By McKell Jorgensen and Alan J. Hawkins
The Bottom Line First: Couple relationship education often aims to increase relationship quality, individuals’ confidence in fostering a healthy relationship, and positive interactions between romantic partners. A new study looked at how the “facilitator alliance” – the positive connection between a program participant and the facilitator or instructor – affects program outcomes. They found that participants who reported a stronger facilitator alliance had stronger program outcomes. A gender match was the most important demographic characteristic for the facilitator alliance.
Research has shown that relationship education (RE) programs increase relationship quality and satisfaction for participants, but can who teaches these RE classes and how they are taught be as important as the program content in producing positive change? “Therapist alliance” is a major concept in couple therapy. Research and practice alike reveal that the personal interactions between therapist and client, the clients’ trust in the therapist, and how the client feels he or she can relate to his/her therapist have large effects on client outcomes.
Although facilitator alliance hasn’t been a major focus in RE research in the past, new research has arrived to shed more light on the subject. 225 couples in Alabama participated in a free, community-based RE program employing 5 different curricula. They were taught by trained instructors once a week for 6-12 weeks. The researchers measured participants’ relationship quality, confidence, and interactions both before and after the program, along with measuring the facilitator alliance after the program.
Here’s what the researchers found:
- The programs worked. Consistent with past research, these RE programs helped improve couple relationships. Participants reported higher levels of relationship confidence and quality after the program. They also had higher levels of positive interactions with their partners and lower levels of negative interactions. And the programs helped participants in all types of romantic relationships. Married couples, cohabitating couples, and seriously dating couples all showed relationship progress.
- The facilitator alliance matters. Participants who reported a stronger facilitator alliance reported even better program outcomes. This was true for both men and women.
- Gender match is important. When looking at fostering a strong facilitator alliance, gender played a larger role than ethnicity, relationship status, and education level. In other words, when the facilitator and participant gender matched, positive changes were greater. Other demographic characteristics were not as important.
Here are some practical implications of the study:
- Facilitator thinking. Although program content is important to a good RE program, who teaches and how the program is taught also have significant effects on program outcomes. The facilitator alliance needs more attention from program developers and administrators.
- Gender matching. Program administrators often assume that the best way to deliver couple RE is to have a male-female team. This study supports that general assumption. For individually-oriented RE, matching facilitator gender to the modal participant gender also makes sense. On average, participants have a better RE experience when taught by a member of the same sex.
- Group sizing. Group size may play a role in creating positive outcomes because the more participants there are in the classroom, the harder it may be to develop a facilitator alliance with individuals and couples. More research is needed to estimate the ideal group size to optimize the facilitator alliance.
- Facilitator alliance training. Facilitator alliance training for relationship educators is uncommon, we suspect. Our therapist colleagues receive a large amount of alliance training, and it’s time we do the same for relationship educators. In the absence of specific training, administrators should look for those interpersonal skills that will help facilitators connect better with participants.
- Curriculum innovating. As part of the curriculum, program developers should build in exercises and opportunities early on designed to strengthen the facilitator alliance. Some possibilities include building in opportunities for facilitators regularly to disclose their own personal experiences and stories, more one-on-one time with participants, contacting participants between sessions, and training former participants to become facilitators. Creative and bright program developers should experiment with these and other ways of facilitating intentional efforts to strengthen the facilitator alliance.
 There have been a few previous studies to examine the facilitator alliance in RE. See: Bradford, A. B., Adler-Baeder, F., Ketring, S. A., & Smith, T. A. (2012). The role of participant-facilitator demographic match in couple and relationship education. Family Relations, 61, 51-64; Owen, J., Rhoades, G., Stanley, S., & Markman, H. (2011). The role of leaders’ working alliance in premarital education. Journal of Family Psychology, 25, 49–57; Quirk, K., Owen, J., Inch, L. J., France, T., & Bergen, C. (2014). The alliance in relationship education programs.Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 40, 178–192.
 Ketring, S. A., Bradford, A. G., Davis, S. Y., Adler-Baeder, F., McGill, J. & Smith, T. A. (2017). The role of the facilitator in couple relationship education. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 43, 374-390.