Who Benefits Most from Relationship Education?

A Review of Recent Relationship Education Research

by Hailey Palmer and Alan J. Hawkins

The Bottom-Line First: We conducted an extensive search, digging deep into the last 6 years of research in the relationship education (RE) field to find studies that tested which groups benefit the most from participating in RE programs. We discovered dozens of studies that consistently pointed to distressed, disadvantaged, and racial-ethnic minority groups benefitting more than other groups.

As relationship educators, we are passionate in our belief that everyone can benefit from programs that aid in developing and strengthening healthy romantic relationships. However, research shows that not all groups of people reap the same rewards from participating in relationship education (RE) programs. In fact, some groups may benefit significantly more than others, maybe indicating that they need RE the most. But who are these groups? We turned to the past 6 years of research to give us a clearer idea.

Martha Wadsworth and Howard Markman published a seminal article in 2012 entitled, “Where’s the Action? Understanding What Works and Why in Relationship Education,”[1] that urged the field to go beyond asking, “Does this program work?” to “How does it work and who benefits the most?” Over the past 6 years, many researchers have heeded their call. We looked for studies from 2013-2019 that addressed the question: “Who benefits most from RE?” (We also looked at studies that helped us understand better how/why relationship education works; that will be the topic of our next blog post).

We looked for multiple studies with consistent findings across studies. Just as a one- or two-legged stool shouldn’t be trusted to be stable, we should be careful in making conclusions before multiple studies have replicated findings. For our purposes, we decided not to trust findings yet unless there were at least three studies and nearly all of them pointed consistently in the same direction. Findings from stand-alone impact studies are not enough to determine who benefits most from a program. Such findings should be replicated by multiple studies before we can be confident of who benefits more. We provide here a summary of which groups of participants were consistently found by three or more studies to benefit most from RE (and which groups may need more focus in future research).

Here is what we found:

  • The most consistent finding (with almost 19 studies in agreement) was that distressed couples benefit from RE significantly more than non-distressed couples.[2] Distressed couples saw larger effects, greater changes, and more success after participating in relationship education.
  • Many studies found that more disadvantaged couples and individuals (e.g., less educated, lower income) showed greater increases in relationship quality, communication, and relationship satisfaction after participating in RE than those with less risk.[3] In this case, disadvantage was an advantage!
  • Racial/Ethnic Minority. In a handful of studies, participants who belonged to racial or ethnic minority groups benefitted more from RE.[4] Several studies pointed to Hispanic participants as benefitting most.
  • The findings for gender were all over the place, with a handful of studies finding greater impacts for men, other studies finding greater impacts for women, and still others claiming significantly different benefits for both genders depending on the outcome studied. While many studies indeed found gender differences, we don’t see a distinguishable and reliable pattern.[5]
  • Other groups. We found only one study claiming that participants who started RE with lower psychological well-being benefitted most.[6] Likewise, only one study reported that participants with a history of cohabitation scored lower on communication, conflict resolution skills, and relationship satisfaction compared to participants who had never cohabited.[7] As more research is conducted on how RE impacts these groups, we may begin to see more consistency.

Our findings have important implications for relationship educators:

  • Good news. Some scholars have criticized RE programs because, they argue, the programs are designed for White, middle-class individuals and won’t be helpful to less advantaged individuals (or even may harm them).[8] Our review of the research suggests that these concerns may be misplaced. Also, some critics worry that RE programs are not geared to helping distressed couples who make up a significant proportion of RE classes.[9] They see them as enrichment programs that help already well-functioning couples and prevent deterioration. Again, our review of recent research suggests that distressed couples are benefitting from RE programs.
  • Focus recruiting efforts. Market segmentation is a marketing strategy used when business owners discover which populations of people are most likely to benefit from their product and then focus their efforts on promoting their product to those groups of people. RE practitioners may want to give greater focus to distressed, disadvantaged, and minority groups when creating and promoting relationship education programs, so that they effectively reach and assist those who will benefit from RE the most.
  • Vary program intensity. Relationship educators may want to consider offering more and less intensive versions of their programs. Non-distressed and lower risk individuals and couples may get adequate benefit from less intensive versions, while saving resources for more distressed and disadvantaged individuals and couples who could benefit more from intensive programs.

Endnotes:

[1] Wadsworth, M. E., & Markman, H. J. (2012). Where’s the action? Understanding what works and why in relationship education. Behavior Therapy, 43, 99-112. doi: 10.1016/j.beth.2011.01.006.

