Love, Health, and the Hood: Neighborhood Effects on Black Couples’ Functioning

By August "A.J." Jenkins, Ph.D.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Posted Feb. 16, 2024

Dr. August (A.J.) JenkinsWhen I think about the resources that may be important to Black Americans' psychological health and their intimate relationships, I often think about my grandparents' neighborhood on the westside of Detroit (my hometown). Growing up, my sister and I regularly went to their house. I was fascinated by their community—because it was exactly that: a community. All the neighbors knew each other's families, looked out for each other, shared resources, and had get-togethers and barbeques.

To me, my grandparents' community defied the things people typically associated with living in the city. Detroit neighborhoods are often thought of as dangerous and disadvantaged, but for me, our neighborhoods can also provide a sense of belonging, safety, and protection.

I understand that neighborhoods are not only a context for living but also a resource for flourishing, and this has shaped my perspective and how I approach work. I investigate how racism impacts Black Americans' mental health and intimate relationships, along with how they are connected over time. Experiences have taught me that resilience can always be found in adverse circumstances, so I also study how Black Americans leverage available sociocultural and ecological capital and coping resources to maintain and enhance their well-being.

Racism impacts multiple levels (e.g., interpersonal, cultural levels), with scholars noting the incredibly devastating consequences of structural racism for Black Americans' health and health inequities. For Black Americans, the residential context is one of the most striking examples of structural racism. There is a long history and enduring practice of segregation; no other racial group has experienced the same degree of residential segregation as Black Americans.

Consequently, Black Americans are also more likely to live in disadvantaged environments and be exposed to community stressors like poverty, crime, physical, and/or social disrepair that are associated with poorer mental-emotional health outcomes for Black Americans. Nonetheless, neighborhoods can also provide residents a sense of community, cohesion, and safety and offer resources that benefit mental health.

Notably, neighborhood environments not only affect individual functioning but also intimate relationships. Research shows the significance of the neighborhood context for Black romantic relationships, as disadvantaged areas can influence relationship behaviors and quality. Black adults living in urban neighborhoods have discussed how neighborhood violence and distress can contribute to their reluctance to be emotionally vulnerable/available with romantic partners and reinforce feelings of worry and anxiety.

Still, positive neighborhood characteristics can benefit romantic relationship quality, providing couples with healthy relationship role models and providing opportunities for support (e.g., childcare support from neighbors) and access to helpful resources (e.g., community centers, religious organizations).

In a study funded by my NIMHD F31 fellowship, my colleagues and I investigated the ways that neighborhood quality and romantic relationship functioning combine to impact Black Americans' mental health over time. Utilizing an intersectional frame, we also looked at how these variables were related to mental health in unique ways for Black men and women.

Research highlights that Black men can be particularly sensitive to neighborhood factors—possibly because they contend with societal pressure to appear fearless and tough and counter stereotypes around criminality even when exposed to gangs, negative police interactions/profiling, and other racialized community stressors. Black men's perceptions of community strife have also been linked to hostile behaviors within their marriage, which are connected to poorer mental health for both men and their partners/wives.

A key takeaway from my F31 fellowship is that better neighborhood quality is related to better mental health for both men and women. Study participants living in higher-quality neighborhoods showed lower levels of negative mood and higher levels of positive mood 10 years later, even after accounting for their initial levels of emotional functioning and socioeconomic status.

Additionally, neighborhood quality and relationship functioning combined to uniquely affect Black men's (but not women's) psychological health. Men who reported better relationship functioning, but poorer neighborhood quality showed more emotional distress ten years later. Perhaps Black men in positive relationships want to provide the best for their partners, but ambient neighborhood stress is detracting, signaling that they are not living up to their desires to provide for and protect their family or interfering with their attempts to do so, resulting in more distress. However, men in better-quality neighborhoods might not experience this level of external stress, allowing them to capitalize on the positive effects of both their romantic relationships and neighborhoods, showing less emotional distress over time.

Together, these results underscore the powerful, long-lasting psychological effects of people's ideas about the support (or stress) that is present in their communities. Further, the results highlight the specific ways neighborhood context and romantic relationship functioning intersect to impact psychological health, suggesting that interventions at the neighborhood level could have valuable mental health impacts for Black Americans and their ability to take advantage of the positive psychological consequences of relationship functioning.

Ultimately, in my work, I aim to illuminate complex issues related to health, relationships, and social inequity for Black Americans and uncover opportunities to redress disparities in these areas. I intend to continue interrogating the connections between community contexts and other manifestations of racism to Black mental health and relationships by unpacking these links at multiple intersections (e.g., gender, social class) and examining their contribution to long-term psychological and relational health outcomes. This work helps highlight points for change/intervention in policy, clinical, and community realms. Through this work, I hope that eventually, we all can experience a sense of community just like my grandparents in their neighborhood.

Bryant, C. M., & Wickrama, K. A. S. (2005). Marital relationships of African Americans: A contextual approach. In V. McLoyd, N. Hill, & K. A. Dodge (Eds.), African American family life: Ecological and cultural diversity (pp. 111–134). Guilford Press.

August "A.J." Jenkins, Ph.D., is a 2023 - 2024 Vice Chancellor's Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Scholar in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Jenkins investigates how racism impacts Black Americans' mental health and intimate relationships, along with how they are connected over time. She also studies how Black Americans leverage available sociocultural and ecological capital and coping resources to maintain and enhance their well-being.

Categories: Scientific Research
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