Can Counseling help an Interracial Couple?

by Jeffrey Nord


The rate of interracial marriage is increasing in the United States and biracial couples are becoming a significant population of interest to marriage and family therapists.  Black-White marriages face destructive challenges from society in addition to being stigmatized by both African-American and White individuals.  The multicultural makeup of our society provides for an inevitable romantic mixing of individuals from different racial backgrounds, and this demographic has great potential to promote cross-cultural acceptance.  Sadly, in parallel with America’s history of oppression and discrimination against minority groups, interracial couples have been pathologized and treated unfairly. 


Interracial marriages make up 3% of all marriages in the United States (US Bureau of the Census, 1999).  Of the 1.6 million reported interracial and interethnic marriages, only 25% are Black-White marriages (US Bureau of the Census, 1999).  In general, African Americans and European Americans are endogamous, they choose partners from within their race 90% of the time in contrast to a rate of 70% for Asian Americans and Latinos (Johnson, 2006).  The rate of interracial marriage has doubled in the United States over the past 40 years showing a trend toward a growing demographic that requires study (US Bureau of the Census, 1999). 


African-American and White couples have been the subject of increased public scrutiny and disapproval in our country.  This history of contempt is long and pervasive with significant support from lawmakers.  In fact, state anti-miscegenation laws were not overturned by the Supreme Court until 1967 (Johnson, 2006).  Furthermore, 38% of South Carolina voters recently voted to uphold their state law prohibiting interracial marriage in 1998 (Yancey & Emerson, 2001).  In some instances, Blacks were charged with abduction or white slavery under the Mann Act for simply crossing a state line with their white fiancé (Johnson, 2006). 

The basis for Americans’ misunderstanding of Black-White relationships was instigated early in the country's development. The first Black-White relationships occurred under the umbrella of slavery and usually were secret and nonconsensual.  Americans became accustomed to this model and may simply have internalized viewing interracial relationships as bad.  Needless to say, social pressures, discrimination, and relationship issues exist for interracial couples that do not enter into the lives of the much more common intraracial couple. 


Due to the relatively low number of interracial marriages, in-depth research into marital satisfaction among this population is in short supply.  The research that does exist focuses mainly on the reason for spousal selection or the subjective opinion of individuals concerning interracial marriage.  Leslie and Letiecq (2004) provide some of the only in-depth empirical studies investigating the quality and satisfaction of Black-White couples.

The political climate surrounding race is changing as politicians begin to realize that overt discrimination is no longer tolerated by the public.  The social climate is changing as well shown by a recent study by Todd and McKinney (1992) that found 60% of adults would be open to dating somebody from another culture.  The growing importance of this issue is evidenced by the interracial couple becoming an integral part of mainstream media and popular culture.  Movies and television commonly depict interracial couples positively and interracial magazines such as Interrace and New People are seeing substantial growth (Zebroski, 1999). 


Biracial couples are a critical topic for further research.  First of all, interracial couples tend to downplay the significance of race in the appraisal of their marriages (Leslie & Letiecq, 2004).  This trend works against the drive for multicultural awareness and acceptance that is becoming a predominant method for dealing with cross cultural contexts (Sue & Sue, 2003). Secondly, the interracial couple has enormous potential to be a positive arena for promoting tolerance and acceptance between families of different cultural backgrounds.  These marriages are the rare, true melting pot in our country.  Part of the future of improved race relations lies in the success of these integrated extended families and their offspring. 

The main purpose of this paper is to examine marital satisfaction among Black-White relationships as well as to explore the effects of racial identity, discrimination, and social support on these couples.  This paper will explore theories of interracial mate selection and then delve into the issue of marital satisfaction.  An exploration of innovations within psychotherapy to better serve multicultural couples will ensue focusing on the application of specific theories that have been proposed.  The research on the efficacy of psychotherapeutic interventions for intercultural couples is mostly based on case studies rather than empirical studies.


Although many factors contribute to a healthy and satisfying marriage, this paper will focus on variables uniquely attributable to an interracial relationship.  In conclusion, the paper will discuss the deficiencies in current research on the subject of interracial marriage as well as suggestions for future research.


