Table of Contents:
The emerging field of marriage and relationship education (MRE), in which the federal government and numerous states have invested substantial funding, seeks to promote relationship stability and prevent future break-up by teaching couples communication and conflict resolution skills. It differs from therapy in that it seeks to reach couples before major conflict occurs. MRE can often be taught by lay people with proper training, and is a relatively short course of instruction- usually between 8 and 20 hours over a weekend or period of weeks.
There is now substantial research that examines the effectiveness of these programs and their ability to bolster communication skills and couples' relationship satisfaction as well as encourage marriage and decrease the odds of relationship dissolution. Most of the research to date has focused on a largely White, middle class population. More recent studies are shedding light on MRE's ability to impact low-income as well as ethnically diverse populations (e.g., African Americans, Hispanics). Still other research is focusing on lessons learned from implementing these programs. This collection presents the evidence base to date on the effectiveness of MRE programs as well as challenges and best practices in implementing these programs. The sources are presented in chronological order.
Any views expressed in the papers and resources presented in this Collection do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the NHMRC.
The NHMRC would like to thank Jane Koppelman, MPA of the Lewin Group and Alan Hawkins, PhD, of Brigham Young University for their contributions to the development of this Collection. This is a product of the NHMRC, led by co-directors Mary Myrick, APR, and Jeanette Hercik, PhD, and project manager Rich Batten, ThM, MEd, CFLE.
Randomized control trials (RCT): In this approach, participants are enrolled in the study and measured on key variables such as relationship well-being. They are then randomly assigned either to a treatment group that receives the intervention or to a control group that does not receive the intervention. Through random assignment, individuals/couples have an equal chance of being assigned to either of the groups; the process creates two groups that are comparable. After the intervention, both groups of study participants are measured again on key outcomes and averages for both groups on all of the outcomes are calculated.
Pilot Study: A pilot study is a standard scientific tool allowing researchers to conduct a preliminary analysis before conducting rigorous research.
Meta-analytic study: Meta-analysis is a set of systematic procedures for identifying all of the research on a particular topic (including unpublished research such as dissertations and policy group research that does not get into the academic journals) and then combining the findings of those studies for further analysis.
Program Implementation Study: In an implementation or process evaluation, researchers examine how the intervention is implemented, often gathering data through on-site observations, interviews with leaders and staff, case file and administrative data reviews, and interviews with participants.
Between 1975 and the mid 2000s, over 150 evaluations were conducted on MRE programs. About one-third of these were randomized control trials. Most of the participants were middle class, well-educated couples (either married or engaged) who were in low-distress relationships. The studies focused largely on MRE's ability to improve couple communication skills and relationship satisfaction. Many tracked participants' results after the program, but only a few followed them for longer than six months. Research described in this section highlights some of these early findings. The studies are presented in chronological order.
Markman, H. J., Renick, M. J., Floyd, F., Stanley, S., & Clements, M. (1993). Preventing marital distress through communication and conflict management training: A four and five year follow-up. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 61, 70-77. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.61.1.70
Four and five year follow-up data from the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement (PREP) program (Stanley & Markman, et al), show that participating couples, when compared with control group couples, had higher levels of positive and lower levels of negative communication, as well as lower levels of marital violence.
Butler, M. H., & Wampler, K. S. (1999). A meta-analytic update of research on the Couple Communication program. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 27, 223-237. doi: 10.1080/019261899261943
A meta-analysis of 16 Couple Communication studies found improvements in couple communication and moderate couple-perceived changes. The training is effective, the authors note, but not substantially so than other communication training programs.
Carroll, J. S. & Doherty, W. J. (2003). Evaluating the Effectiveness of Premarital Prevention Programs: A Meta-analytic Review of Outcome Research. Family Relations, 52, 105-118.
This comprehensive review reported results indicating that the average person who participated in a premarital prevention program was significantly better off afterwards than 79% of people who did not participate. Findings suggest that premarital prevention programs are generally effective in producing immediate and short-term gains in interpersonal skills and overall relationship quality, conclusions about long-term effectiveness remain elusive.
Jakubowski, S., Milne, E., Brunner, H. & Miller, R. (2004). A Review of Empirically Supported Marital Enrichment Programs. Family Relations, 53(5), 528-536.
This is a comprehensive review of the outcome research on 13 specific marital enrichment programs. Only four programs could be considered "efficacious," three were found to be "possibly efficacious," and six were considered "empirically untested."
