Marital disruption disproportionately affects low-income black couples. To understand the unique experiences of black families, ethnographic research suggests that the lives of black couples are affected not only by structural elements of their environments, but by the social networks within which couples are embedded. Yet to date there has been no research directly examining the social networks of low-income couples, despite repeated suggestions that these networks should play an especially important role in the lives of black families in low-income communities. The overarching goal of the proposed research is to address this oversight through a four- wave longitudinal study of 150 black and 150 white low-income newlywed couples across the first three years of their marriage. A social network interview, administered at each assessment, will be combined with self-reports of personal history, marital quality, and experiences of stress and discrimination, and census data on neighborhood characteristics, videotaped observations of marital interactions, and interviewer ratings of the home environment. These data will be used to: 1) Describe and compare the social networks of low-income white and black newlywed couples;2) Describe change in the social networks of black and white newlyweds over the first years of marriage;3) Evaluate the associations between social network characteristics and marital outcomes. In particular, the proposed research will evaluate the support for three distinct models of how social networks may affect the development of marriages. The Support Model emphasizes how the composition and structure of a couple's social network shapes the transfer of social support between network members and the couple. The Constraint Model suggests that the structure of spouses'shared networks can operate as a constraint on leaving the relationship, and can reduce each partner's exposure to potential alternative relationships. The Social Norms Model addresses ways that the presence of married couples in a couple's network conveys expectations for marriage. The proposed research would be the first to evaluate and compare the support for each of these models, the first to describe the composition and structure of social networks in this population, the first to directly compare the networks of black and white couples of comparable income, and the first to link social network characteristics to observational data on marital interactions and longitudinal data on marital outcomes. Together, the results of the proposed research will inform future directions for programs and policies aimed at improving the lives of low-income couples and reducing racial disparities in marital outcomes within low- income communities.

Public Health Relevance

In low-income communities, black couples are at greatly elevated risk for marital disruption compared to white couples, with severe consequences for health and well-being in low-income black families. Although black families have been described as strongly affected by their extended social networks, to date the role of these networks in accounting for racial disparities in marital outcomes has not been examined. The proposed research will assess the social networks of black and white newlywed couples in low-income communities, and then examine how features of these networks predict the development of marital satisfaction over time. The results will inform new directions for ongoing efforts to strengthen and support families in low-income communities.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Social Psychology, Personality and Interpersonal Processes Study Section (SPIP)
Program Officer
Bures, Regina M
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of California Los Angeles
Schools of Arts and Sciences
Los Angeles
United States
Zip Code
Neff, Lisa A; Karney, Benjamin R (2017) Acknowledging the Elephant in the Room: How Stressful Environmental Contexts Shape Relationship Dynamics. Curr Opin Psychol 13:107-110
Kennedy, David P; Jackson, Grace L; Green, Harold D et al. (2015) The Analysis of Duocentric Social Networks: A Primer. J Marriage Fam 77:295-311