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Can you study your way to a healthy marriage?

A new report argues that marriage and relationship education could help family stability

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Two rings against a pink background.

Michelle Budge, Deseret News

States, community organizations, churches and schools are among the institutions that could bolster marriage and family life by providing marriage and relationship education, according to a report issued Friday by the Joint Economic Committee’s Republican members.

Building a Happy Home: Marriage Education as a Tool to Strengthen Families” includes recommendations and policy options, such as requiring divorce education before couples can dissolve their marriage and relationship education for high schoolers.

The report is an installment in the Social Capital Project, an area of special focus for the Republicans on the committee, led by Mike Lee, R-Utah. Previous reports have looked at suicide, unemployment, the opioid crisis, civility and making having children affordable, among others. 

“Our report provides the institutions closest to couples — our churches, schools, communities and state and local governments — with a toolbox of seven recommendations for strengthening marriage,” Lee told the Deseret News. “Utah leads on marriage education, and I am proud our state serves as a model that other leaders and policymakers can look to in their efforts to help those within their influence build healthy marriages and a stable family life.”

Because of the time and money involved in creating and running marriage and education programs, a fair amount of disagreement exists about their value, particularly when they target low-income families. Some program evaluations have been underwhelming, critics say.

Recommendations to strengthen families

The report suggests that while federally funded programs help, they shouldn’t be the primary source of couples’ education. Rather, “institutions closest to couples and families, such as churches, schools and community organizations, may have the greatest success in helping couples, as these institutions provide not only education but also supportive relationships that can bolster couples during challenging times.”

“Building a Happy Home” recommends using a small share of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (welfare) funding for marriage-strengthening efforts, which might include:

  • Statewide or community healthy marriage initiatives.
  • Relationship literacy classes for high school students.
  • Premarital education promotion policies.
  • Education for unwed parents.
  • Healthy marriage and relationship education for military couples.

According to the report, the private sector could also help. Faith leaders could require premarital education for couples who plan to wed and offer marriage support services like enrichment courses, mentoring and couples’ retreats.

In addition, the report recommends that if the government continues to fund Title X family planning clinics, those facilities should be required to provide information on where to get help to strengthen relationships.

The report highlights states that already provide marriage education, including Utah, which uses a share of its Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funding for its healthy marriage initiative. Utah requires couples to take a class prior to divorce and includes relationship literacy education in high school curricula.

Oklahoma started providing marriage education more than 20 years ago in schools, correctional facilities, community centers and churches. And while its formal marriage initiative ended in 2016 amid funding cuts, low-income families still receive healthy marriage and relationship education services through federal grants.

Tallahassee, Florida, has a community-based program that focuses on education for high school students, as well as couples at different stages, including before marriage, during and for those considering divorce.

Meanwhile, Dallas, Texas, offers marriage and relationship classes, fatherhood courses, domestic violence intervention and workforce preparation classes.

“This report is probably the most in-depth and comprehensive review to date of the effectiveness of public efforts to provide marriage and relationship education programs to help individuals and couples — especially disadvantaged couples — form and sustain healthy relationships and strong marriages,” said Alan J. Hawkins, a professor in Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life and a member of the Utah Marriage Commission, which supports and provides marriage education services to Utahns.

Hawkins said people might be surprised to know how much educational work is going on in communities, but added that “more can be done to support this work.”

He is especially interested in what state governments could do to help couples. “States can be a laboratory for experimentation for what works and have been too willing to let the federal government lead in this initiative,” Hawkins said.

He also lauded the call for other civic institutions to help strengthen relationships, noting that “we need to build a more marriage-friendly culture to support the most important and fundamental units of society: marriage and family.”

Early research on education efforts

The report describes a healthy marriage as a foundation for a stable home life, one with the potential to boost life satisfaction and economic well-being, as well as improve physical and emotional health.

Children get some of the same benefits when their parents’ relationship is solid, according to the report, and they are likely to do better in school, as well. The report says those children are more likely to have better educational attainment. And if they grow up in communities with more married-parent families, their likelihood of social mobility improves.

“Conversely, family breakdown is associated with poorer outcomes for the family and costs for the broader community,” the report warns.

Despite these potential payoffs, early evaluations of marriage education programs didn’t find a lot of benefits, especially when programs targeted low-income couples, and the report concedes this fact. But it counters that the unimpressive evaluations were based on limited findings in studies of marriage and relationship education programs funded in the early years of the Healthy Marriage and Relationships Education initiative, paid for by federal grants.

“While marriage education is not a panacea for addressing the troubling trends in marriage and family stability, more recent evidence suggests it can be a useful tool in helping people strengthen their relationships,” the Social Capital Project report says, noting “more promising outcomes” in more recent research, including modest improvements in relationship quality, communication skills, personal well-being and sometimes parenting practices and relationship stability for participants who are low-income.