Mate Selection

            It is prudent to touch on the main theories of interracial mate selection before exploring the research on marriage quality.  The most enduring work on this subject was done by Merton (1941) when he theorized the concept of hypergamy.  Merton hypothesized that interracial marriages, as in any long-term contract, constitute an exchange of resources.  In the case of a Black-White marriage, he defined the exchange as a low SES White marrying a high SES Black to bring economic prosperity and racial status to the marriage (Merton, 1941).  Rosenfeld (2005) recognized the intellectual utility of the long-standing theory but defined this exchange as a status-caste exchange.  Rosenfeld was also critical of hypergamy theory because he saw the definitions of SES and status as subjectively different for the two communities.  In addition, he pointed out the empirical problems inherent in studying such a small percentage of total marriages.  Rosenfeld's study contradicted hypergamy theory by using census data to prove that "Black-White intermarried couples have had levels of status that were usually indistinguishable (p. 1297).”  He showed that homogamy was a greater predictor for interracial marriage then an economic or status exchange.

Yancey and Emerson (2001) also contradict exchange theory by postulating that too much focus on individual attitudes in mate selection have neglected what sociologists believe is more a property of groups.  Basically these researchers claim that the social pressures in interracial communities are lower and provide a more sympathetic environment for Black-White relationships. Yancey and Emerson claim that in contrast to exchange theory, it is equality in income and education that increase the likelihood of interracial marriage.  Rosenfeld (2005) concurs by citing "affinity theory" showing that individuals prefer homogamy because they simply enjoy each other's company. "Adults with high school educations marry each other… not because they have been rejected by the lawyers and doctors (Rosenfeld, 2005, p. 1292)." 

In addition to racial issues, Zebroski (1999) found that gender influences the support or opposition of interracial marriage.  Zebroski goes further by showing that interracial mate selection is impossible to model because the selection process is different for all four individuals involved: white women, white men, black women, and black men.  Clearly, a variety of factors affect the choice of mate. 

In conclusion, it is difficult to perform research in the area of interracial mate selection because the population of biracial marriages is so small and clustered in specific urban areas of social acceptance.  Until more specific empirical research has been accomplished on the etiological factors for interracial mate selection, it seems prudent to follow the well documented theory of homogamy rather than the outdated, unsupported theory of hypergamy.

Marital Satisfaction            One way to better understand relationship functioning within interracial couples is to explore the concept of relationship satisfaction.  Many variables have been cited and researched that have been shown to affect the subjective quality of a marriage.  This paper will focus on three concepts that are specifically relevant to interracial couples: social support, discrimination, and the emotional cost.

Social support from friends, family, and coworkers is a variable that can affect the quality of a marriage for an interracial couple.  Ren (1997) showed that increased social support in same-race marriages can predict higher marital quality.  When this fact is combined with Luke and Carrington's (2000) work showing how interracial couples receive far less social support than intraracial couples, it can be surmised that interracial couples will have lower marital quality.  On the contrary, Leslie and Letiecq (2004) found that social support was a weak predictor of marital quality for interracial couples.  Sellers, Caldwell, Schmeelk-Cone, and Zimmerman (2006) also found little evidence that young African-American males even significantly valued the outside opinions of society.  Furthermore, Troy, Lewis-Smith, and Laurenceau (2006) recently studied relationship satisfaction among young interracial and intraracial couples and found no difference in levels of satisfaction.  This research might prove that the political climate is changing and that with increased support from society, Black-White relationships will not be burdened with the problems of the past. 

In the current racial climate, Zebroski (1999) showed that white women are the most supportive of interracial marriages, but more importantly the study found that, "people who were of the same gender and race as themselves… tended to be more supportive" (p. 130). Taken together, this research is important to prove that support is on the rise and that interracial relationships are not inherently dysfunctional or deviant. Whether social support has an effect on the subjective measure of marriage quality is debatable, but certainly increased acceptance by family and friends will have a positive effect on the lives of the individuals.

