Romantic relationships provide people with ample benefits. For example, people in satisfying and healthy romantic relationships report better well-being and life satisfaction. In fact, quality romantic relationships can reduce your mortality rate. Research from Holt-Lunstad and colleagues indicates that people without close relationships, those who perceive social isolation, have an increased likelihood of mortality. Obviously, romantic relationships are important. Not just for our own well-being but for greater lifespans.

However, some relationships, such as interracial relationships, have to navigate challenges before reaping the many benefits that quality romantic relationships provide. A significant challenge that interracial couples must navigate is racial discrimination. Many relationships, such as same-gender relationships, are the targets of societal discrimination. However, interracial couples are unique in that each partner has different levels of experience with racial discrimination in cases in which there is a White partner in the couple.

To highlight this, consider the 2013 Cheerios commercial that featured a White mother, a Black father, and their daughter. This 30-second clip of an interracial couple caused such a controversy that YouTube had to close the comment section of this video almost immediately. To some, this was surprising. However, people who have had first-hand experience with discrimination, although unfortunate, felt it was expected. For example, Andre Meadows, the creator of the Black Nerd Comedy channel, stated, "When you get comments, it seems to be targeted toward race almost immediately. A lot of people get 'dumb video, stupid video'—but with mine it immediately goes to racial slurs." This example highlights that situations such as the Cheerios commercial are perceived differently based on people's prior experience with racial discrimination. 

It is important to consider that partners in interracial couples, especially when one partner is White, have differing levels of experience with racial discrimination. Racial discrimination is undoubtedly worse for the minority partner. However, the White partner can end the relationship in order to stop their experience of racial discrimination. This may be one of many contributors to the higher breakup and divorce rates among interracial couples.

But Not All Interracial Couples Break Up

In fact, some couples report better relationship quality after experiencing discrimination. This latter point got us thinking about why some of these couples are reporting better outcomes. What is happening for the couples who are reporting better relationship quality after such an adverse experience? Perhaps for some, experiencing discrimination provides an opportunity to learn more about the world and see the world through others' eyes in a really profound way.

This process of seeing the world through a partner's view refers to the process of self-expansion. People inherently look for ways to expand their selves to take on more perspectives, experiences, and worldviews. According to research by Aron and colleagues, people have several pathways to self-expand, but perhaps the most potent is through romantic relationships. In fact, when couples engage in self-expansion, either alone or with their partner, they report better relationship quality.

When considering people in interracial relationships, racial discrimination may provide White partners an opportunity to learn more about their partner's worldviews and experiences. In doing so, it has the potential to facilitate greater self-expansion. This further made us question why some White partners may be perceiving racial discrimination as a self-expanding experience but not others. Perhaps, there is another process that people have to engage in as well.

Consider Perspective Taking

Considering another person's point of view requires a lot of mental effort. Thus, people do not always engage in perspective-taking. Yet perspective-taking is certainly worth the effort as it has been shown to increase perceived closeness with outgroup members and increase empathy for others.

When thinking about the experience of racial discrimination, we proposed and found in four studies that White partners who consider their partner's perspective when recalling an event of discrimination experienced a broadening of their worldview, which in turn, predicted better relationship quality.

For example, in one study, participants were asked to either write about a time in which they experienced discrimination with their partner or a time in which their car broke down with their partner present. We then asked them to report on how much they try to take their partner's perspective (e.g., "Right now, how much do you think you try to take your partner's perspective on things"). In addition, they reported how much their worldview was broadened at the moment and how committed and satisfied they were with their relationship. We found that people who wrote about a time in which they experienced discrimination, and perceived a great deal of perspective-taking, did report a broadening of their worldview. This broadening of one's worldview predicted people to be more satisfied and committed to their relationship.

With over 11 million interracial couples in the United States, it is vital to understand ways to mitigate the negative effects of discrimination on people in interracial relationships. The additional challenge of navigating discrimination can add additional stress to the relationship. People who experience chronic stress in their relationships, such as interracial couples, report worse overall health (including poor sleep quality, high blood pressure, worse mental health, more chronic conditions, and lower mortality rates). Our work investigates the role of perspective-taking and self-expansion in buffering against the adverse effects of discrimination to protect relationship quality. By preserving these relationships, couple members can reap the host of benefits associated with being in healthy romantic relationships, such as greater physical health (such as lower blood pressure) and mental health (such as fewer depressive symptoms) and lower mortality rates.

For Further Reading

Caselli, A. J., & Machia, L. V. (2022). Discrimination is not just Black and White in romantic relationships: A consideration of perspective taking and self-expansion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 123(4), 741–762.

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science10(2), 227-237.

Abigail Caselli, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, is a social psychologist whose research examines how the social context, relationship context, and the self interact, with the overall goal of understanding how people can achieve optimal well-being.