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."
The move to offer such education well in advance of forming relationships — to teach relationship skills when people are young and not part of a couple, for example — has been a shift that has placed education efforts in jails and prisons, welfare programs and classrooms.
There are few studies on the topic, and most that exist haven't been able to look at long-term impacts, but it appears the biggest gains are among the low-income and minority populations, Ooms said. "They get the most out of the classes, if you can figure out how to get them there," she said, noting they have barriers like transportation and work schedules that sometimes make it difficult.
"I've known a lot of skeptical policy wonks who thought this was squishy stuff, but when they visited programs like one in Oklahoma (a large demonstration project on which she consults), they were convinced. 'I wish I'd had this for my marriage,'" she said.
"There aren't very many of these programs and most communities don't have them," Ooms said. "Yet even small positive outcomes save a huge amount of money" that is otherwise the cost of disintegrating families.
The impact reaches across levels, from reducing need for social-welfare programs to helping people choose better relationships and maintain them. Still, the researchers note, there is much studying on the topic to be done. Programs are not uniform in their value and many of them have attracted and perhaps even targeted audiences that don't benefit the most from them. For instance, the first generation of marriage and relationship education program evaluation research found moderate positive effects, but were focused almost exclusively on middle-class white couples, according to findings of a study in the Journal of Family Psychology in 2009.
A controlled trial called "The Supporting Healthy Marriage" program studied low-income married couples in marriage education and support services and reported small, but significant positive effects even a year after the program. Hawkins and Ooms said that emerging research is also showing potential for relationship education services to help at-risk youths, low-income cohabiting young adults and couples in step families, though more research is needed. And they noted that more financial investment in such programs "was associated with small but significant effects on family stability and child poverty.
"Overall, the results were mixed, but we believe they are encouraging," they wrote in the report. "Important limitations and gaps in studies of marriage and relationship interventions remain. For example, in the future we need to collect long-term data on family stability, health and child outcomes to measure changes in attitudes, parenting behavior and spillover effects of these services into the workplace."
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