By Sarah Hokanson
Bottom-Line First: A distinguished team of relationship education researcher-practitioners compiled a set of best practices in RE gathered and synthesized from research over the past several decades.
There has been an enormous amount of research over the last four of decades about relationship education (RE), probably approaching 500 studies now. A recent article, written by a team of leading researcher-practitioners led by Scott Stanley, identified best practices for RE programs for intimate relationships gleaned from this abundant research and practical experience.
Below is a summary of many of their findings:
- Targeting. RE generally has participants who fall into three categories: couples who attend together, individuals who attend alone but come with a focus on their current relationship, and individuals not in a relationship who come alone and focus on their individual relationship behaviors and decision-making.
– Couples attending together have the advantage of being able to learn and implement skills together and may benefit from more couple activities in class.
– Individuals in a relationship but who are attending alone may need specific help taking what they learn and sharing it with their partner to integrate new knowledge and skills into the relationship.
– Individuals who are not focusing on a current relationship could use education about different things, including different relationship types, making decisions about commitment, recognizing relationship red flags, and managing children from prior relationships with a new partner.
– It is important to make decisions about which groups you are going to have participate in your RE program and then make sure that the curriculum addresses their situations and needs.
- Distressed participants. In RE, we often get a lot of people with significant relationship or personal distress and we need to be prepared for this. It could be beneficial to survey participants and get an idea of their goals. In addition, integrating therapeutic services into the program model (e.g., capacity to refer to counseling) or providing better screening for therapeutic needs could lead to better outcomes for couples.
- RE as a gateway service. Unlike therapy, substance use treatment, or other services, RE is not stigmatized. This gives RE an advantage in getting people to our programs. Because of this, it can be important to provide information about other services that could be valuable for participants. Being approachable and creating a good environment can help participants be more willing to talk to program leaders about other services and more open to attending other programs. Support for RE programs has been criticized for focusing on internal relationship dynamics instead of improving the stressful circumstances of people’s lives. RE can help stressed people get more help.
- Promoting safe relationships. Our job in RE is to promote healthy relationships, which in some cases may mean relationship break-up. Focus on promoting emotional and physical safety and preventing domestic violence. Sometimes RE programs will exclude couples who report IPV. However, this usually is not a good idea because it removes participants who have real need. RE can help to reduce IPV, and this may be one of their only options to get help. Additionally, educators can help participants experiencing IPV to access other resources. Recognize that some class participants are experiencing or have experienced IPV. It might be a good idea to provide everyone with information about getting help for different things including, substance abuse, economic troubles, mental health problems, and aggression or domestic violence. This way, everyone will have access to resources, even those who you may not have a need right then. Few RE programs provide training on healthy break-ups. We may need to find a way to do a better job of this.
- Format and dose. Dose (the length of the program) and format (how often you meet) are important aspects of RE programs. When deciding format and dose, consider the population, setting, and resources. Research shows that 12-18-hour programs may be more effective than shorter programs (less than 9 hours). However, short programs can still be helpful and are more cost efficient. And they may attract some who could not invest as much time. There are pros and cons to different formats, but ultimately it is dependent on what works best for your situation and audience. Something that hasn’t been tried much in the field is breaking up curricula into shorter chunks and encouraging participants to come back for more help on a regular basis – a set of shorter programs rather than one intensive program. A good experience in a shorter program might encourage more investment over a longer period of time.
- Facilitator training. Training for educators can be very beneficial. If the program developers provide training, you should use it. In-person training, when available, rather than online training, is generally best.
- Facilitator-participant relationship. Having a good working alliance between facilitators and participants leads to better outcomes for program participants. Educators should show participants that they care, understand participants’ goals, and respect participants. Educators also need to be perceived as competent and provide an approach that is a good fit for the population they are serving. Matching facilitator and participant demographic characteristics can be helpful, but research is mixed on how much this really impacts program effectiveness.
- Adaptation. Adaptation of RE programs can be useful. Some adaptions for specific populations may be better left to program developers instead of being adapted into the curriculum (e.g., same-sex couples). Other times, however, concepts and strategies will often stay the same across different groups, but examples and materials can be adapted to fit diverse experiences (e.g., new-parent couples). Or course, this requires that educators understand the populations they are working with.
- Skills-based approaches and coaching. Providing coaching when teaching skills leads to stronger positive outcomes. Having one coach per couple would be the ideal. Where this is not possible, have coaches available to answer couples’ questions as they practice skills and take time for any other questions after the activity. Coaches should attend the whole program and receive training before working as coaches.
- Recruitment strategies. There are active and passive kinds of recruitment. Active recruitment has the advantage of reaching a lot of people, but it has lower levels of enrollment and higher levels of attrition. The people reached through active recruitment may be facing distress, but they are often not actively seeking help. Passive recruitment has the advantage of reaching more people who are seeking help. These people are more motivated and therefore less likely to drop out. Using a combination of active and passive recruitment strategies may be ideal. Focusing recruitment on a specific target audience tends to reach participants with better relationship functioning. This makes them better suited for a preventative education program. Useful strategies for recruitment include developing good community partnerships, identifying marketing materials and a pitch that gives potential participants an understanding of the program’s emphasis,
- Barriers to participation. Find ways to address the barriers to participation within your population. Doing this could include finding programs that have been successful in reaching similar populations or talking to other educators about their methods for getting past barriers. Some major barriers to participation include childcare and transportation. When providing childcare, it is a good idea to make sure it is high quality and includes engaging activities. Depending on funding, you can address transportation by providing shuttle services or having fewer, but longer, sessions. Online programs also help to lower the barriers to participation and can be useful in some situations.
- Curriculum fidelity. When using research-based curriculum, it is best to stay close to the lesson plan and methods, because they are generally backed by good pedagogical theory and research. Even when you choose to adjust programs, use the materials provided in the curriculum. This helps to keep consistency and make sure that all participants get the same information. Checklists can be used to make sure that all core content is covered, and, in larger projects, sessions could be recorded on occasion so that supervisors can give facilitators feedback. “Curriculum drift” is common; don’t be passive about it.
- Maintaining gains. Research shows that booster sessions are an effective way to help participants maintain the improvements from the program. Think of creative ways to offer booster sessions that review old material and perhaps add a little more. In addition, RE has shown that it can encourage participants to have a positive mindset about seeking help that will lead them to consider RE and other services (e.g., counseling) in the future when they are in need.
We all want to improve our programs to provide the best education and outcomes for all our participants. These best practices, gleaned from decades of research and practice, can help.
 Stanley, S. M., Carlson, R. G., Rhoades, G. K., Markman, H. J., Ritchie, L. L., & Hawkins, A. J. (2020). Best practices in relationship education focused on intimate relationships. Family Relations, 69, 497–519. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12419