Improving Couples’ Relationship Leads to Improved Coparenting

by Devan Clayton

The Bottom-line First. The ultimate benefit of relationship education may be improving the well-being of children. A recent study shows how a home-visiting program for rural African American couples not only improves their relationship, but that an improved relationship leads to better coparenting.

Adults in satisfying romantic relationships receive all kinds of benefits, including lower levels of general distress, better health, and lower work impairment.[1] Children of parents in a stable romantic relationship also benefit academically, socially, and psychologically.[2] (Here is an earlier blog on how involvement in relationship education affects children’s social skills.) One way that that satisfying romantic relationships may help children is through better parenting practices. A recent study explored whether participation in a relationship education (RE) program improved their relationship and whether that was associated with better coparenting (e.g., better cooperation and support between parents on behalf of their children).[3]

This study used four waves of data collected over 2 years from 346 rural African American couples with an early adolescent child. Unfortunately, rates of relationship distress are higher among low-income and ethnic minority families.[4] Half of the couples were randomly assigned to receive the Protecting Strong African American Families (ProSAAF) program and half did not participate in the program (control-group couples).[5] These ProSAAF participants spent 6 weeks engaged in a family-centered, couple-strengthening prevention program. Each week, a trained African American facilitator visited the couple in their home and conducted a 2-hour session. Each session focused on a stressor (e.g., work, racism, finances, extended family), and the couples were taught strategies for handling the stressor together.

Here are some key findings:

  • Couples who participated in ProSAAF reported a better relationship and stronger coparenting compared with control couples after the program.
  • Better relationship functioning after participating in the program predicted long-term improvements in coparenting.
  • In contrast, better coparenting after participating in the intervention did not predict long-term improvements in relationship functioning. This is evidence that it is positive relationship change that leads to better coparenting and not the opposite.

Here are some important implications of this study:

  • Intervention strategies to improve couples’ romantic relationships can have significant long-term benefits on the quality of their coparenting and may be even more effective than an exclusive focus on coparenting.
  • This intervention was delivered in a more personal way with a facilitator who came to the couple’s home. This can be an effective way to reach more disadvantaged couples who may struggle to participate regularly in group-based programs at some distant location.

If RE programs can improve coparenting by improving couple relationships, then we should expect positive effects will spill over to children’s well-being, which is a crucial outcome, especially to support continued public funding of RE programs.

 

Endnotes:  

[1] Whisman, M. A., & Uebelacker, L. A. (2006). Impairment and distress associated with relationship discord in a national sample of married or cohabiting adults. Journal of Family Psychology, 20, 369-377. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3200.20.3.369; Robles, T. F., Slatcher, R. B., Trombello, J. M., & McGinn, M. M. (2014). Marital quality and health: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 140-187. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031859

[2] Brown, S. L. (2010). Marriage and child well-being: Research and policy perspectives. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 1059-1077. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00750.x; Cummings, E. M., & Davies, P. T. (2002). Effects of marital conflict on children: Recent advances and emerging themes in process-oriented research. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43, 31-63. https://doi.org/10.1111/1469-7610.00003

[3] Lavner, J. A., Barton, A. W., & Beach, S. R. (2019). Improving couples’ relationship functioning leads to improved coparenting: A randomized controlled trial with rural African American couples. Behavior Therapy. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2018.12.006

[4] Amato, P. R., (2010). Research on divorce: Continuing trends and new developments. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 650-666. https://doi.org/10.111/j.1741-3737.2010.00723.x; Cherlin, A. J. (2005). American marriage in the early twenty-first century. The Future of Children, 15, 33-55.

[5] Control-group couples were mailed the book 12 Hours to a Great Marriage.