by Devan Clayton
The Bottom-line (at the Top). Online relationship education (RE) programs, with their increased reach and reduced costs, offer the potential to improve relationships nationwide. The online OurRelationship program has been shown in previous nationwide studies to improve relationships and individual well-being shortly after the program. Are individuals and relationships better off a year after completing the online RE program? A recent study showed that the initial gains in the OurRelationship program were maintained at the 1-year follow-up.
RE programs have an impressive record now of showing they can help many individuals and couples. But can we scale up these programs to reach more? A common critique of RE programs is that they lack sufficient reach to make a dent in the widespread social problem of relationship instability. They also can be costly to maintain.
Is technology part of the answer here? Can web-based RE programs reach more people in need and do so efficiently? We previously blogged about online RE programs here and here showing some encouraging early results. A recently published study followed participants in an online RE program one year later to see if early gains were maintained.
151 heterosexual couples from around the United States who reported some relationship distress participated in the study. An additional 149 couples were randomized to a waitlist control group. When assessed at 3 months after the program, the OurRelationship participants fared significantly better than the control-group couples. However, the control-group couples were not followed past 3 months. So, this study only looks at whether the OurRelationship program participants maintained their early gains when assessed a year after the program. 81% of the couples were married, together for an average of almost 10 years. About 75% had children. Participants were mostly in their 30’s. 76% were White.
The couples completed around 7 hours of online intervention in three phases. First, the couples received feedback about strengths and weaknesses in their relationship, which was designed to help them pick a relationship problem to focus on for the remainder of the program. In the second phase, couples developed A “DEEP” understanding of how natural Differences, hidden Emotions, External stress, and Patterns of communication created or exacerbated their relationship problem. Finally, the third phase had couples consider which parts of the problem were more appropriate to accept and which were more appropriate to change. They then worked to develop specific solutions. The online activities were supplemented by four, 15-minute support calls from trained coaches. (Here is a link to the OurRelationship website.)
Here are some important findings from the study:
- The positive effects of the OurRelationship online program seen at the 3-month follow-up were maintained 9 months later (12 months after participants completed the program). These benefits included: increased relationship satisfaction, relationship confidence, perceived health, and quality of life. The study also found decreased levels of depression and anxiety at the 12-month assessment.
- The study found no evidence that disadvantaged or underserved groups (i.e., racial/ethnic minorities, lower income couples, or rural couples) experienced greater deterioration in individual or relationship well-being. In fact, Hispanic couples reported continued improvement in relationship confidence and further decreases in negative relationship quality at the 12-month assessment.
The researchers took some educated guesses at why the online OurRelationship program is working well:
- It reaches distressed couples earlier. Couples seeking relationship help online may be doing so in a moment of need rather than waiting until the end of a prolonged period of distress. The earlier couples seek help, the more effective the help is likely to be.
- Change may be more sustainable because the program occurs within the couple’s home rather than in an unfamiliar (and less comfortable) environment. This also allows for more flexibility. By completing the program at a time and location controlled by the couple, it is easier to accommodate work, childcare, and other demands. Their engagement in the program may be stronger too.
- The OurRelationship program has a strong focus on developing more tolerant thoughts about relationship problems (rather than on making rule-governed changes to solve all problems). This approach may be easier for some couples and more durable.[v]
The OurRelationship program seems to have the potential to improve the lives of distressed couples on a broader scale and reduce disparities in access to effective relationship-strengthening solutions. Based on this new study, here is an important implication for relationship educators to think about:
- Add evidence-based, online RE program options like OurRelationship to your portfolio of available services. Many couples who express interest in traditional services cannot attend at scheduled times. When this happens, encourage them to check out an online program. One possibility is that taking an online program might just increase their interest in continuing with your face-to-face program.
 Doss, B. D., Roddy, M. K., Nowlan, K. M., Rothman, K., & Christensen, A. (2019). Maintenance of gains in relationship and individual functioning following the online OurRelationship program. Behavior therapy, 50(1), 73-86. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2018.03.011.
 Doss, B. D., Cicila, L. N., Georgia, E. J., Roddy, M. K., Nowlan, K. M., Benson, L. A., & Christensen, A. (2016). A randomized controlled trial of the web-based OurRelationship program: Effects on relationship and individual functioning. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 84, 285-296. https://doi.org/10.1037/ccp0000063.
 Georgia, E. J., Roddy, M. K., Nowlan, K. M., & Doss, B. D. (in press). Effectiveness of the OurRelationship program for underserved couples. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice.
 Baucom, D. H., Hahlweg, K., & Kuschel, A. (2003). Are waiting-list control groups needed in future marital therapy outcome research? Behavior Therapy, 34, 179-188. https://doi.org/10/1016/s0005-7894(03)80012-6; Christensen, A., Atkins, D. C., Berns, S., Wheeler, J., Baucom, D. H., & Simpson, L. E. (2004). Traditional versus integrative behavioral couple therapy for significantly and chronically distressed married couples. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72, 176-191. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006x.72.2.176; Doss, B. D., Benson, L. A., Georgia, E. J., & Christensen, A. (2013). Translation of integrative behavioral couple therapy to a web-based intervention. Family Process, 52, 139-153. https://doi.org/10.111/famp.12020.
[v] Christensen, A., Atkins, D. C., Yi, J., Baucom, D. H., & George, W. H., (2006). Couple and individual adjustment for two years following a randomized clinical trial comparing traditional versus integrative behavioral couple therapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 1180-1191. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006x.74.6.1180; Finkel, E. J., Slotter, E. B., Luchies, L. B., Walton, G. M., & Gross, J. J. (2013). A brief intervention to promote conflict reappraisal preserves marital quality over time. Psychological Science, 24, 1595-1601. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612474938.