Low-income couples are often targeted by taxpayer-funded programs because their relationships are more likely to be unstable, according to the report.

Besides financial stress, low-income families are more apt to have children with former romantic partners, to cohabit and to raise children outside of marriage, which increases relationship complexity, the report says. Instability raises risk of negative outcomes like poverty.

“Marriage education can theoretically act as an anti-poverty measure if it is effective,” the report adds.

A 2021 evaluation looked at relationship education for low-income parents combined with economic services like financial coaching, employment counseling and case management, assigning couples to a treatment or control group. A year later, the treatment group had “significantly better” outcomes on every aspect of relationship quality measured and on the quality of their co-parenting relationship, though there wasn’t a significant difference in whether the couples were married. Among those who entered the program unmarried, those in the education group were more likely to be married at the follow-up.

And while people didn’t fare better in terms of jobs, the couples who had the classes had less economic hardship, possibly because they learned to communicate better about finances.

“Thus, looking at the federal evaluations so far, while there have been several programs that have yielded no significant benefits in the long-term, other programs have yielded modest effects on participants’ relationships and behavior,” the report says. “It is also encouraging that some of the more recent evaluations have found positive outcomes on relationship commitment for unwed couples, higher relationship stability for married couples, and increased marriage rates among unwed couples.”

Jennifer Randles, professor and chairwoman of California State University, Fresno’s Department of Sociology, said she studied marriage education classes that targeted low-income parents who said they could neither afford nor prioritize marriage until they were on more solid financial footing. 

“Though parents frequently challenged instructors’ claims that marriage could help them, their children and their finances, parents did find the classes useful,” she told the Deseret News in an email. “While couples’ economic challenges made it hard to practice the communication and budgeting skills taught in the program, participants experienced the classes as a rare opportunity to communicate free of the material constraints that shaped their daily lives and romantic relationships.”

Randles said that hearing other low-income couples discuss the challenges they faced with love and money “normalized parents’ intimate struggles and allowed them to better understand how relationship conflict and unfulfilled hopes for marriage are shaped by poverty.”

The classes also helped low-income couples realize that many of their relationship problems “were rooted in chronic stress and financial constraints rather than interpersonal incompatibility, partners’ flaws or unskillful communication,” she added.

However, not everyone agrees that the programs provide value for the time and money spent.

Benjamin Karney, a professor of social psychiatry at UCLA and co-director of the UCLA Marriage and Close Relationships Lab, says studies have consistently shown “almost no effect at all.”

“One of the things that we are learning is that the function of a family cannot be separated from the economic climate and circumstances of that family. If we try to target family dynamics without addressing the context in which those dynamics are taking place, we are doomed to failure,” he said.

Karney likens it to trying to improve conditions for a couple whose home is burning. Their primary issue is not whether they have good communication skills or their relationship quality; it’s the fire, he said.

An intervention that doesn’t address their challenges — his list includes poverty, unemployment, mental health, lack of affordable housing, inflation and not having access to health care, among others — won’t make them stable, Karney said.

“There are all sorts of things we can do to make life easier for low-income couples that have nothing to do with education, but that have to do with putting out the fire,” he said.

”It’s time to try something different,” he added, and he has a few suggestions. They start with addressing his list of challenges that families face.

Others believe programs might help, but offer caveats.

Research on the benefits of marriage compared to nonmarriage can “obscure the fact that people with different personal and material resources have different opportunities to select into stable marriage,” said Stephanie Coontz, director of research and education for the Council on Contemporary Families. “Those who do not marry are often those with the most chance of divorcing, which often has much worse outcomes than staying single.”

She said comparisons of married and unmarried or divorced people are skewed because people with more stable lives are more likely to get married in the first place, and people in bad marriages usually leave them. In comparisons of people in bad or unstable marriages and those who never married, the latter “are often doing much better,” she said.

“To the extent that any marriage education program is teaching people how to have better, more stable, more humane relationships. I’m all for it,” she said. “To the extent that it tells people marriage is the way to get a stable relationship or a good outcome, I would want to raise a little red flag, because you need an adjective in front of the word marriage.”

Good marriages can be very helpful, she said. Bad marriages — and even unsatisfactory marriages — can do more damage than nonmarriage, said Coontz.

She agrees that organizations like churches that have a direct relationship with people could help them build relationships. But viewpoints can be challenging. People disagree, for example, on how schools should approach certain topics.

“You have to be very careful to do this in ways that allow for a wide variety of personal or religious interpretations — but that don’t violate the tremendous complexity of the findings by suggesting there’s only one way to do marriage, or to prepare for marriage, or to have, for that matter, a successful stable relationship. The main thing that people should focus on is the dynamics of the relationship, rather than the final form of the relationship,” said Coontz.