The Effectiveness of Online RE Programs with Couples Experiencing Intimate Partner Violence
by Jennifer Griffith
The Bottom Line (at the Top): Many couples who participate in RE programs have experienced some lower levels of intimate partner violence. This study suggests that couples who have experienced some intimate partner violence can improve their relationship by participating in an online RE program.
Sadly, intimate partner violence, or IPV, is much too common in romantic relationships. Estimates indicate that IPV is reported by as much as 37% of women and 22% of men in the United States. As heartbreaking as these numbers are, they are likely even higher if we take into account those who experience IPV but do not report it. Victims of IPV are likely to experience many other stressors and difficulties as a result of the hardships they have gone through.
With this reality in mind, it’s no wonder that relationship educators are regularly challenged to determine the best way to help those who are currently experiencing IPV or have relationship problems from the lingering influences of past IPV. RE researchers know that couples experiencing some level of IPV come to RE classes, and a growing number of studies are finding evidence that RE classes can help reduce low-level physical violence for couples who go through a RE class. Yet we know that many couples do not seek out help from RE classes and couples experiencing IPV may be even less likely to participate in face-to-face classes. (Some programs screen for IPV and exclude couples with IPV, recommending clinical intervention). But what about online options? Would these couples seek out online RE, a more private option? And would these online programs be effective even for those experiencing IPV?
These are the questions addressed in a study recently published in the journal Family Process by University of Miami researchers McKenzie Roddy, Emily Georgia, and Brian Doss. If online interventions can work for couples experiencing low-level IPV, then these programs may narrow this gap between need and services because more people will seek help if it is accessed through more convenient and more private means. The researchers studied couples experiencing low-intensity IPV (LI-IPV) as opposed to high-intensity or clinically significant IPV (CS-IPV).
In this study, 300 eligible couples were randomly assigned to either a web-based intervention, OurRelationship (OR), or a waitlist control group. Those in the OR intervention group worked mostly independent of their partner, only joining for a few conversations structured by the program. The program consisted of relationship education and skills training. A coach contacted participants periodically to encourage engagement in the program and answer any questions participants had. Although IPV was not a central focus of the OR intervention, the researchers assessed levels of couple IPV before entering the program. Here is a summary of their main findings:
- Online RE Participants Experience Violence. Nearly a quarter of the couples who participated in the OurRelationship (OR) program reported some kind of lower-intensity intimate partner violence (LI-IPV) at the beginning of the program.
- Demographic Differences. Couples who were younger, poorer, and less educated were more likely to have experienced LI-IPV at the beginning of the OR In addition, higher levels of anxiety and depression were associated with more LI-IPV. These associations were similar to what has been found in basic research with community-based samples.
- Online Success. The online OR program was successful at increasing relationship satisfaction for couples. This was so even when they began the program reporting some low-intensity intimate partner violence. (Unfortunately, the study did not measure rates of IPV at the end of the program, so we can’t be sure that the intervention actually reduced IPV, even though it increased satisfaction).
Here are some implications of this research to think about:
- Awareness of Violence. Relationship educators need to be aware that couples experiencing low-intensity or even clinically-significant IPV seek out help for their relationships in RE programs. Educators need to make sure their curricula and programs are prepared to help. RE may not be appropriate for couples experiencing clinically-significant IPV. But safety protocols and effective procedures for referring these couples to trained clinicians need to be in place and working. And these protocols and procedures are needed for online programs as well as face-to-face programs.
- Online RE is for LI-IPV Couples Too. Couples experiencing LI-IPV seek out RE for help and they benefit as much as other couples from it. Relationship educators don’t need to be queasy about serving these needy couples. Indeed, the greater reach of online programs may provide a valuable service to people who otherwise might not attend face-to-face classes, increasing the numbers who get help with their relationship struggles and reducing common, low-intensity IPV in our communities.
 A special issue of the journal Journal of Couple & RelationshipTherapy was devoted to this topic of preventing relationship violence through RE programs; see Hawkins, A. J. (2011). Program to help prevent intimate partner violence: Introduction to a special issue. Journal of Couple & Relatinship Therapy, 10, 95-96. Also see: Casey, P., Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Draper, L., Mwamba, N., & Hewison, D. (2017). Parents as Partners: A U.K. trial of a U.S. couples-based parenting intervention for at-risk low-income families. Family Process, 56, 589-606; Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Pruett, M. K., Pruett, K., & Gillette, P. (2014). Evaluating a couples group to enhance father involvement in low-income families using a benchmark comparison. Family Relations, 63, 356-370; Fineberg, M. E., Jones, D. E., Hostetler, M. L., Roettger, M. E., Paul, I. M., & Ehrenthal, D. B. (2016). Couple-focused prevention at the transition to parenthood, a randomized trial: Effects on a co-parenting, parenting, family violence, and parent and child adjustment. Prevention Science, 17, 751-764; Epstein, K., Pruett, M. K., Cowan, P., Cowan C., Pradhan, L., Mah, E., & Pruett, K. (2015). More tha one way to get there: Pathways of change in coparenting conflict after a preventative intervention. Family Process, 54, 610-618.
 Roddy, M. K., Georgia, E. J., & Doss, B. D. (2017). Couples with intimate partner violence seeking relationship help: Associations and implications for self-help and online interventions. Family Process. doi:10.1111/famp.12291
 For the purposes of this study, IPV was defined as “physical, sexual, or psychological/emotional threats of violence” with LI-IPV being violence that “does not result in injury or fear” and CS-IPV as the opposite (causing injury or fear).
 To be eligible, the couple had to be either married, engaged, or cohabiting for a minimum of six months, a resident of the United States, between the ages of 18-64, and have a relationship distress score below a designated cut-off. If the couple reported infidelity or thoughts of suicide within the last 3 months, a severe level of fear towards their partner, or had received an injury from IPV, they were determined ineligible (because of the study’s focus on LI-IPV).
 Subjects in a wait-list control group are offered the intervention at the end of the study.
 The program effect size for LI-IPV couples was d = .65 and for couples not reporting any LI-IPV, the program effect size was d = .79 (not a statistically significant difference). These effect sizes were adjusted for relevant control variables.