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Relationship, marriage classes can help families, especially low-income families — if they know about them

Published: Friday, Dec. 28 2012 7:35 p.m. MST

Marriage and relationship classes are a promising public policy tool to strengthen families, particularly those that are disadvantaged or otherwise vulnerable. But they are not an option that is well-known and not everyone can access them, according to researchers from BYU and the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center.

Such education efforts help individuals form healthy relationships and bolster existing marriages, said Alan J. Hawkins, professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University, who co-wrote a report on the subject with Theodora Ooms, a couples and marriage policy consultant with the national center. Developing skills like aligning expectations, understanding what a healthy relationship is, and learning basic relationship skills are believed to especially help those who have had little exposure to what a healthy, long-lasting marriage is, he noted.

Their article is part of the State of Our Unions 2012 annual report released in mid-December by the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values.

Marriage in "upheaval"

Marriage as an institution has been in a state of "upheaval," Ooms said, prompted in part by shifts in both sexual mores and in gender roles, such as changes wrought when women began entering the work force in large numbers. And marriage has lost significant ground in terms of numbers, with more people choosing to forgo it or to live together instead of marrying, although research consistently shows marriage to be the most stable state for families.

"It seems logical people should prepare for relationships and find out what we know about this and how we can make relationships work better," Ooms said. "We prepare for child birth and driver's education."

Education on relationships is not a new concept; starting in the late 1990s, a few states put money into healthy marriage and relationship education programs and other services designed to bolster families, reduce divorce, raise families out of poverty and make life better for children. Even before that, churches were a major provider of such education classes across the country, Hawkins said, traditionally targeting couples about to wed. Some denominations, such as the Catholic Church, require education classes to marry a couple within the auspices of the church. Increasingly, though, such classes are being offered in other settings and sometimes target individuals who are not even yet in a relationship, such as high school or college students or single parents or those who are incarcerated.

The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 included the Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Act, offering $150 million a year for five years in the form of grants to community groups to set up demonstration projects on relationship education. In 2011, the money was renewed for three more years.

Still, efforts don't always reach those who would most benefit from them, Ooms and Hawkins said.

Poverty and Marriage

"The problem for many, particularly the less-educated, lower-income couples, is they are less likely to be connected to a college or university and less likely to be connected to a local congregation. Many of these classes are done through community service agencies that are already helping the poor through the other needs they have going on. They are adding them to their portfolio of services," Hawkins said.

Class offerings vary, but they typically provide relationship skills, including positive communication skills and more effective problem solving. The other common piece, said Hawkins, is dealing with and meshing expectations. "Those are often kind of misaligned," he said, "and people have a tendency these days to slide into relationships rather than slow down and find out more about each other."

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