Stanley, S. M., Allen, E. S., Markman, H. J., Saiz, C. C., Bloomstrom, G., Thomas, R., Schumm, W. R., & Baily, A. E. (2005). Dissemination and evaluation of marriage education in the Army. Family Process, 44, 187-201.
The Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) was well received by the Army population and resulted in improvements in relationship functioning, with no significant differences in changes among males and females or among couples of different ethnicities.
Cowan C. P., Cowan, P. A., & Heming, G. (2005). Two variations of a preventive intervention for couples: Effects on parents and children during the transition to school. In P. A. Cowan, C. P. Cowan, H. Ablow, V. K. Johnson, & J. R. Measelle (Eds.), The family context of parenting in children's adaptation to elementary school (pp. 277-312). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Family relationships that are more positive and satisfactory during the pre-school period may allow children to enter elementary school more able to meet the challenges of this transition.
Stanley, S. M., Amato, P. R., Johnson, C. A., & Markman H. J. (2006). Premarital Education, Marital Quality and Marital Stability: Findings from a Large, Random Household Survey. Journal of Family Psychology, 20, 117-126.
Using a large random survey of 4 middle American states, the authors found that participation in premarital education was associated with higher levels of satisfaction and commitment in marriage and lower levels of conflict-and also reduced odds of divorce. These estimated effects were robust across race, income (including among the poor), and education levels, which suggests that participation in premarital education is generally beneficial for a wide range of couples.
Cowan, C. P., Cowan, P. A., Pruett, M. K. & Pruett, K. (2007). An Approach to Preventing Coparenting Conflict and Divorce in Low-Income Families: Strengthening Couple Relationships and Fostering Father's Involvement. Family Process, 46, 109-121.
In the context of current concern about levels of marital distress, family violence, and divorce, the SFI study is evaluating the effectiveness of an intervention to facilitate the positive involvement of low-income Mexican American and European American fathers with their children, in part by strengthening the men's relationships with their children's mothers. This article presents the rationale, design, and intervention approach to father involvement for families whose relationships are at risk because of the hardships of their lives, many of whom are manifesting some degree of individual or relationship distress.
Hawkins, A. J., Blanchard, V. L., Baldwin, S. A., & Fawcett, E. B. (2008). Does marriage and relationship education work? A meta-analytic study. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 76, 723-734. doi: 10.1037/a0012584
This meta-analysis of 117 studies examined the efficacy of MRE on relationship quality and communication skills for mostly middle-class, white, educated couples. In experimental studies effect sizes for improved relationship quality were modest as were communication skills effects.
Blanchard, V. L., Hawkins, A. J., Baldwin, S. A., & Fawcett, E. B. (2009). Investigating the effects of marriage and relationship education on couples' communication skills: A meta-analytic study. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 203-214. doi: 10.1037/a0015211
A review of 143 evaluations found that MRE programs provide modest evidence of effects at longer term follow-ups for well-functioning couples, and at post- assessment and shorter- term follow-ups for more distressed couples.
Fawcett, E. B., Hawkins, A. J., Blanchard, V. L., & Carroll, J. S. (2010). Do premarital education programs really work? A meta-analytic study. Family Relations, 59, 232-239.
Studies employing observational measures found large positive effects for premarital education programs, which thus appear to be effective at improving couple communication . The authors did not find the same effects for studies using self-reports, and conclude from their review of 47 studies that there are wide variations and room for improvement in the practice of premarital education.
Hahlweg, K. & Richter, D. (2010). Prevention and marital instability and distress: Results of an 11-year longitudinal follow-up study. Behaviour Research & Therapy, 48, 377-383.
Long term effects on participants in Ein Partnerschaftliches Lernprogramm, a Learning Program for Married Couples, or EPL were investigated. At follow up, EPL participants had a significantly lower divorce and separation rate (27.5%) than controls; 80% of couples who were still together reported happy marriages; and 70% of partners remembered at least one listening skill.
Pinquart, M., & Teubert, D. (2010). A meta-analytic study of couple interventions during the transition to parenthood. Family Relations, 59, 221-231.
Of 21 controlled couple-focused interventions, on average there were small-to-moderate effects on couple communication and psychological well-being, and very small effects on couple adjustment to parenthood. Closer analysis showed that stronger effects emerged from interventions including an antenatal and postnatal component, having more than five sessions, and those led by professionals.
