By Sarah Hokanson
The Bottom-Line First: Helping couples become more aware and more intentional about their relationship may be the primary way that relationship education (RE) programs are able to strengthen couple relationships. What the couple brings into the RE experience, the current state of their relationship, as well as the RE workshop, the impact of the workshop, and an exit/follow-up interview all strengthen the couple’s intentionality and awareness.
Generally, we see positive outcomes from relationship education (RE) courses, but why is this happening? As researchers and educators, we are concerned with how RE education works, not just whether it works. Knowing how RE works will help us improve the programs.
One study collected qualitative data from participants to investigate how RE works and what specific factors are leading to any improvements in relationships. Researchers interviewed 39 couples that had participated in the “Within Our Reach” premarital education workshop. This program was a one day, 8-hour workshop that taught the PREP curriculum. The sample was diverse in ethnic backgrounds and income and education levels.
Researchers analyzed information that couples shared about their relationship and their experience with the RE workshop. The researchers broke down their findings of how participants experience RE into six categories:
Intentionality and Awareness. Intentionality refers to couples being deliberate in focusing and working on their relationship. Awareness is an understanding of the relationship and recognition that relationships take work. Intentionality and awareness might look like a spouse going out of their way to send a nice text message during their day in order to strengthen and maintain their relationship. A couple’s level of intentionality and awareness was the overall theme of the study’s findings. These, in turn, were impacted by the five other categories.
Context. This refers to the situations and life experiences of the couple that they bring with them to the RE program. This includes past relationships, decisions they have made about their relationship, and their expectations. Individuals who have had difficult breakups in the past or struggle to expect their relationship to last will benefit from certain content in RE courses.
Relationship. This focuses on the current state of the relationship including their current challenges, commitment, and reason for attending the class. A couple who is just beginning to date will have different needs in RE than a couple who has been married for several years.
RE Workshop. Certain aspects of the RE workshop were highlighted by participants as having a significant impact. These included the instructor, the experiences or opportunities to apply the information, and the communication skills that were taught. Giving participants the chance to practice what they were learning helped them to internalize the curriculum a little more.
Impact. The impact that the workshop had on the couple was mainly described as either a good refresher or a significant change in the relationship dynamic. For couples who have previously been to RE, the curriculum generally helped to strengthen what they already knew; for couples who are new to RE, the things they learned had a strong impact on their relationship.
Couple Interview. The opportunity for couples to be interviewed for the study actually extended the program and gave them a chance to reflect on what they had learned. They became more intentional and aware in their continued relationship efforts.
The researchers created a model of how these factors work together to impact the couple’s intentionality and awareness. Each category impacted the intentionality and awareness as well as the category directly following it.
Here are some implications of this study:
- What couples bring with them to RE classes has a significant impact on what the couple gets out of the experience, which is not something relationship educators have control over. But educators can consider gathering information about participants at in-take so that they have a better idea of where these relationships are and the beliefs and expectations that the couples have.
- Some couples have attended RE classes before and use the course as a refresher. They may benefit from different content than first-time attendees, however.
- The research interview that this study provided seemed to have a good impact on couples by giving them a chance to reflect on what they learned, building awareness. If educators include some sort of exit or follow-up interview or reflection process, it may help participants to better internalize and continue to act on what they learned in the RE course.
 Novak, J. R., Whiting, J. B., Brown, M. D., & Harris, S. M. (2019). The impact of relationship education on the couple relationship: A grounded theory of intentionality and awareness. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 18, 104-125. doi:10.1080/15332691.2017.1417939