Are Relationship Educators Front-line Public Health Workers?

by Alan J. Hawkins

The Bottom-line (at the Top): A strong body of research shows that feeling socially connected and especially having high-quality close relationships leads to better health. Relationship educators who are helping couples to form and sustain healthy relationships and marriages are contributing to better health outcomes in society.

Relationship educators are working every day to help individuals and couples form and sustain healthy relationships and marriages. And their heads and hands are buried in the daily details of the work to do it well. In their classes and blog posts, they are a kind of national guard standing ready to help people achieve their aspirations for healthy, happy relationships. It’s challenging but satisfying work.

But it’s good sometimes to step back and see a bigger picture. Relationship educators are doing more than helping to strengthen relationships. I want to give a shout out to all relationship educators for their work as front-line public health workers. That’s right! Public health workers. I made this connection the other day reading a fascinating article by a group of health psychology scholars published in the prestigious and widely-read American Psychologist.[1] They document how a lack of strong social connections is a health-risk factor on par with smoking and junk food diets. Loneliness and poor-quality relationships literally can kill. “Humans need others to survive,” they write. “Regardless of one’s sex, country or culture of origin, or age or economic background, social connection is crucial to human development. The evidence . . . supporting this connection is unequivocal.” They argue that “there are perhaps no other factors that can have such a large impact on both length and quality of life—from the cradle to the grave.”[2] The authors make a strong argument that improving the quantity and quality of social connections in society needs to be a public health priority.

This is where the “aha” moment came for me. The most crucial and beneficial social relationships are those most intimate ones, as these scholars document. Relationship educators are improving health outcomes by helping people gain the knowledge and skills needed to form and sustain healthy relationships and marriages. The article’s authors are mildly aware of relationship education (RE) and that public funds have been used to support RE efforts. They didn’t do a good job of reviewing the effectiveness of RE, unfortunately, and even hint at disappointing results of evaluation studies of early federal efforts to support RE for lower income couples. I think there is a stronger case to be made for RE.[3] But I’ll give the authors a pass on this point for now.

The point I want to make is that relationship educators, perhaps without knowing it, are a part of small but growing public health movement to improve physical and mental health outcomes by improving the quality of their social connections, and specifically, those connections that have the biggest impact on health: long-term, intimate relationships. Maybe for your next RE class you should show up wearing green scrubs, sport a stethoscope around your neck, and write out a few prescriptions for your participants.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Holt-Lunstad, J., Robles, T. F., & Sbarra, D. A. (2017). Advancing social connection as a public health priority in the United States. American Psychologist, 72, 517-530.

[2] Holt-Lunstad, J., Robles, T. F., & Sbarra, D. A. (2017). Advancing social connection as a public health priority in the United States. American Psychologist, 72, p. 527.

[3] Here are a couple of my efforts to summarize the effectiveness of RE in general and publically-funded RE: Hawkins, A. J. (2015). Does it work? Effectiveness research on relationship and marriage education. In J. Ponzetti (Ed.), Evidence-based approaches to relationship and marriage education (pp. 60-73). New York: Routledge; Hawkins, A. J. & VanDenBerghe, B. (2014). Facilitating forever: A feasible public policy agenda to help couples form and sustain healthy relationships and enduring marriages. Charlottesville, VA: The National Marriage Project.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Are Relationship Educators Front-line Public Health Workers?”

  1. Great article, Dr. Hawkins. I’ve been a relationship skills educator for several years and have witnessed firsthand class participants make meaningful strides in improving how they listen and speak to their spouses, children, and other key people in their lives. Your article helps verify the observation that healthy relationships make for healthy lives–emotionally, psychologically, socially, physically, and more.

  2. Thank you, Alan. Your perspective here is spot on and this piece will be of great value in helping us expand the vision of funders about the value of Relationship Education. Bravo and thank you!

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