This section reports on marriage and relationship education programs funded by the federal government and some states. In 2002, the federal government began investing in MRE programs for low-income, less-educated couples. These couples tend to have lower rates of marriage, higher rates of divorce and relationship dissolution, and are least likely to have access to MRE programs than those with higher income and education levels. In 2005, 125 five-year programs with this focus were funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Family Assistance. As of 2010, about 300 demonstration programs and initiatives have been funded by the federal government and states.
Most of these programs are not undergoing rigorous evaluation, but the federal government is investing in three large-scale studies of program impact and implementation effectiveness. Several others are being rigorously evaluated by nongovernment entities.
James Bell Associates (2009). Emerging Findings from the Office of Family Assistance Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Grant Programs: A Review of Select Grantee Profiles and Promising Results.
This report summarizes service models, activities, and preliminary outcomes of a select group of Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood grantees funded under the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005.
Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Pruett, M. K., Pruett, K. D., & Wong, J. J. (2009). Promoting fathers' engagement with children: Preventative interventions for low-income families. Journal of Marriage & Family, 71, 663-679.
Interventions were delivered to primarily low-income Mexican American and European American families to enhance fathers' engagement with their children. Intervention families were followed for eighteen months. There were small-to-medium positive effects on fathers' engagement with their children, and on children's problem behaviors. Positive effects were consistent across race and income, and for married and unmarried couples, as well as for more and less distressed couples. Participants in couples' groups showed more consistent, longer term positive effects than those in fathers-only groups.
Cox, R. B., Jr., & Shirer, K. A. (2009). Caring For My Family: A Pilot Study of a Relationship and Marriage Education Program for Low-Income Unmarried Parents. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 8, 343-364.
A pilot study (N = 85) showed that Caring for My Family (CFMF) holds promise for changing the attitudes and behaviors of couples across a number of outcome variables, including their co-parenting relationship, relationship readiness, trust, and negative communication.
Wood, G, McConnell Quinn, S., Moore, K., Clarkwest, A., Hsueh, J. (2010) Strengthening Unmarried Parents' Relationships: The Early Impacts of Building Strong Families. Washington, D.C. Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.
The Building Strong Families program (BSF) served more than 5,000 low-income unmarried expectant/new parents. When evaluation results were averaged across the eight program sites, at about 1-year after program conclusion, BSF did not make couples more likely to stay together or get married. It also did not improve relationship quality. However, across the sites, African American couples increased their constructive conflict management; decreased destructive conflict behaviors; were more likely to be faithful; less likely to experience abuse; and more likely to be better co-parents. See Implementation Lessons below.
Hawkins, A. J., & Fackrell, T. A. (2010). Does couple education for low-income couples work? A meta-analytic study of emerging research. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 9, 181-191.
This article reports on a meta-analytic study of 15 MRE programs targeted predominantly to lower-income couples, and found small to moderate positive effects overall. These effects are relatively similar to those found for MRE studies with middle-income participants and for studies of other family-support educational programs.
Kerpelman, J., Pittman, J., Adler-Baeder, F., Eryigit, S., Paulk, A. (2009). Evaluation of a statewide youth-focused relationships education curriculum. Journal of Adolescence, 32, 1359-1370.
This research project examined the effectiveness of a youth-focused relationships education curriculum, in order to inform practices in relationship education for adolescents. Findings from pre and post-intervention assessments and from two follow-up surveys provide evidence of program success and offer key insights for the development of an effective model of relationships education tailored for adolescents.
Kerpelman, J., Pittman, J., Adler-Baeder, F., Stringer, K., Eryigit, S., Cadely, H. S., & Harrell-Levy, M. (2010). What adolescents bring to and learn from relationships education classes: Does social address matter? Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 9, 95-112.
Results of an adolescent relationship intervention in Alabama indicated that the intervention group changed in terms of correcting faulty relationship beliefs and relationship skills.
Stanley, S. M., Allen, E. S., Markman, H. J., Rhoades, G. K., & Prentice, D. L. (2010). Decreasing divorce in U.S. Army couples: Results from a randomized controlled trial using PREP for Strong Bonds. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 9, 149-160.
In a large sample of lower-income, married U.S. Army couples, couples were randomly assigned to either a PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) for Strong Bonds treatment delivered by Army chaplains, or to a no-treatment control group. One year after the intervention, couples who received the PREP program had a 2% rate of divorce compared to the control-group couples' 6.2% divorce rate.
