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Does marriage education work? We asked what elements are needed

Relationship-strengthening classes have gotten mostly bad reviews. But some experts hope that will change

Illustration by Alex Cochran

The federal government has invested heavily for nearly two decades in marriage education classes to strengthen relationships — particularly of low-income couples — but critics say the impact has been small in terms of preventing romantic partnerships from crumbling.

The marriage education field is wide and diverse, but overall, the research finds that marriage education does help improve couples’ self-reported communication and conflict-resolution skills, especially for married, middle-class couples. The research is less conclusive on whether marriage education prevents divorce,” said Jennifer Randles, assistant professor of sociology at California State University, Fresno, who wrote a book on government-supported marriage education classes called “Proposing Prosperity?: Marriage Education Policy and Inequality in America.”

“Large-scale government-funded evaluations of relationship and marriage education for low-income couples did not find similar positive results,” said Randles, who noted those couples generally were not more apt to stay together. Nor did they see as much improvement in communication skills.

The Deseret News asked several experts who study relationships what components might help such classes achieve their goals. What we found was a mixture of hope and skepticism.

Some said the marriage/relationship classes have improved since earlier studies but can still be better-designed to improve relationship stability, whether for couples who struggle or youths who are just beginning to consider forging romantic relationships. Others said resolving the problems that stress couples, like unemployment or financial worries, is vital to stabilizing relationships.

“The question is whether the government can do much to strengthen a long-term relationship,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and an Institute for Family Studies scholar. “People on the right are more open to the idea. On the left they argue underlying structure — racism, poverty, unemployment” — need to be addressed to ease relationship problems.

“The reality is not either/or,” he said. “Larger structural ills tend to create stress that is corrosive for a relationship. At the same time, nonprofits and others can give people skills to form stronger relationships.”

If kids in low-income neighborhoods struggle with math, said Wilcox, you don’t just tackle neighborhood unemployment. You provide the best math education, too.

A bride and groom walk near Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 1, 2016.
A bride and groom walk near Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 1, 2016.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Agree to disagree

“The evidence is strong that the classes do not work. They are hard to administer, have negligible effect and are expensive.” said Benjamin Karney, a professor of psychology and co-director of the Marriage and Close Relationships Laboratory at UCLA.

“There are very well-intentioned people who think if there’s a problem, maybe we can educate our way out of it. There are certain things we can’t just educate ourselves out of,” said Karney, who compared it to trying to cure measles or solve homelessness with a class. “It looks like divorce is a very similar kind of problem.”

His list of relationship stressors includes social and cultural factors, difficulties of parenting, inadequate time and stress, among others.

Money could be better spent — and more help offered to struggling couples — if funding and policy addressed underlying issues that stress relationships, said Karney, who cowrote “Intimate Relationships.”

“To have a successful match, it’s not enough to be told what to do. You have to have the opportunity to do it. And a lot of people don’t have that opportunity,” he said.

Alan J. Hawkins, professor and director of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, said relationship education keeps improving, building on what’s been learned.

“I do think there is much to be gained from educating ourselves about important principles, knowledge skills we can learn to strengthen our marriages and relationships,” he said. “I do think we overestimate how literate we are about how to build and maintain healthy relationships.”

Hawkins notes “an enormous amount of excellent research” on how to build and maintain healthy relationships. While most learn by good and bad experiences, “I think couples can learn principles and skills that will move them along that learning curve at a faster pace than they would do normally.”

Other education efforts to make sure couples succeed are varied, ranging from premarital classes taken by devout Catholics to endeavors by legislatures in some states that involve couples expressing commitment to the marriage by agreeing to stricter terms should they decide to seek divorce, said Nicholas Wolfinger, a professor of family and consumer studies and adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Utah. While “almost no one” opts for those commitments, he added, couples who do have a lower divorce rate, though research suggests those so-called “covenant marriages” typically attract people who are not inclined to divorce anyway, particularly religious couples.

Some states have also dangled carrots to get people into relationship classes, he noted. Examples include waiving the waiting period for divorce for couples who take a short class or not charging a marriage license fee for couples who enroll in a premarital class.

Wolfinger expressed “guarded optimism” about premarital education, which he gave a mild endorsement in his book “Understanding the Divorce Cycle.” If nothing else, he said, that could “achieve the selection effect of discouraging the less-devoted from getting married.”

Designing to succeed

If education is the targeted method to help couples stay together, the question is how to design classes that make a difference.

Hawkins believes the most important ingredient is a couple that really wants a strong relationship and is willing to invest their energy to improve their partnership.

“Research says this does not work as well if just one individual in the couple participates,” he said.

Wilcox said the most successful programs are those that “are able to offer a compelling vision of what marriage should be like, rather than those that stress mechanics in a relationship.” Programs that provide connection to services or employment are also more likely to be impactful and entice participants to keep coming back, he said.

Classes have to be in-depth enough to improve skills and spark new ideas. It’s unlikely a two-hour class would have impact, for instance, Wolfinger said.

It’s also crucial to have an effective facilitator. They’re not all equal, according to Hawkins, who said a good instructor helps class participants feel comfortable and engaged, instead of embarrassed to be in the class at all.

He’s an advocate of starting relationship education earlier, targeting youths.

“In our culture, there are so many messages that can get youth off track — a lot of potholes for them to hit,” he said, noting youth relationship literacy should address what a healthy marriage looks like, since many youths have never seen one. It should cover basic skills and attitudes and common mistakes that make it harder to have good relationships.

Some of the classes aimed at youth seem to be showing promise, at least short-term. Studies on long-term results aren’t in yet, Hawkins said.

That middle-class couples tend to get more from relationship-strengthening classes than do low-income couples suggests to Randles that curriculum must “go beyond providing communication and conflict-resolution skills training to help struggling families access basic needs and coparent effectively, even if the couple is no longer romantically involved,” she said.

Still experimenting

Advocates of relationship education are experimenting to see what really will preserve relationships. They’re trying all kinds of approaches, including classes for individual couples. One effort, called “The Marriage Checkup,” starts with a survey, then a trained facilitator offers suggestions on what a couple should work on.

Would the help be better if rendered in a couple’s home? Hawkins said that’s being tried, too, though it’s more resource intensive.

And it’s likely class-based learning and programs serving individual couples have different pluses, according to Hawkins, who said couples in larger classes sometimes benefit from hearing that other couples have challenges and also some solutions that have worked for them.

Some couples may be more willing to seek online interventions than in-person ones, he said.

“I do think the future of class-based marriage and relationship education is going to be more tailored,” Hawkins predicted. Perhaps couples will fill out a survey that helps find the class that fits best, maybe focused on communication skills or work-life balance or directed toward stepfamilies, for instance, he said.

Regardless, success will depend on the motivation of those who enroll.

“The reality is people really do want to have good relationships,” said Hawkins, who deemed it “ethical to try to help people achieve the aspirations they have for themselves and others.”

It’s important to keep studying what’s working and what’s not and support programs accordingly, said Wilcox.