The “Zenith Problem” in Relationship Education

Confronting Our Biggest Challenge for the Future

by Alan J. Hawkins

The Bottom-line (at the Top): The relationship education (RE) field has never been stronger. There is substantial public funding supporting RE, especially for more at-risk individuals and couples. Talented scholars have published hundreds of evaluation studies testing program effectiveness and mechanisms of change, with another wave of good research on the horizon. There is effective leadership. We could be seeing the zenith of our field. So, what’s the problem? The work we are doing just won’t have the kind of societal impact that we need it to have. Innovations — big changes — are needed in the field if we are going to have a noteworthy impact . And we may be stuck in our current successes. 

[Warning: this is a long-winded blog. You might want to freshen that cup of coffee first.]

It’s better to have problems resulting from success than failure, but regardless, problems are problems. I think the biggest challenge facing the RE field is a result of our success, especially recent success. Over the past decade, we have experienced an unprecedented level of public funding for RE efforts to stretch our work to more at-risk individuals and couples. By my count, we are now north of $1.5 billion allocated to support this work. We have seen a flourishing of good curricula tailored for specific groups of people in specific circumstances. We are reaching needy individuals and couples with well-designed RE programs in non-trivial numbers.[1] My ongoing count puts us approaching 1.5 million RE participants reached through these publicly-supported programs. Of course, this figure doesn’t include millions more reached through private RE efforts. We have some tremendous leaders in the field, both practitioners and scholars.

And as a RE scholar, I’m keenly tuned into the research. The quantity and quality of RE evaluation research has never been better. There have been more than 300 RE evaluation studies and the pace over the past decade has picked up.[2] Another wave of rigorous evaluation studies is on the horizon due to federal funds now allocated for program evaluation research. And it’s not just the quantity; in my judgment, the quality of the work is the best it has ever been. A cadre of talented scholars are dedicated to this work, doing rigorous work with diverse populations in divers family circumstances. Overall, they are showing that RE works, but just as important, a lot of good research now is beginning to show who it works for best and how it works, illuminating the mechanisms of change.[3]

I think we are approaching the zenith of the RE field. But more and more I’m worried about the field’s future. We are facing a “zenith problem.” Is that an oxymoron? How can the accumulation of such successes be a source of concern? Even while celebrating our accomplishments, my mind is drawn to problems for RE on the horizon. In short, my biggest worry is the lack of innovation in the field that will help us solve our biggest problems: reach and effectiveness.

The need for effective RE is enormous. The evidence of people struggling to achieve their relationship and family aspirations is overwhelming, especially for more disadvantaged populations.[4] Our efforts to make quality RE programs available to meet this need are laudable and there is even some early evidence that we are making a little bit of difference in key measures of family well-being in our society.[5] Still, our efforts are overmatched by the need. We can help a few, and we should be proud of that. But from a societal perspective, our RE services are not making a big enough dent in the problem.

I think we are constrained by the field’s clinical roots. The modern RE field traces its genealogy back to couple therapy.[6] But instead of one-on-one clinical intervention, trained educators began offering educational programs to help small groups of couples gain knowledge and skills needed to form and sustain healthy and stable relationships. We said we were focused on prevention of problems. But we figured these educational interventions still needed people to come to us and invest 8-30 hours of their precious time. There are so many important things to learn to form and sustain a healthy relationship and marriage – and so many ways that things can go wrong – that we built intensive curricula that covered a lot of ground. Only a small percentage of people, however, will invest. Moreover, the people who generally need help the most don’t have the resources to access these services. So, that’s why we dug into the public coffers for help to make these programs available to more disadvantaged individuals and couples.[7] Social justice seems to demand that. But its takes a lot of money to run a successful program. Realistically, we will never have enough to meet the need. And it’s not just money. It’s just plain hard to recruit and retain program participants.

I think the feds invested funds in demonstration RE programs hoping that the public funding would convince many organizations and agencies that RE for more disadvantaged individuals and couples was a wise and cost-effective idea, and that they would integrate these kinds of programs into their ongoing, regular services, even if/when the federal funds ran out. I don’t see much evidence this has happened. Some service providers were doing RE work before the funds came with private nickels and dimes and they are trying to keep it going without federal funds. But I also have a good deal of anecdotal data that local RE services shrivel and die in these organizations when the federal money dries up. And states are not knocking on the door, wanting to get involved. With only a couple of exceptions, they have willingly left this  whole healthy marriage initiative thing to the feds.