Program implementation studies are conducted to examine if a program is being carried out as intended. They answer critical questions such as whether the program is reaching its target audience, whether it is being marketed adequately, whether participants are completing the program (and if not, why not), whether the curriculum is being implemented with fidelity, and participants' opinions about the program. This information is crucial to understanding what may be contributing to a program's success (or lack thereof), and whether the program has worked out its "bugs" so that it can be rigorously evaluated. Research described in this section offers lessons from the implementation of federally funded and state funded MRE programs, as well as some community-based programs, curricula and specific target populations.
Adler-Baeder, F., & Higginbotham, B. (2004). Implications of Remarriage and Stepfamily Formation for Marriage Education. Family Relations, 53, 448-458.
Couples in remarriages with stepchildren are a significant portion of the marriage population and have unique educational needs regarding aspects of couple functioning within the context of stepfamily development. Information is offered on implementation issues regarding recruitment, delivery context, facilitator and participant characteristics, and evaluation.
Hawkins, A. J., Carroll, J. S., Doherty, W. J. & Willoughby, B. (2004). A Comprehensive Framework for Marriage Education. Family Relations, 53, 547-558
Authors offer a framework to help marriage educators think more thoroughly, systematically, and creatively about intervention opportunities to strengthen marriage and draw attention to the educational dimensions of content, intensity, methods, timing, setting, target, and delivery, and their implications for marriage education.
Bowling, T., Hill, C., & Jencius, M. (2005). An Overview of Marriage Enrichment. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 44 (1), 87-94.
A brief overview of the history of marriage enrichment is followed by summaries and research associated with five of the leading marriage enrichment programs and research (ACME, TIME, Relationship Enhancement, PREPARE/ENRICH, and PREP). Participants' views of outcomes and future directions for marriage enrichment are discussed.
Dion, M. R. (2005). Healthy Marriage Programs: Learning What Works. Marriage and Child Wellbeing. The Future of Children. The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution.
The author first describes a number of marriage education programs, many of which have been evaluated and have been shown effective in increasing couple communication and satisfaction. However, most of the highlighted programs do not address specific issues experienced by low income couples.
Bir, A., Greene, J., Pilkauskas, N., & Root, E. (2005) Piloting a community approach to healthy marriage initiatives: Early implementation of the Healthy Marriages Healthy Relationships demonstration – Grand Rapids, Michigan. Prepared for the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation.
This report analyzes the early implementation of a section 1115 child support waiver demonstration project in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It provides evidence that a local community coalition can leverage sufficient resources to stimulate a substantial amount of marriage-related and family relationship activities at a modest cost.
Joshi, P., Pilkauskas, N., Bir, A. & Lerman, R (2008). Piloting a community approach to healthy marriage initiatives in three sites: Chicago, Illinois; Boston, Massachusetts; and Jacksonville, Florida. Prepared for the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation.
Three sites supporting MRE and child support activities are focused on in this report: Boston, MA.; Jacksonville, FL; and Chicago, IL. It examines three different approaches and shows how various organizations leverage their strengths and abilities to get their projects up and running.
Bir, A., Pilkauskas, N., Root, E., Lerman, R., Obrien, C. ,Winston M. (2005) Piloting a Community Approach to Healthy Marriage Initiatives: Early Implementation of the Healthy Families Nampa Demonstration. Prepared for the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation.
The early implementation of a section 1115 child support waiver demonstration project in Nampa, Idaho, is analyzed. The authors find that a local community coalition can leverage sufficient resources to stimulate a substantial amount of marriage-related and family relationship activities at a modest cost.
Dion, M. R., Avellar, S. A., Zaveri, H. H., Strong, D. A., Hershey, A. M., Silman, T. J., & Santos, B. (2008). The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative: A process evaluation. Washington, DC: Mathematica Policy Research.
This evaluation examined the implementation of a statewide marriage initiative and found that: 1) identifying an ongoing stream of prospective participants from reliable referral sources facilitates recruitment; 2) existing infrastructure– such as an established enrollment process, pre-existing classes, and reliable venue– supports efficient delivery; and 3) delivering a curriculum that meets the target population's needs is essential to engaging both service providers and participants.
Dion, M. R., Hershey, A. M., Zaveri, H. H., Avellar, S. A., Strong, D. A., Silman, T., & Moore, R. (2008). Implementation of the Building Strong Families program. Washington D.C.: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.
A report on 2,684 Building Strong Families (BSF) couples found that participants viewed the BSF program as a positive experience and described how the program helped them learn to handle conflict and control their anger, which benefited their relationship as a couple as well as interactions with their children and others in their lives.
