African American couples at midlife: life course and gender perspectives

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Virginia Tech


This study was designed to investigate the experiences of midlife and relationships of 20 African American individuals, aged 35-52, in 10 couples, married or cohabiting for 3-30 years. Basic to this study was the assumption that men and women are capable of and competent at intimate relationships. Guided by the theoretical perspectives of life course and gender, this research examined how men and women construct intimate relationships within the temporal circumstances of midlife and the interlocking cultural and social context of their lives.

The following research questions guided this study: (a) What aspects of couples' lives contribute to the maintenance of intimacy in romantic relationships? (b) How do gender constraints, from within and without the relationship, act as barriers to such intimacy? (c) How does membership in a particular ethnic group affect such intimacy? (d) How do life course circumstances, such as work and family responsibilities, contribute to or restrict the process of intimacy? (e) How do life course transitions unique to midlife, such as the sandwiching of caregiving and the physical and sexual changes of midlife, act as constraints or contributors to intimacy?

Qualitative in-depth interviewing was the method of data collection; participants were interviewed individually and conjointly. Individuals identified themselves as middle aged members of the African American ethnic group who were participating in a committed married or cohabiting heterosexual relationship for at least three years.

The results of this study showed that African American couples were deeply devoted to their families and to their spiritual beliefs. The foundation of their intimate relationships was based on spiritual commitments as well as the capacity to be both friend and lover. Midlife emerged as a time of both change and stability, as a time of confidence for women, and as a time of maturity for men. Midlife was a busy time for couples, with competing demands of work and family. Strategies for successful management and coping were in abundant evidence.