Relationship Education Can Reduce the Effects of Anger/Stress on Marital Conflict

by Alan J. Hawkins

The Bottom-line First: Relationship education program designers have long thought that it was important to help couples better understand and recognize their daily stresses and moods and then give them tools to prevent stresses and negative moods from igniting conflicts or turning small-disagreement mole hills into relationship-harming mountains. An important, recent study with lower income couples now documents that participation in RE can reduce the tendency for stresses and negative moods to turn disagreements into severe conflicts.

Sure, we know that when people are tired, stressed, anxious, angry, or just in a bad mood it’s not a good time to try to solve a problem or bring up a disagreement. Many RE programs include instruction on this problem and give couples some tools to avoid it. Think: calming down exercises, time out protocols, and learning how to self-regulate. And we know that, in general, these interaction and communication skills can help reduce the negative effects of conflict and strengthen couple relationships.[1] A recent study found that couples who participated in a RE program where they learned these skills were better able to minimize the impact of negative moods and stresses on marital conflict compared to couples who did not participate.[2]

The sample for this study was drawn from the larger Supporting Healthy Marriage (SHM) evaluation study funded by the Administration for Children and Families. This rigorous study involved more than 6,000 low-income parents in eight sites across the United States who were randomly assigned to a RE intervention[3] or to a no-RE control group, then followed for about two years.[4] A talented group of researchers received a grant to study a small subset of these parents (94 couples, about equally divided between treatment and control groups) at the end of the study (about 2 years after the intervention). They completed reports about daily moods and stressors and couple conflict over 15 days. The researchers then explored whether participating in the RE program lessened the impact of negative moods and stresses on the severity of couple conflict. Here is a brief summary of the study’s results:

  • For wives: Although daily stresses and negative moods (such as anger and anxiety) were associated with more severe marital conflict, these associations were significantly weaker for wives who participated in the SHM RE program compared to the wives in the control group.
  • For husbands: Daily stress about money and work were associated with more severe disagreements, but these associations were significantly weaker for husbands who participated in the SHM RE program compared to the husbands in the control group.

Apparently, RE programs can help some couples interrupt the tendency for stresses and negative moods to exacerbate disagreements. These are encouraging results with important implications for couple and relationship education:

  • Don’t Oversell Conflict Reduction. Disagreements and conflicts are a fact of married life, and this is even more so for disadvantaged couples who experience more stress related to the everyday needs of life. The research did not show that couples who participated in the SHM program had substantially less conflict than control-group couples. We need to be clear with participants that these RE programs don’t necessarily mean that there will be fewer disagreements. But . . .
  • Effective Skills Can Reduce the Danger of Conflict. RE participants can learn how to self-regulate, calm down, and cut-off escalating arguments so that disagreements don’t escalate into dangerous conflicts.

We can’t magically make all the stresses go away for participants in our RE programs. But this research provides evidence that the knowledge and skills they learn can keep those stresses from escalating into harmful conflict.

 

References:

[1] Blanchard, V., Hawkins, A., Baldwin, S. & Fawcett, E. (2009). Investigating the effects of marriage and relationship education on couples’ communication skills: A meta-analytic study. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 203–214.; Fawcett, E., Hawkins, A., Blanchard, V., & Carroll, J. (2010). Do premarital education programs really work? A meta-analytic study. Family Relations, 59, 232–239.

[2] McCormick, M. P., Hsueh, J., Merrilees, C., Chou, P., & Cummings, M. E. (2017). Moods, stressors, and severity of marital conflict: A daily diary study of low-income families. Family Relations, 66, 425-440.

[3] The 8 different intervention sites selected different evidence-based RE programs to implement and evaluate, so the evaluation results reflect the effectiveness of CRE in general rather than a specific CRE program.

[4] Lundquist, E., et al. (2014). A family-strengthening program for low-income families: Final impacts from the Supporting Healthy Marriage evaluation. New York: MDRC; Williamson, H. C., Altman, N., Hsueh, J., & Bradbury, T. N. (2016). Effects of relationship education on couple communication and satisfaction: A randomized controlled trial with low-income couples. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 84, 156-166.