Ironically, I think the strides we have made in the field over the past decade, especially with public funds for our work, have now put us in a vulnerable position. Public funds come with rules and constraints. Right now, those rules almost require that we provide only traditional RE services: classes for small groups of (or home visits to) lower income volunteer participants willing to give us a lot of their time. As a result, I think most of the energy and attention in the field now is focused on traditional services. Yes, we have developed and learned how to get good programs to more at-risk groups. This has been an important, positive development in the field over the past decade. But though we are getting RE to different folks, we still have the same problem: we can’t get it to enough of them, even with more funding than we have now. Innovation that dramatically increases reach and substantially improves effectiveness is needed. It’s going to take non-traditional approaches to RE to meet the challenges of reach and effectiveness. And right now, our energy as a field is focused on traditional RE.

As relationship educators, maybe we should just be satisfied with the small but important successes we are having helping a few more individuals and couples form and sustain healthy relationships and marriages. No social program (i.e., Head Start, WIC) reaches all who are eligible for the services. Maybe we should hold fast to our clinical roots – just see ourselves as interventionists working on the problem in a little different way. We will do our small part and hope that others will find a way to tackle the bigger societal problem. As individual educators, I have no beef with this attitude. But I don’t think it is sufficient for the RE field as a whole. The field needs to be a social change agent, not just a service provider. And at some point, if we are only providing a nice service to a few people rather than making a measurable dent in a big problem, we will be criticized as irrelevant. (In fact, we are being so accused already.)[8]

How are we going to reach more and be more effective? Paradoxically, I’ve come to believe that less will be more in this situation. I think relationship educators need to grow beyond their interventionist roots and adopt a public health mentality. The public health field has shown that it can make measurable dents in big problems; smoking, car safety, teen pregnancy are just three examples of how dedicated public health efforts have not only helped improve individual lives but also substantially reduced a societal problem (and saved taxpayers money).[9] I just read some things that suggest that two decades of public health efforts to attack obesity are starting to get traction. When public health goes at a problem, it attacks it at multiple levels. Yes, there is some funding for educational programs for those who want to invest precious time to get to a healthier weight. I suspect there are even funds for more clinical, one-on-one work. But public health makes its biggest contribution by trying to find those cultural levers that shape our choices and behaviors and then trying to pull them. We are not going to see a substantial downturn in obesity in our society because some people decide to attend intensive educational programs focused on diet and exercise. Instead, public health professionals are flooding media with short, consumable, but powerful messages about how to be healthier, making it smart and cool to eat better, avoid empty calories, and be more active. Public health has raised consciousness and spurred a myriad of little innovations that support health. Young people are  the most important targets of public health messages about obesity (because it is so difficult to reduce weight once it is on). And public health builds consensus to make possible public policy changes (e.g., reducing high-sugar, high-fat snacks in schools, placing nutrition/calorie information on packaging).

Now, I’m not optimistic that we can get public health leaders to take on relational health as a new client, even if we package it as a crucial element of mental health (which it is). It has a big enough task (and limited resources) trying to improve physical and mental health. But the RE field can borrow the ideas and tools of public health to serve the purpose of improving relational health in our society, including effective media campaigns, creative micro-interventions (nudges), and other means.

Can less be more? I think it can. An accumulation of micro-messages and micro-interventions can embed powerful ideas in our heads and hearts over time that can nudge our attitudes and behaviors for better. More nudges, fewer interventions, I say! I believe in the power of small ideas to create sustained change.  Moreover, we can provide these messages at earlier ages before young people start accumulating the heavy relational baggage that makes it harder and harder to form and sustain healthy, stable relationships and marriages. And we can provide these wise nudges at crucial time points across the lifespan, not just at one time with one class.

Even more significantly, all these little nudges can add up to cultural-level change about how we think and act in relationships. We are cultural creatures; we go with the cultural flow. We will make a difference for millions not just thousands each year. If we can change the culture – and there is ample evidence that public health efforts can do that – we can make measurable increases in the overall relational health of society. As a relationship education field, that should be our #1 goal.

But it will take a higher level of innovation to get there than we are giving right now. We are rightly enjoying our success but have become too set in our traditional approaches that help a few but make little progress in addressing the overall societal problem. Please don’t misunderstand me: there is still a great need and an important role for traditional RE with its face-to-face, small-group interventions, just as there remains a need for couple therapists. But that level of work needs to be more in the background of our overall strategy to improve the relational health of our society. RE should be a valuable supplement to cultural-level education and change, not our front-line effort. (And I think that traditional RE still could use a freshening of its common content to align with significant advances in relationship science.)

