What is a Healthy Marriage?

Healthy, long lasting marriages can take many different forms. Healthy marriages go through difficult periods. Experts agree there is no single "cookie cutter" approach to having a healthy marriage. However, researchers have identified the following core characteristics that most healthy marriages share:

  • commitment to each other over the long haul
  • positive communication
  • ability to resolve disagreements and handle conflicts nonviolently
  • emotional and physical safety in interaction
  • sexual and psychological fidelity
  • mutual respect
  • spending enjoyable time together
  • providing emotional support and companionship
  • mutual commitment to their children

For further information see: Child Trends' Research Brief: What is "Healthy Marriage?" Defining the Concept the NHMRC brief; What is the Healthy Marriage Field? What is a Healthy Marriage.

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Why are Healthy Marriages Important?

Healthy marriages are important to individuals, children and society as a whole for many reasons, but here are some of the major ones:

A healthy marriage is the best environment in which to raise children. Researchers agree that children whose parents do not stay together, or who grow up in a family where their parents are in continuous, serious conflict, are less likely to do well in life than children who are raised by their two biological or adoptive parents in a low-conflict, healthy marriage. Children raised by single parents are considerably more likely to be poor and experience the disadvantages associated with poverty, and they are at higher risk of having cognitive, emotional and social problems. See: Are Married Parents Really Better for Children? a CLASP policy brief by Mary Parke.

A healthy marriage remains a very widely held and highly rated personal goal. Surveys have repeatedly found that more than 80% of young people and adults from all racial, ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds say that having a happy long lasting marriage is among their most important life goals. See the NHMRC Press Release – February 19, 2009.

A healthy marriage brings many economic and health benefits to individuals. Individuals who sustain a healthy marriage generally earn more and save more, are more likely to be in good physical and emotional health, and report having happy and satisfying lives. See: Institute for American Values' publication: Why Marriage Matters, Second edition.: Twenty Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences.

Healthy marriages save taxpayers a lot of money. The continuing high rates of divorce and unwed childbearing have increased the costs of welfare and other income support programs, and of numerous education, justice, health and social programs. Moreover since single parents earn less income, tax revenues are decreased. A recent estimate, using conservative assumptions, calculated that current rates of family "fragmentation" cost taxpayers at least $112 billion a year. See: Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing., First-Ever Estimates for the Nation and All Fifty States, published by the Institute for American; and Why Marriage Matters, Second edition.: Twenty Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences also published by the Institute for American.

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What does the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center (NHMRC) Do?

The National Healthy Marriage Resource Center (NHMRC) is a clearinghouse for high quality, balanced, and timely information and resources on healthy marriage. The NHMRC’s mission is to be a first stop for information, resources, and training on healthy marriage for experts, researchers, policymakers, media, marriage educators, couples and individuals, program providers, and others. Learn more About Us.

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What are Marriage and Relationship Education Programs?

Marriage and relationship education (MRE) programs provide information and teach attitudes, skills and behaviors designed to help individuals and couples achieve long-lasting, happy, and successful marriages and intimate partner relationships. This includes making wise partner choices and avoiding or leaving abusive relationships. MRE can help single parents (never-married, separated or divorced) learn to co-parent effectively when this is appropriate, and have more successful relationships in the future.

MRE programs teach couples skills to use in their daily lives, including communication skills, ways to resolve conflict safely and effectively, and how to raise children and manage finances together.

Marriage and relationship information and education can be provided to the general public through media campaigns, websites, fact sheets, brochures, self-guided internet courses and other community outlets. Most commonly, MRE refers to structured programs, classes and workshops provided to groups of couples and individuals offered on a voluntary basis in the community, churches, campuses or schools.

MRE aims to be preventative in nature. It is generally distinguished from individualized or couples counseling and therapy, which is intended for those who are in serious distress.

For further information, see the CLASP brief: The New Kid on the Block: What is Marriage Education and Does it Work? by Theodora Ooms; the NHMRC brief What is the Healthy Marriage Field? and the NHMRC listing of MRE Curricula and Programs offered throughout the fifty states.

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Who Can Benefit from Marriage and Relationship Education (MRE)?

Individuals and couples throughout all stages of their lives and from many different racial, ethnic, economic and cultural backgrounds can benefit from marriage and relationship information and education. This includes high school students, young adults, engaged and married couples, couples living together, remarried, retired, and same sex couples.

MRE is typically considered preventative in nature and is designed to head off serious problems. However MRE is also often very helpful to individuals and couples whose relationships are in serious difficulty (though, by itself it may not be enough). Some of the relationship skills that are learned in these programs can be transferred to help the participants have better relationships in other settings such as in the workplace, as parents, and as citizens.