Discriminatory acts are another challenge faced by Black-White couples. Although blatant racism is more commonly aimed at African-American individuals, interracial couples feel the negative effects together.  Dainton (1999) studied Black-White couples and found that 65% had experienced negative reactions publicly.  So, being white might save an individual from personal racial discrimination, but they may suffer nonetheless by being married to a person of color.  Leslie and Letiecq (2004) found that African-American males reported a great deal more experiences of discrimination than their white counterparts in interracial relationships; however, the study found no correlation between increased discrimination and lower marital quality. 

Sellers et al. (2006) demonstrated the direct link between psychological distress and perceived discrimination in African-American males.  He showed that discrimination increases individual distress and this fact can be combined with other research that shows individual distress raises couples distress and thus decreases marital quality (Snyder, Heyman, & Haynes, 2005).  So, given that discrimination of interracial couples is having the researched effect, it could serve as proof that interracial marriages face the possibility of increased distress at the greater challenges they confront compared to same-race relationships. 

If these greater challenges lower marriage quality, it begs the question why. Interdependence theory describes the value of a relationship by comparing the expectations of reward and cost in the current relationship with expectations for improvement with alternative partners (Troy, Lewis-Smith, & Laurenceau, 2006).  The research concluded that people remain in relationships in which they believe that there needs are being met in a way that they could not find elsewhere.  It has been shown that interracial couples have negative interactions with others such as family, retail workers, and strangers that cause them personal distress (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1990).  These events would certainly not be expected in an intraracial relationship thus increasing the cost to an individual for taking part in an interracial relationship (Troy, Lewis-Smith, & Laurenceau, 2006).  It could be that interracial couples, despite the costs, are having needs met by their culturally different partner that the same race individual could not offer.  If this were true, following interdependence theory, the added cost is appropriate.

In summary, marital quality seems to be a difficult concept to break down and research effectively.  It is almost impossible to tease out individual variables and definitively define and measure the quality of a relationship. When these surveys are applied to interracial marriage, the task becomes infinitely more difficult.  The research shows that social support and discrimination have little effect on the marital quality of Black-White relationships, but does this contextualize the different conflict styles and coping mechanisms in the two cultures?  Perhaps the studies that show poor marital quality for interracial couples simply prove that these couples tend to be more honest and forthcoming about their struggles (Broman, 2005).  There is clearly a need for culturally equivalent measures of marital quality. 

Therapeutic Applications

As interracial couples become a more common occurrence in couples counseling, new theories are arising to handle the growing demand.  Three theories will be covered in this section: multicultural awareness training, narrative therapy, and a contemporary psychodynamic approach.  Similar to feminist theory, all of these approaches provide an opportunity to account for social forces.  The research is mixed as to whether interracial relationships are at higher risk for marital distress than intraracial relationships, but it is generally agreed that Black-White couples face different challenges and potentially require different strategies for treatment.

One proposed therapeutic method for working with interracial couples is to raise multicultural awareness within the individuals taking part (McDowell, T., Ingoglia, L., Serizawa, T., & Holland, C. (2005).  These researchers propose using "critical conversations" to engage individuals in discussion of race, identity, and discrimination (p. 399).  The researchers encourage counselors to practice taking part in these types of conversations with each other to gain experience and better develop their knowledge and willingness to explore their own identity.  This concept is similar to what Sue and Sue (2003) call "multicultural competence" for therapists.  It can be hypothesized that a biracial couple’s need for cultural competence training is similar to that of a counselor because they are both having close, emotional interactions with individuals and families from a different race. 

Counselors play a crucial role in these "critical conversations" by creating space in therapy to explore the racial dynamics of our society and how it affects the individual (McDowell, T., Ingoglia, L., Serizawa, T., & Holland, C., 2005).  Part of partaking in culturally competent critical conversations is the understanding that individuals enter counseling at different levels of knowledge concerning social pressures. The goal of multicultural awareness therapy is to help clients challenge rather than adapt to the oppressive parts of society.  Meaningful change will occur when both personal and societal change is addressed simultaneously (McDowell, T., Ingoglia, L., Serizawa, T., & Holland, C., 2005).  Empirical proof for this method indirectly exists through the study of marital quality.  It was found that African-Americans' with a strong racial identity showed higher satisfaction with their interracial marriages (Leslie & Letiecq, 2004). Sellers et al. (2006) also found that a strong racial identity can play a crucial role in creating a "buffer" against discrimination (p. 303).   These two concepts are compelling evidence that therapeutic interventions aimed at strengthening racial identity could be a logical step toward increasing interracial marital quality. 