Yes, this would be a big change for the field. We would need to learn new theories and approaches. No doubt we will need to take greater advantage of technological innovations to help us. And I suspect that it will take a new generation of younger practitioners and scholars to show us the way. They will need to learn how to communicate more with less, to package more power for change into potent, smaller pills of relational health, to develop innovative levers that can lift the heavy load of widespread relationship problems. And their messages and nudges will need to be more regular and timely.

Can we make these needed changes while still drinking from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) funding fountain that has helped us get traditional RE to more disadvantaged individuals and couples over the last decade? I don’t want to interrupt the progress we’ve made here, although I’m well aware of the mixed evaluation results on these efforts so far.[10] But I’d like to see a compromise solution. For the next round of federal grants (anticipated in 2020), set aside 33% of the funds for innovation grants that get outside the box of traditional, face-to-face classes. ACF actually has become quite interested in principles of behavioral economics (the science of nudging human choices in the right direction) that can guide more effective and efficient interventions.[11]

As we celebrate National Marriage Week this week, let’s appreciate but not settle for our current success; the problem of relational health in our society is too big and too important. While we are basking in the sunlight of accumulated successes, it will be hard for all of us to see the darker clouds lurking over the horizon. This is the “zenith problem” that confronts us. I hope we are up to the challenge.

I’d like to hear what you are thinking about all this. So I’ll turn on the comments function.




[2] For reviews of this large body of work, see: Blanchard, V. L., 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. doi:10.1037/a0015211; Fawcett, E., Hawkins, A., Blanchard, V., & Carroll, J. (2010). Do premarital education programs really work? A meta-analytic study. Family Relations, 59, 232–239. doi:10.1111.j.1741-3729.2010.00598.x; Hawkins, A., Blanchard, V., Baldwin, S., & Fawcett, E. (2008). Does marriage and relationship education work? A meta-analytic study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 723–734. doi:10.1037.a0012584; Hawkins, A., & Erickson, S. (2015). Is couple and relationship education effective for lower income participants? A meta-analytic study. Journal of Family Psychology, 29, 59–68. doi:10.1037.fam0000045; Hawkins, A. J., Stanley, S. M., Blanchard, V. L., & Albright, M. (2012). Exploring programmatic moderators of the effectiveness of marriage and relationship education: A meta-analytic study. Behavior Therapy, 43, 77-87; Lucier‐Greer, M., & Adler‐Baeder, F. (2012). Does couple and relationship education work for individuals in stepfamilies? A meta‐analytic study. Family Relations, 61, 756–769. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00728.x; Pinquart, M., & Teubert, D. (2010). A meta-analytic study of couple interventions during the transition to parenthood. Family Relations, 59, 221–231. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2010.00597.x; Simpson, D. M., Leonhardt, N. D., & Hawkins, A. J. (2017). Learning about love: A meta-analytic study of individually oriented relationship education programs for adolescents and emerging adults. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. doi: 10.1007/s10964-017-0725-1

[3] For a review of of these process studies, see: Hawkins, A. J., Erickson Allen, S. E., & Yang, C. (2017). How does couple and relationship education affect relationship hope? An intervention-process study with lower income couples. Family Relations. doi: 10.1111/fare.12268.

[4] Sawhill, I. V. (2014). Generation unbound: Drifting into sex and parenthood without marriage. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution; Cherlin, A. J. (2009). The marriage-go-round. New York: Knopf.

[5] Hawkins, A. J., Amato, P. R., & Kinghorn, A. (2013). Are government-supported healthy marriage initiatives affecting family demographics? A state-level analysis. Family Relations, 62, 501-513.

[6] Halford, W. K. (2011). Marriage and relationship education. New York: Guilford.

[7] Randles, J. M. (2017). Proposing prosperity: Marriage education policy and inequality in America. New York: Columbia University.

[8] Randles, J. M. (2017). Proposing prosperity? Marriage education policy and inequality in America. New York: Columbia University.

[9] Hornik, R. C. (2002). Public health communication: Evidence for behavior change. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[10] See my musings on this at:

[11] Richburg-Hayes, L., Anzelone, C., & Dechausay, N., with Landers, P. (2017). Nudging change in human services: Final report of the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) Project. OPRE Report 2017-23. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

One thought on “The “Zenith Problem” in Relationship Education”

  1. One of our recent recruitment strategies has been partnering with large local employers to have our RE programming supported by their EAP staff and sometimes even included as part of their wellness programs, where they may earn incentives with their employers for taking our classes. Some very easily recognize relational health as an important part of overall wellness. I’m encouraged by this.

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