Does Relationship Education Improve Children’s Well-being?

by Alan J. Hawkins

The Bottom-Line (at the Top): This blog builds on Jennifer’s blog last week on how RE can affect children’s social skills. The ultimate purpose of couple relationship education (CRE) is to improve couple relationships as a way to increase their children’s well-being. A small number of CRE evaluation studies have shown small effects on children’s well-being. The most recent one of the “Parents as Partners” program in Great Britain not only found that the program strengthens couple relationships and improves individual psychological well-being, but it also increased fathers’ involvement with their children and reduced their children’s emotional and behavioral problems.

Sure, there is a lot of evidence that CRE programs can strengthen couple relationships. But does this translate into improving children’s lives? Isn’t that the ultimate purpose of RE, especially for those programs funded by our tax dollars and targeted to more disadvantaged individuals and couples.[1] In family policy circles, many argue that the scarce public funds would be better spent directly on, for instance, parenting and co-parenting programs rather than couple education programs. Of course, a lot funding does go to support programs focused on positive parenting and co-parenting. But those in the RE field for years have been arguing that children will benefit from their parents’ participation in RE because the couple relationship is central to the overall family system and parental conflict is likely to spillover to the parent-child relationships (either directly through poorer parenting practices or indirectly through poorer psychological well-being of the parents).[2]

A growing number of RE evaluation studies are testing this argument. Some RE programs, of course, include some parenting and child well-being education in their curricula alongside relationship education.[3] And many believe that this is an important innovation in the field. Carolyn and Philip Cowan, for example, have been promoting this idea for years now and have identified several studies that show RE’s impact on children.[4] Their most recent study again finds evidence that couple programs benefit children.[5] They followed an ethnically diverse group of 97 couples in London who were raising children together (a little more than half of the couples were unmarried). These parent couples participated in the “Parents as Partners” program, adapted slightly from the Cowans’ “Supporting Father Involvement” program in the United States.[6]  It is an intensive 16-week program that focuses on self-care, couple relationship quality, parent-child relationships (with a special focus on the importance of the father-child relationships), intergenerational issues (family-of-origin, in-law relationships), and external stresses and supports.

With a strong focus on self-care and the couple relationship, it’s not surprising that they found significant affects one month after completing the program in:

  • improved individual psychological well-being for mothers and fathers;
  • reductions in parenting stress; and
  • improvement in couple relationship quality (including substantial reductions in conflict among those couples starting the program with high levels of couple conflict and higher levels of violent interactions).
  • For most of these outcomes, those who started the program with higher levels of problems (or lower levels of functioning) benefitted most from the program. (And those who started at higher levels of functioning did not show deterioration.)

What about impacts on children?

  • Fathers reported being more involved with their children.
  • Both mothers and fathers reported declines in their children’s emotional and behavioral problems.

Many RE programs, however, do not include curriculum on parenting. Can gains in relationship quality from RE programs focused just on the couple relationship spillover to benefit parenting and child well-being? I found a couple of studies showing this cross-over effect on such outcomes as father involvement in childcare and father contact with children,[7] but we could use more research in this area to show that simply focusing on the couple relationship can benefit the children of these couples.

Here are some possible implications of the findings of this study to think about:

  • Parenting Curriculum. When you are working with parents, it makes sense to use some precious instructional time to address effective parenting directly, maybe even merging relationship and parenting education. Parenting and childrearing can be potent sources of misunderstanding and conflict between couples. So, addressing parenting directly also serves efforts to help couples deal with disagreements. In addition, many of the principles and practices of good parenting overlap with principles and practices of good romantic relationships. Plus, many practitioners report that some couples will come to a program with parenting instruction that would hesitate if it was only a program focused on romantic relationships.
  • Problems are Opportunities. This study also found what many other studies also are finding: those who come to RE with problems and distress are the ones who are gaining the most. We need to rethink the meaning of prevention. In RE, prevention means helping struggling couples fix some things before problems put the survival of the relationship in jeopardy. We don’t need to be afraid that couples with real challenges are coming to RE. We can be open with our participants that having tough problems is normal, seeking help to solve problems is really smart (and many don’t do it), and participating in RE is going to help them resolve problems and strengthen their relationships.



[1] 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.

[2] For a nice summary of this argument, see: Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2014). Controversies in couple relationship education (CRE): Overlooked evidence and implications for research and policy. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 20, 361-383.

[3] Some examples include: “Supporting Father Involvement”: Cowan et al. (2014). Evaluating a couples group to enhance father involvement in low-income families using a benchmark comparison. Family Relations, 63, 356-370. doi: 10.1111/fare.12072; “Caring for My Family”: *Cox, R. B. J., & Shirer, K. A. (2009). Caring For My Family: A pilot study of a relationship and marriage education program for low-income unmarried parents. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, (8), 343–364; “Family Foundations”: Feinberg, M. E., Jones, D. E., Hostetler, M. L., Roettger, M. E., Paul, I. M., & Ehrenthal, D. B. (2016). Couple-focused prevention at the transition to parenthood, a randomized trial: Effects on co-parenting, parenting, family violence, and parent and child adjustment. Prevention Science, 17(6), 751–764; Solmeyer, A. R., Feinberg, M. E., Coffman, D. L., & Jones, D. E. (2014). The effects of the Family Foundations Prevention Program on co-parenting and child adjustment: A mediation analysis. Prevention Science, 15(2), 213–23. doi: 10.1007/s11121-013-0366-x; “Smart Steps”: Lucier‐Greer, M., Adler‐Baeder, F., Harcourt, K. T., & Gregson, K. D. (2014). Relationship education for stepcouples reporting relationship instability—evaluation of the Smart Steps: Embrace the Journey curriculum. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy40(4), 454–469. doi: 10.1111/jmft.12069

[4] Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2014). Controversies in couple relationship education (CRE): Overlooked evidence and implications for research and policy. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 4, 361-383. doi: 10.1037/law0000025

[5] Casey, P., Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Draper, L., Mwamba, N., & Hewison, D. (2017). Parents as Partners: A U.K. trial of a U.S. couples-based parenting intervention for at-risk low-income families. Family Process, 56, 589-606.

[6] Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Pruett, M. K., Pruett, K., & Wong, J. J. (2009). Promoting fathers’ engagement with children: Preventative interventions for low-income families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 663-679.

[7] Harcourt, K. T., Adler-Baeder, F., Raurer, A., Pettit, G. S., & Erath, S. (2017). Relationship education for incarcerated adults. Family Process, 56, 75-90. doi: 10.1111/famp.12164; Hawkins, A. J., Lovejoy, K. R., Holmes, E. K., Blanchard, V. L., & Fawcett, E. (2008). Increasing fathers’ involvement in child care with a couple-focused intervention during the transition to parenthood. Family Relations, 57, 49–59. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2007.00482.x