[2] Carlson, R. G., Wheeler, N. J., & Adams, J. J. (2018). The influence of individual‐oriented relationship education on equality and conflict‐related behaviors. Journal of Counseling & Development, 96(2), 144–154. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcad.12188; Coop Gordon, K., Cordova, J. V., Roberson, P. N., Miller, M., Gray, T., Lenger, K. A., … & Martin, K. (2018). An implementation study of relationship checkups as home visitations for low‐income at‐risk couples. Family Process. 58, 247-265 ; Job, A. K., Baucom, D. H., & Hahlweg, K. (2017). Who benefits from couple relationship education? Findings from the largest German CRE study. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 16, 79-101; Bradford, A. B., Drean, L., Adler‐Baeder, F., Ketring, S. A., & Smith, T. A. (2017). It’s about time! Examining received dosage and program duration as predictors of change among non‐distressed and distressed married couple and relationship education participants. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 43, 391-409; Carlson, R. G., Rappleyea, D. L., Daire, A. P., Harris, S. M., & Liu, X. (2017). The effectiveness of couple and individual relationship education: Distress as a moderator. Family Process, 56, 91-104; Casey, P., Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Draper, L., Mwamba, N., & Hewison, D. (2017). Parents as partners: A UK trial of a US couples‐based parenting intervention for at‐risk low‐income families. Family Process, 56, 589-60; Thuen, F., Masche-No, J. G., & Raffing, R. (2017). Do heterosexual couples with children benefit equally from relationship education programs despite various backgrounds? effects of a Danish version of the prevention and relationship education program (PREP). Scandinavian Psychologist, 4, e-12: https://doi.org/10.15714/scandpsychol.4.e12; Hawkins, A. J., 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, 66, 441-452; Bradford, A. B., Drean, L., Adler‐Baeder, F., Ketring, S. A., & Smith, T. A. (2017). It’s about time! Examining received dosage and program duration as predictors of change among non‐distressed and distressed married couple and relationship education participants. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 43, 391-409; McGill, J., Adler‐Baeder, F., Bradford, A. B., Kerpelman, J., Ketring, S. A., & Sollie, D. (2016). The role of relational instability on individual and partner outcomes following couple relationship education participation. Family Relations, 65, 407-423; Halford, W. K., Pepping, C. A., Hilpert, P., Bodenmann, G., Wilson, K. L., Busby, D., … & Holman, T. (2015). Immediate effect of couple relationship education on low-satisfaction couples: A randomized clinical trial plus an uncontrolled trial replication. Behavior Therapy, 46, 409-421 Epstein, K., Pruett, M. K., Cowan, P., Cowan, C., Pradhan, L., Mah, E., & Pruett, K. (2015). More than one way to get there: Pathways of change in coparenting conflict after a preventive intervention. Family Process, 54, 610-618; Williamson, H. C., Rogge, R. D., Cobb, R. J., Johnson, M. D., Lawrence, E., & Bradbury, T. N. (2015). Risk moderates the outcome of relationship education: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 83, 617-629; Mitchell, A. M., Owen, J., Adelson, J. L., France, T., Inch, L. J., Bergen, C., & Lindel, A. (2015). The influence of dyadic coping in relationship education for low‐income racial and ethnic minority couples. Journal of Family Therapy, 37, 492-508; Ma, Y., Pittman, J. F., Kerpelman, J. L., & Adler, B. F. (2014). Relationship education and classroom climate impact on adolescents’ standards for partners/relationships. Family Relations, 63, 453–468; https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12084 ; Quirk, K., Strokoff, J., Owen, J. J., France, T., & Bergen, C. (2014). Relationship education in community settings: Effectiveness with distressed and non‐distressed low‐income racial minority couples. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 40, 442–453. https://doi.org/10.1111/jmft.12080; Rauer, A. J., Adler-Baeder, F., Lucier-Greer, M., Skuban, E., Ketring, S. A., & Smith, T. (2014). Exploring processes of change in couple relationship education: Predictors of change in relationship quality. Journal of Family Psychology, 28, 65–76. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035502; Bradford, A. B., Adler, B. F., Ketring, S. A., Bub, K. L., Pittman, J. F., & Smith, T. A. (2014). Relationship quality and depressed affect among a diverse sample of relationally unstable relationship education participants. Family Relations, 63, 219–231. https://doi.org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1111/fare.12064 ; Markman, H. J., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Peterson, K. M. (2013). A randomized clinical trial of the effectiveness of premarital intervention: Moderators of divorce outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 27, 165–172. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1037/a0031134.

[3] Thuen, F., Masche-No, J. G., & Raffing, R. (2017). Do heterosexual couples with children benefit equally from relationship education programs despite various backgrounds? effects of a Danish version of the prevention and relationship education program (PREP). Scandinavian Psychologist, 4, e-12: https://doi.org/10.15714/scandpsychol.4.e12; 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. doi: 10.1037/ccp0000056; Amato, P. R. (2014). Does social and economic disadvantage moderate the effects of relationship education on unwed couples? An analysis of data from the 15‐month Building Strong Families evaluation. Family Relations, 63, 343–355; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Loew, B. A., Allen, E. S., Carter, S., Osborne, L. J., … Markman, H. J. (2014). A randomized controlled trial of relationship education in the US Army: 2‐year outcomes. Family Relations, 63, 482–495. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12083.