The narrative approach to counseling interracial couples underlines the necessity to be flexible and evaluate alternative explanations (Biever, Bobele, & North, 1998).  These researchers encourage counselors to look at similarities between the partners as well as differences in an effort to create an environment where different cultural approaches can be valued rather than opposed.  They suggest asking, "What does each partner admire in the extended family of the other?” (p. 187).  It is this curious and collaborative attitude that provides the foundation for negotiating cultural differences.  Killian (2002) worries that this attitude is difficult to promote because interracial couples buy into the dominant mentality that race is not an acceptable topic to be openly discussed.  A “dominant discourse” is defined as "a system of statements, practices, and institutional structures that share common values" (p. 606).  Killian proposes that it is the counselor's responsibility to determine when the dominant culture's discourse is being followed and suggest alternative perspectives that may open up discussion about the marginalized minority discourse.  It would seem that the "no race talk" discourse strongly affects interracial couples and could be a factor that holds these couples back from engaging in critical conversations to explore ethnic identity.  A second significant dominant discourse in the United States is a disregard for the historical impact of societal patterns (Killian, 2002).  Killian finds it convenient that, "the people who have most to lose and the least to gain from examining [history] can label it as unimportant or just plain boring" (p. 616). Again, the marginalized discourse of the US history of oppression is subverted to the detriment of the interracial couple.  This historical knowledge seems especially relevant to Black-White relationships because of the extremely tumultuous history that occurred between the true groups.  Narrative counseling proves to be an adequate theoretical framework for engaging in critical conversations and encouraging cultural exploration.

A psychodynamic approach was proposed by Waldman and Rubalcava (2005) for helping interracial couples resolve their differences.  This theory focuses on the inferences children internalize from their subjective experiences of the family of origin.  Waldman and Rubalcava contend that the sense of self is entirely contextualized by culture and that culture is, "highly significant in the construction of personal psychological organizations" (p. 234).  This personal culture model necessitates a therapist to make empathic connections with each partner regarding how they organize their experience.  Waldman and Rubalcava imagine the client's growth occurring while watching the counselor model empathic acceptance toward their partner's cultural needs.  Basically, if a partner can comprehend how cultural differences influence their relationship, they will be better prepared to cope with misunderstandings.

The common ground between all of these methods of treatment is the ability to comprehend that each individual views the world through their own personal cultural lens.  Another consistent goal is to understand that differences and similarities exist between cultures that are real and significant.  The conceptualization of the challenges that interracial couples face may be different from one theoretical orientation to another, but the final goal appears to be an increase in cultural competence for the individuals involved.  Additionally, many of the researchers agree that new therapeutic techniques are not sufficient for therapists to become competent in working with interracial couples.  It is the flexible, respectful curiosity and knowledge about cultural differences shown by the therapist that is crucial to the success of interracial couples counseling.  

Summary and Conclusion

This paper investigated the differences in relationship functioning between Black-White interracial relationships and same-race relationships.  The relevance of social support, perceived discrimination, and mate selection theories were examined.  Although it is generally agreed that Black-White couples face increased discrimination while receiving less social support, the effect of these phenomenon are inconclusive.  In addition, it remains to be seen if the current marital quality assessment tools are valid for this population of couples or if Black-White marriages are even a practical group to study. 

Significant support for culturally competent therapeutic interventions exists throughout different theoretical approaches.  A strong minority identity encouraged through constructive racial dialogue could potentially help interracial couples deal successfully with the greater challenges they face.  It is important for counselors to remember that interracial couples may all fall prey to the notion that discussions of race are inappropriate.  Counselors must realize that research shows that interracial couples do face discrimination and that the issue could be silently salient. 

A positive trend toward acceptance of interracial couples is obvious when comparing literature from the 1940s to the current decade, but, as can be seen by the political momentum for a gay marriage ban, the US still has room to grow in shedding our ties to oppression of minority groups. 



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