by Dr. Alan J. Hawkins
The Bottom Line (at the Top): Many RE participants begin programs with low levels of hope for the future of their relationship. But when they learn better interaction skills, they increase their relationship hope.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve spent a lot of my scholarly time and energy trying to understand how effective relationship education (RE) can be at strengthening couple relationships, especially for more disadvantaged couples. But whether RE works is only one important question. Just as important is coming to understand how RE works. I’ve had some stimulating conversations with relationship educators and researchers over the years about this. As a result of one conversation, I got to thinking about the role relationship hope plays in RE. And I recently had the chance to explore this in a study I did.
For years, therapists have known that clients’ hope for the future of their relationship plays an important role in motivating couples’ work to improve their relationship. So therapists make hope a target of their therapy work. But oddly, RE programs haven’t paid much attention to this important element of couple relationships, at least not directly. Shouldn’t increasing relationship hope for couples – their sense of confidence that they have the knowledge and skills to overcome relationship challenges in the future and that their relationship can survive whatever life throws at them down the road – be an important target of our RE programs? And maybe increasing hope in the short run will sustain relationship work that increases happiness over time.
We know that many RE participants today are experiencing relationship distress and come to programs for help, some with a waning sense of hope for the future. The traditional model of change implied in much of RE is that educational interventions improve healthy relationship interaction skills, which in turn enhance relationship quality and satisfaction. Change in relationship skills may increase a sense of hope for the relationship which, in turn, may be an early facilitator of later improvements in relationship quality.
Recently, I had a chance to explore how RE may affect relationship hope with a study of about 200 lower income unmarried and married couples with children participating in the Family Expectations program (based on the PREP model) in Oklahoma. We measured these participants before the program and shortly after they completed the 30 program hours. (Unfortunately, we did not have a no-treatment control group to compare them to.) The findings were just published in the journal Family Relations. Here is a summary of the findings:
- Variation. First, there was significant variation in levels of relationship hope as these couples entered the program; their scores on relationship hope were spread across the full spectrum of our measure, with about 25% of both partners reporting very low levels of hope.
- Increases. About 70% of program participants reported increased levels of hope at the end of the program. (Some come into the program with high levels of hope already, so their scores don’t change.)
- Interaction Skills -> Hope. Importantly, participants’ reports of changes in positive interaction skills as a result of the program were associated with higher levels of relationship hope at the end of the program. (We did not find much support for a reverse hypothesis, that changes in hope as a result of the program improved their positive interaction skills.)
- Men’s Changes Important. Interestingly, we discovered that men’s changes in positive interaction skills had a much stronger effect on their partners’ relationship hope at the end of the program than vice versa.
- Greatest Improvement. Also, those who had the lowest levels of hope as they entered the program saw the biggest improvements in their interaction skills by the end.
Many couples who come to RE programs for help have pretty low levels of hope for the future of their relationship. But deciding to participate in the program gives them a way to increase their hope. Participants who learn more effective ways to interact with their partner substantially increase their level of relationship hope for the future. That sense of hope may be crucial for their ongoing motivation to maintain and strengthen their relationship.
Here are some possible implications of these findings to think about:
- Assess Hope. Relationship educators could be more aware of variation in relationship hope among their participants as they enter a program. And those who enter a program with the lowest sense of hope often gain the most from the program. If you are already collecting some information on participants as they enter your program, consider assessing their levels of hope. (The 5-item Relationship Hope Scale is given in this endnote.)
- Target Hope. Consider targeting relationship hope as an outcome of your program. Directly address it in your curriculum. If you are already collecting some information on participants as they leave your program, consider assessing their levels of hope before and after to measure the change.
- Importance of Skills Training. Understand that instruction to improve couple interaction and communication skills – the heart of most RE programs – is an important way to increase your participants’ sense of relationship hope.
- Focus on Men. Men’s improvement in positive interaction skills are especially important at increasing women’s relationship hope (more so than the opposite). So make sure your instruction is geared in a way that helps men improve their interaction and communication skills.
 For instance, see: Reichard, R. J., Avey, J. B., Lopez, S., & Dollwet, M. (2013). Having the will and finding the way: A review and meta-analysis of hope at work. Journal of Positive Psychology, 8, 292–304; Ward, D. B., & Wampler, K. S. (2010). Moving up the continuum of hope: Developing a theory of hope and understanding its influence in couples therapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 36, 212–228; Worthington, E. L. J. (2005). Hope-focused marriage counselling: A guide to brief therapy. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
 For a summary, see: Bradford, A., Hawkins, A. J., & Acker, J. (2015). If we build it, they will come: Exploring policy and practice implications of public support for couple and relationship education for lower income and relationally distressed couples. Family Process, 54, 639-654.
 Hawkins, A. J., Erickson Allen, S. E., & Yang, C. (2017). How does couple and relationship education affect relationship hope? An intervention-process study with lower income couples. Family Relations. doi: 10.1111/fare.12268
 Relationship Hope Scale (practitioners and researchers are free to use it): “I believe we can handle whatever conflicts will arise in the future.” “I am very confident when I think of our future together.” “I’m hopeful that I can make our relationship work.” “I’m hopeful that we have the tools we need to fix problems in our relationship now and in the future.” “I feel like our relationship can survive what life throws at us.” Scale: Likert scale, 1-7, 1 = Strongly Disagree, 4 = Neither Agree or Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree. For those working with individuals in RE (rather than couples) who may not be in a current relationship, or with youth thinking about future relationships, the questions could be modified: “I believe I can handle whatever conflicts will arise in my future relationships.” “I’m hopeful that I can make future relationships work.” “I’m hopeful that I have the tools I need to fix problems in future relationships.”