[4] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Loew, B. A., Allen, E. S., Carter, S., Osborne, L. J., … Markman, H. J. (2014). A randomized controlled trial of relationship education in the US Army: 2‐year outcomes. Family Relations, 63, 482–495. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12083; Rauer, A. J., Adler-Baeder, F., Lucier-Greer, M., Skuban, E., Ketring, S. A., & Smith, T. (2014). Exploring processes of change in couple relationship education: Predictors of change in relationship quality. Journal of Family Psychology, 28, 65–76. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035502 ; Kruenegel, F. D., McEnturff, A., Acker, J., Jacobson, A., Kildare, C., & Hawkins, A. J. (2013). Perceived relationship improvement from premarital and relationship education. Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 42(2), 98–109. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1111/fcsr.12045.

[5] Li, Z. (2018). Effects of PREPARE/ENRICH couple relationship education for Chinese college students in heterosexual exclusive dating relationships. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering. ProQuest Information & Learning; Kröger, C., Kliem, S., Zimmermann, P., & Kowalski, J. (2018). Short‐term‐effectiveness of a relationship education program for distressed military couples, in the context of foreign assignments for the German armed forces. Preliminary findings from a randomized controlled study. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 44, 248-264; Futris, T. G., Sutton, T. E., & Duncan, J. C. (2017). Factors associated with romantic relationship self‐efficacy following youth‐focused relationship dducation. Family Relations, 66, 777-793; Bradford, K., Stewart, J. W., Pfister, R., & Higginbotham, B. J. (2016). Avoid falling for a jerk(ette): Effectiveness of the premarital interpersonal choices and knowledge program among emerging adults. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 42, 630–644. doi: 10.1111/jmft.12174.; Gardner, S. P., Bridges, J. G., Johnson, A., & Pace, H. (2016). Evaluation of the What’s Real: Myth & Facts about Marriage curriculum: Differential impacts of gender. Marriage & Family Review, 52, 579–597. doi: 10.1080/0494929.2016.1157120; McGill, J., Adler‐Baeder, F., Bradford, A. B., Kerpelman, J., Ketring, S. A., & Sollie, D. (2016). The role of relational instability on individual and partner outcomes following couple relationship education participation. Family Relations, 65, 407-423; Gambrel, L. E., & Piercy, F. P. (2015). Mindfulness‐based relationship education for couples expecting their first child—Part 1: A randomized mixed‐methods program evaluation. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 41, 5-24; Stavrianopoulos, K. (2015). Enhancing relationship satisfaction among college student couples: An emotionally focused therapy (EFT) approach. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 14, 1-16; Polanchek, S. (2014). Effects of individual-oriented relationship education on university students’ knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes. https://scholarworks.umt.edu/etd/10774/; Whittaker, A., Adler-Baeder, F., & Garneau, C. (2014). The effects of relationship education on adolescent traditional gender role attitudes and dating violence acceptance. Journal of Human Sciences and Extension, 2, 59-69; Hall, Y. (2014). Cohabitation effect among Hispanic couples: An appraisal of a relationship education program. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering. ProQuest Information & Learning. Retrieved from https://www-lib-byu-edu.erl.lib.byu.edu/cgi-bin/remoteauth.pl?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=psyh&AN=2014-99080-249&site=ehost-live&scope=site; Carlson, R. G., Barden, S. M., Daire, A. P., & Greene, J. (2014). Influence of relationship education on relationship satisfaction for low‐income couples. Journal of Counseling & Development, 92, 418–427. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6676.2014.00168.x.

[6] Stavrianopoulos, K. (2015). Enhancing relationship satisfaction among college student couples: An emotionally focused therapy (EFT) approach. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 14, 1-16.

[7] Hall, Y. (2014). Cohabitation effect among Hispanic couples: An appraisal of a relationship education program. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering. ProQuest Information & Learning. Retrieved from https://www-lib-byu-edu.erl.lib.byu.edu/cgi-bin/remoteauth.pl?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=psyh&AN=2014-99080-249&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

[8] Johnson, M. D. (2012). Healthy marriage initiatives: On the need for empiricism in policy implementation. American Psychologist, 67, 296–308; Randles, J. M. (2017). Proposing prosperity: Marriage education policy and inequality in America. New York: Columbia University.

[9] Bradford, A., Hawkins, A. J., & Acker, J. (2014). If we build it, they will come: Exploring policy and practice implications of public support for couple and relationship education for lower income and relationally distressed couples. Family Process, 54, 639-64. doi: 10.1111/famp.12151.