by Alan J. Hawkins
The bottom-line (at the top): There has been a healthy debate over how effective relationship education (RE) programs for disadvantaged couples have been. Over the 12 years, the Administration for Children and Families has been pursuing a policy of support for RE programs to improve couple relationships and family stability. The mixed results so far call for more research. That’s why I have been anxiously awaiting the results of the Parents and Children Together evaluation study, another rigorous test of the effectiveness of RE. Good news! This study found positive effects on a range of important outcomes.
I have blogged several times (on this blog and others) about the debate over the effectiveness of social policies to promote relationship education (RE) programs designed to help disadvantage individuals and lower income couples form and sustain healthy relationships and strong marriages. I have argued that the evidence is mixed, modest, but hopeful. I think these policies and programs are showing some potential and that we need to give the research a few more years to provide a solid view of whether they can be a part of our social policy portfolio to help lower income individuals and couples form and sustain strong families and reduce poverty.
Other scholars, however, have disagreed with my guarded optimism. These scholars, for the most part, have based their pessimism on two, important, large-scale, rigorous studies that showed no or very small effects. The Building Strong Families study of RE programs to help lower income unmarried parents strengthen their relationships overall showed few positive effects, although there was an important, positive family stability effect at the Oklahoma site of the study 3 years after the program. And a reanalysis of the Building Strong Families data by the distinguished sociologist Paul Amato did show more positive short-term results for the most disadvantaged couples. A parallel study – Supporting Healthy Marriages – evaluated the effectiveness of RE programs for lower income married couples. This study found a lot of statistically significant positive effects but they were small in magnitude. Obviously, we could use more data to shed more light on the question.
Well, now we have more data. The Administration for Children and Families just released the results of the Parents and Children Together (PACT) study. (ACF has funded the most rigorous evaluation work on the effectiveness of RE programs.) This study reports a large, rigorous evaluation of two RE programs. The two sites were in New York City (about 1,000 couples) and El Paso, Texas (about 600 couples). The RE programs covered pretty standard topics. (The two curricula used were: Loving Couples, Loving Children—average 14 hours participation; Within Our Reach—average 15 hours of participation.) Almost all couples who signed up for the program attended at least one session and two-thirds attended half or more. This is impressive given that the programs were pretty intensive. Most couples were economically stressed and had limited education. About 60% of couples were married and half had been together for 5 or more years. Most were Latino (76%), with 10% African Americans. The researchers followed the couples for about one year after the program to assess the program effects.
So, have we improved with these programs since the Building Strong Families and Supporting Healthy Marriage studies? Here’s what the researchers found. Compared to the no-treatment control group couples:
- PACT couples reported somewhat greater relationship commitment (statistically significantly) 1 year after the program. This was driven mostly by improvements in commitment among those who were not married when they began the program.
- PACT couples reported slightly more relationship warmth, support, affection, and friendship 1 year after the program (statistically significantly). These differences were driven primarily by couples who were married at the beginning of the program.
- PACT couples reported slightly less destructive conflict behavior 1 year after the program (statistically significantly). Again, this difference was driven primarily by couples who were married at the beginning of the program. The slight difference on constructive conflict behavior (e.g., use of humor) was too small to be statistically significant.
- Perhaps related to less destructive conflict behavior, PACT women experienced significantly less physical assault (e.g., punching, choking, kicking) from their partner (5% vs. 8%).
- More PACT couples were married 1 year after the program (63% vs. 59%), a statistically significant difference. This was more about married couples staying married, however, than unmarried couples getting married. In fact, the biggest effect in the entire study was for marital status at the 1-year follow-up for those who were married at the beginning of the program.
- Interestingly, there was no statistical difference between the two groups in relationship happiness.
- PACT couples reported somewhat higher levels of effective co-parenting behavior 1 year after the program (statistically significant).
- PACT women reported somewhat lower levels of depressive symptoms (statistically significant). The difference was not significant for men, however.
So, what have we learned from this important, rigorous evaluation study of RE programs for economically disadvantaged couples?
First, I was impressed that they found greater levels of commitment, even though the couples that participated were pretty committed already (average 9 on a 10-point scale). Almost 60% were married and, on average, the couples had been together 5 years. Increases in commitment came primarily from unmarried couples. I think that commitment is a key target for RE programs. Even when it takes time for couples to implement new skills learned, greater commitment to their relationship can mean more time to keep working on it and greater stability for children in the family.
Also, there was an effect on marital status; fewer married couples were divorced about a year later as a result of participating in the program. I think this is the second rigorous study to find that RE can reduce the chances of divorce for married couples. Again, family stability is such a key outcome for these programs, so this is an important finding to celebrate.
I think there are some straightforward implications for RE from this important study:
- These programs worked better for couples who were already married. I think we have a lot more to learn to be able to really make a difference for unmarried couples in our RE programs. The field needs to improve here.
- Nevertheless, these PACT findings will be a shot in the arm for the dedicated, hard work that relationship educators are doing in the field. The rigorous study shows that these programs can have positive effects, albeit fairly modest ones, for low-income couples. Kudos to all.
- Also, the study will strengthen the case for policy makers to include RE as an additional tool to help disadvantaged couples create stronger families and achieve their relationship aspirations. The finding of reduced physical violence, too, will help policy makers understand the merits of supporting RE.
I admit that I was uneasy awaiting the results of the PACT evaluation, worrying that “no effect” results would make it harder to defend policy-level support for RE. Fortunately, the results are good news for the RE field.
Another set of important, ACF-funded studies will ripen in a couple of years. I look forward to seeing the results of those smaller, but still rigorous studies of RE programs.
 Hawkins, A. J., & Erickson, S. E. (2014). Is couple and relationship education effective for lower income participants? A meta-analytic study. Journal of Family Psychology, 29, 59-68..
 Hawkins, A. J., Amato, P. R., & Kinghorn, A. (2013). Are government-supported healthy marriage initiatives affecting family demographics? A state-level analysis. Family Relations, 62, 501-513.
 For instance, see: Randles, J. M. (2017). Proposing prosperity? Marriage education policy and inequality in America New York: Columbia University; Heath, M. (2012). One marriage under God: The campaign to promote marriage in America. New York University; Lee, G. R. (2015). The limits of marriage: Why getting everyone married won’t solve all our problems. Lanham, MD: Lexington; Trail, T. E., & Karney, B. R. (2012). What’s (not) wrong with low-income marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 413–427; Huston, T. L., & Melz, H. (2004). The case for (promoting) marriage: The devil is in the details. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 943–948;
 Wood, R. G., Moore, Q., Clarkwest, A., & Killewald, A. (2014). The long-term effects of Building Strong Families: A program for unmarried parents. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 446–463.
 Amato, P. R. (2014). Does social and economic disadvantage moderate the effects of relationship education on unwed couples? An analysis of data from the 15-month Building Strong Families evaluation. Family Relations, 63, 343-355.
 Lundquist, E., Hsueh, J., Lowenstein, A., Faucetta, K., Gubits, D., Michalopoulos, C., & Knox, V. (2014). A family-strengthening program for low-income families: Final impacts from the Supporting Healthy Marriage evaluation. OPRE Report 2013-49A. Washington, D.C.: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
 The other study to show this was: Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Loew, B. A., Allen, E. S., Carter, S., Osborne, L. J., Prentice, D., & Markman, H. J. (2015). A randomized controlled trial of relationship education in the U.S. Army: 2-year outcomes. Family Relations, 63, 482-495.