For further information, see the NHMRC's sister website, Two of Us, an interactive website with MRE information for individuals and couples; and see the CLASP policy brief, Adapting Healthy Marriage Programs for Disadvantaged and Culturally Diverse Populations: What are the issues? by Theodora Ooms.

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Do Healthy Marriage Programs Work? What Do We Mean by a Successful Program?

The simple answer to these complex questions is that the evidence to date shows that marriage and relationship education is a promising intervention that provides benefits to participants. Couples and individuals who come to these programs are generally very satisfied and report that they benefit in many ways. But we need to wait on the results of longitudinal studies using rigorous experimental designs to learn more about the long term effectiveness of MRE.

Many MRE programs and curricula state they are evidence-based, meaning they are grounded in decades of research about factors that help marriages succeed or fail. This research also shows that new behaviors and skills can be learned to help marriages and relationships succeed. Numerous studies, including meta-analytic reviews, confirm improved couple communication and higher rates of relationship satisfaction in couples who participated. In the few studies that have tracked long term outcomes, there is some evidence of a lower likelihood of marital breakup.

Additional benefits believed to result from these programs include improvements in child well-being, empowering individuals to end violent or harmful relationships and deciding not to marry if they are in an unhealthy relationship. Participants may also be able to use the program as a gateway to get help for serious problems (such as substance use, depression, and physical or emotional abuse), and these programs can also increase the likelihood that participants will seek help later on when they may face serious problems in their relationship.

For further information, see: Marriage Education and Government Policy: Helping Couples Who Choose Marriage Achieve Success by Scott Stanley, Howard Markman, and Natalie Jenkins; and the CLASP policy brief, The New Kid on the Block: What is Marriage Education and Does it Work? by Theodora Ooms; and The Future of Our ChildrenLINK[http://futureofchildren.org/] publication.

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What is the Federal Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI)?

In 2002, the federal government, through the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) launched a Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI) designed to "help couples who have chosen marriage for themselves, gain greater access to marriage education services, on a voluntary basis where they can acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain a healthy marriage."

In 2005, the welfare reform reauthorization bill, called the Deficit Reduction Act, included provisions that established the Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Program. This provided $150 million each year for five years to support programs designed to help couples form and sustain healthy marriage and promote responsible fatherhood ($100 million for healthy marriage and up to $50 million for responsible fatherhood). In addition, ACF funds a substantial research and evaluation program related to healthy marriage. Since 2002, roughly 300 healthy marriage programs have been funded in communities throughout the USA.

Important components of the Federal HMI are specific outreach efforts to different racial, ethnic and cultural populations namely: the African American Healthy Marriage Initiative (AAHMI), the Hispanic Healthy Marriage Initiative (HHMI), and the Asian Pacific Islander Healthy Marriage and Family Strengthening Initiative (APIHMFS).

For further information, see Marriage Education and Government Policy: Helping Couples Who Choose Marriage Achieve Success by Scott Stanley, Howard Markman, and Natalie Jenkins; the NHMRC brief: ACF Healthy Marriage Initiative, 2002-2008 An Introductory Guide;and the Federal Healthy Marriage Initiative at the Administration for Children and Families.

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How Can I Get Help with My Marriage / Relationship?

Many individuals and couples are interested in learning how to have a healthy marriage before they "tie the knot" or, once married, before they run into trouble. Others realize they need assistance when they hit the first major bump in the road, for example, dealing with the stress many couples go through after the birth of their first child, or after living with a long period of financial stress, or a serious illness.

There may be a MRE program near you. You can do an initial search for programs on the NHMRC's Programs and Initiatives page. But, there may also be a program sponsored by a local church or community center in your area that is not listed. For further information the NHMRC's sister website, Two of Us, an interactive website with MRE information for individuals and couples that you may find helpful.

Other couples need help when they run into serious trouble with their relationship, such as discovering their partner has been unfaithful, or seems unable to give up their alcohol addiction. In these situations marriage and relationship education programs can be a useful first step to turning things around with your partner, but you will probably need specialized counseling to adequately deal with these issues. Men, in particular, are typically more comfortable learning about these issues in group workshops or classes first — rather than in individual counseling sessions — where they can hear other men and women talk about the similar challenges they face in their relationships, and learn new skills that can help them get along better. Some marriage education classes, such as Retrouvaille are tailored specifically to helping marriages in serious crisis.

If you are, or think you may be in an abusive or violent relationship, where you are fearful of your partner, who may be trying to control you, you should contact your local domestic violence program listed in the yellow pages, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.

If you believe that more individualized, one-on-one marriage or relationship counseling is what you need, look for a qualified marriage or family therapist, psychologist or licensed professional counselor in your community. These have professional masters or doctoral degrees and are licensed by the state. However you should ask whether they have specific training in couple's therapy/counseling, since many do not. The following resources may help you find a local therapist/counselor: