% and 66%, respectively), but the proportions were significantly higher among the remaining racial and ethnic groups (70-72%). Nine percent of white men had had a serious relationship not involving sex, compared with 4-5% of blacks and those in the "other" group. The proportion reporting a group-oriented relationship was higher among whites than among those of Mexican descent (7% vs. 4%).

Among women, a smaller proportion of whites than of any other group had not had any romantic relationship (58% vs. 66-67%). White women reported serious relationships involving sex more frequently than did any other group (18% vs. 10%), and they reported group-oriented relationships and serious relationships without sex more commonly than did blacks (8-9% vs. 5-6%). By contrast, reports of physically oriented relationships and ones with low involvement were more common among black women (9% and 3%, respectively) than among whites (6% and 2%).

In a regression model that did not include romantic relationships, ratings of the perceived likelihood of being married by age 25 at the second interview were significantly lower for blacks than for whites among both men (coefficient, -0.21) and women (-0.30); no other significant differences emerged by race or ethnicity. In addition, among men, ratings were negatively associated with living with a single parent and with age; they were positively associated with religiosity. Among women, ratings fell as body mass index increased and were reduced for those living in a stepfamily. For both sexes, the higher the expectation of marrying at the first interview, the higher the expectation at the second interview.

The racial and ethnic associations were essentially unchanged when current or recent romantic relationships were added to the analysis, as were nearly all of the other associations. In this model, compared with ratings of the likelihood of marrying by age 25 among young men who had not had any such relationship, ratings were significantly higher among their counterparts who had had a serious relationship with sex (coefficient, 0.23), a serious relationship without sex (0.17) or a relationship with a low level of involvement (0.22). Similarly, compared with ratings among young women who had not had any romantic relationship, ratings were higher among their counterparts who had had a serious relationship with sex (0.23) or a serious relationship without sex (0.11).

According to the investigator, the findings suggest that romantic relationship experiences—despite differing between blacks and whites, and despite influencing marital expectations—"likely play only a small role" in explaining the racial gap in marital expectations. She acknowledges that marital expectations may not correspond with actual behavior. In adulthood, the investigator notes, the marriage prospects of blacks may be constrained by socioeconomic factors, but a comparatively low expectation of marrying among blacks is already evident in adolescence. Thus, she concludes, "these findings suggest exploring the effect of an array of adolescent experiences on family formation because attitudinal differences do exist prior to the constraints of the adult marriage market."—S. London


1. Crissey SR, Race/ethnic differences in the marital expectations of adolescents: the role of romantic relationships, Journal of Marriage and Family, 2005, 67(3):697-709.