Taking Account of Different Relationship-Belief Patterns in Relationship Education

By Sarah Hokanson

The Bottom-Line First:  People come to relationship education classes with different beliefs about forming and developing relationships. These beliefs invariably bring with them different needs. This study identified five different groups of relationship beliefs among participants and explored the risk factors associated with each group. As relationship educators, recognizing these groups can help us better focus on the needs of our clients.

As relationship educators, we often assume all our students need to learn the same things. But people come to relationship education (RE) with different beliefs. Some people believe that relationships are easy, that when you find the right person it should be effortless. Others are doubtful that relationships can work long-term. Still others don’t think much about relationships and just “go with the flow.” People’s beliefs lead to various biases and struggles within relationships. Recognizing where they’re coming from can give us the opportunity to concentrate our curriculum on what is most beneficial for our class participants.

A recent article, “Relationship Belief Patterns Among Relationship Education Participants at Different Venues,” explored the diversity of needs of those who attend relationship education (RE) classes.[1] This article is important because it recognizes the different beliefs and risk factors that individuals bring when they attend RE classes.

For this study, the researchers used a large sample of 1,827 individuals who participated in RE classes. The sample consisted of individuals (not couples) participating in the Premarital Interpersonal Choices and Knowledge (PICK) program. The PICK program is designed for singles and emphasizes proper pacing in a relationship and getting to know one’s partner to prepare for a long-term relationship. Participants in the study attended classes in either community settings, employment centers, or jails.[2] The researchers measured relationship beliefs by looking at their ability to pace relationship decision-making, attitudes about controlling behavior in relationships, and romantic idealization. Relationship pacing included being able to move a relationship forward at a healthy pace, spot warning signs, and weigh pros and cons. Relationship control included factors such as preventing a partner from doing things (e.g., spending time with friends) and staying with a partner that controlled their behavior. Romantic idealization focused on people’s opinions of love being all they needed.

Here is a brief summary of their findings along with some implications for RE. There were five relatively distinct groups of relationship beliefs:

  • Blind Love: This group (12%) of participants had higher levels of idealizing relationships but followed healthy patterns of relationship decision making and had healthy beliefs about relationship control. Idealizing romantic relationships leads these participants to be blind to problems and effort required in a committed relationship. Individuals in this group would benefit from learning about the realistic and complex aspects of relationships, as well as how to deal with them in healthy ways.
  • Slider: The largest group by far (46%), Sliders struggled to pace a relationship, but had low romantic idealization and low acceptance of controlling behaviors. Instead of making a conscious decision to move forward with a relationship, people in the sliders group would be more likely to slide through important relationship transitions without thinking it through. Fortunately, however, they don’t wear rose-colored glasses when looking at their relationships. Relationship educators could target this group with curriculum focusing on relationship decision-making, including an emphasis on pacing relationships and recognizing relationship warning signs.
  • Blind Love Sliders: These participants (11%) combine a high level of romantic idealization with an inability to pace a relationship, but still reject controlling behaviors. This group is at risk for relationship problems because they are not realistic in their ideas of how a relationship will work or the pace at which they optimally develop. This group may be particularly vulnerable and have a hard time creating lasting relationships as they combine the problems of Blind Love and Sliders. They could benefit from RE on relationship decision-making and realistic understandings of relationships.
  • Control Tolerates: This group (6%) accepted controlling behaviors and struggled to pace their relationships but did not romantically idealize them. These participants were more likely to control behaviors of a romantic partner or to put up with a controlling partner. Combined with a lack of effective relationship decision-making, members of this group would be more likely to slide into a relationship with unhealthy levels of control. This group of participants could use RE that helps them not only with more intentional decision-making, but also teaches about healthy boundaries and balance within a relationship.
  • Low Risk: This group (25%) rejected controlling behaviors, had low levels of romantic idealization, and properly paced decision-making and transitions in their relationships. This group would appear to have healthy relationship beliefs and was at low risk for problems within romantic relationships. Members of this group participating in RE would have their beliefs reinforced.
  • These five groups were found in each of the settings where the RE classes were offered (community, employment center, and jails).

Some final thoughts:

As educators, it is important for us to be aware of the relationship beliefs of those we teach and the individual struggles and risks associated with each group of participants. We should make sure our curriculum addresses the issues these individuals face. This study gave a good overview of major relationship beliefs that should be addressed in our individually-oriented healthy dating courses. Perhaps the most important group to target is the Sliders group. This group showed tendencies to rush into a relationship, reflecting the prevalence of this problem in our society today. This is a critical topic for our RE courses to address.

And here is a more radical thought. An understanding of distinct relationship belief patterns could help relationship educators create customized classes to target specific relationship-belief groups. Programs could be tailored to best serve the needs of smaller groups that are similar in their relationship beliefs. This would require some kind of preassessment of participants to see what specific knowledge and skills they need. Though this type of assessment could make delivering RE more complex, it may be more beneficial for the participants because it focuses on the curriculum they most need to learn.

 

Endnotes:

[1]Miller, J. A., Crapo, J. S., Bradford, K., & Higginbotham, B. J. (2019). Relationship beliefs patterns among relationship education participants at different venues. Family Relations. doi: 10.1111/fare.12382

[2] Classes were supported by a grant to Utah State University from the U.S. Administration for Children and Families.