McGroder, S., & Cenizal, R. for The National Healthy Marriage Resource Center (2009). Healthy Marriage and Relationship Programs: Promising Practices in Serving Low-Income and Culturally Diverse Populations.
To be sustainable, this guide contends that programs need to have promising practices in all areas of programming: designing MRE programs, developing program infrastructure, and implementing the programs. Programs also need to be equipped to address the needs of diverse populations.
Miller-Gaubert, J. (2010) Lessons from the Supporting Healthy Marriage Program, MDRC. PowerPoint Presentation delivered at National Healthy Marriage Resource Center webinar on June 30, 2010.
The Supporting Healthy Marriage (SHM) project enrolled 6,300 low-income married couples with children. The evaluation team found the following successful strategies: hiring sales-oriented recruiters, marketing the program's benefits (instead of its features), continuous personal contact with participants, instruction that is fun and engaging, classes scheduled at convenient times, training staff, and holding staff accountable to performance standards.
Skogrand, L., Reck, K. H., Higginbotham, B., Adler-Baeder, F., & Dansie, L. (2010). Recruitment and retention for stepfamily education. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 9, 48-65.
The authors examined recruitment and retention strategies used by 10 different agencies that offer the Smart Steps program to low-income stepfamilies. Incentives, minimizing costs, and removing logistical barriers were found to be important for recruitment and retention. Additional strategies included the cultivation of trust, using personal contacts, involving children and incentivizing youth attendance, tapping into the interests and motivations of potential participants, and advertising common stepfamily problems conjointly with the promise of helpful solutions.
Hyra, A. (2010) Providing Culturally Grounded Services to Hispanic Families: Early Lessons Learned from the Hispanic Healthy Marriage Initiative Grantee Implementation Evaluation
This presentation was given at the Office of Family Assistance's annual grantee conference and shows some of the early lessons learned from grantees serving Hispanic populations.
As of 2010, final results from three large-scale federal MRE evaluations are expected over the next three years, which will shed more light on the ability of MRE programs to improve couple communication and satisfaction, lower divorce and increase marriage rates, and improve child well- being among low-income couples and families-both in the short and longer term. This section includes information on these federal evaluations, one article in press that examines the impact of the curriculum Within My Reach on low-income couples, and a report of lessons learned from practitioners of marriage education.
Building Strong Families (2002-2011)
DHHS launched Building Strong Families in 2002 to serve more than 5,000 low-income unmarried parents recruited around the birth of their first child.. The program offers up to 42 hours of group instruction over six months; family coordinators provide individual and couple case management (or family support) and refer couples to needed services. Early impact results based on a 15-month follow-up are reported in Wood et al., 2010 (see earlier summary in Second Generation Studies). Longer-term results based on the 36-month follow-up will be available in 2012.
Supporting Healthy Marriage (2003-2013)
The SHM project is the first large-scale, multisite, multiyear, rigorous test of marriage education programs for low-income married couples.. Participants receive 24-30 hours of weekly instructional workshops, booster sessions and other family events over the course of one year, and family support coordinators reinforce instruction and refer to other services. An interim report on the program's impacts — on couple and family functioning, including child health and wellbeing — is due in 2010, and longer term impacts will be reported in 2013.
Community Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education (2003-2011).
Funded by DHHS' Administration for Children and Families (ACF), the Community Healthy Marriage Initiative (CHMI) is assessing the effectiveness of community interventions designed to encourage healthy marriages and improve child well-being among low-income families. An impact evaluation will compare three low-income communities hosting this initiative and will be available in 2011.
Articles in Press
Antle, B. F., Sar, B. K., Christensen, D. N., Ellers, F. S., Karam, E. A., Barbee, A. P., & van Zyl, M. A. (in press). The impact of Within My Reach relationship training on relationship skills and outcomes for low-income individuals. Journal of Marital & Family Therapy.
Results indicate that participants experience high levels of satisfaction with the training, significant increases in knowledge and communication/conflict resolution skills, improvements in relationship quality, and a trend in the reduction of relationship aggression. Lessons learned in the implementation of such programs, specifically effective strategies for recruitment and retention of low-income populations, are discussed.
Hawkins, A. J. & Ooms, T. (2010). What Works in Marriage and Relationship Education? A Review of Lessons Learned with a Focus on Low-Income Couples. National Healthy Marriage Resource Center.
This report reviews and synthesizes the lessons emerging from evaluation research and practitioner experience to address two related questions: (a) What have we learned about the design and implementation of government-sponsored MRE programs? and (b) What do we know about the effects of these programs on participants, especially low-income populations?