For the Children: Does Couple and Relationship Education Influence Child Well-Being Through Enhanced Couple Functioning?

by Hailey Palmer

The Bottom-Line First: The Supporting Father Involvement program is a co-parenting, preventative intervention aimed at strengthening the couple relationship and increasing the quantity and quality of fathers’ involvement. An evaluation study published just last month reported that the Supporting Father Involvement program reduces couple conflict and by so doing leads to less harsh parenting which leads to fewer child behavior problems.

The ultimate goal and purpose of relationship education, especially when federally funded and encouraged through public policy, is to improve child well-being. However, program evaluations focused specifically on how couple and relationship education (CRE) can directly affect children are few and far between.[1] The majority of evaluation studies conducted on CRE programs focus solely on how the intervention impacts the couple relationship. However, some researchers have sought to understand how CRE might influence child well-being and have reported an interesting phenomenon. It seems that strengthening the couple relationship may lead to increases in positive parenting practices, thus impacting the well-being of children.[2]  But why might this be?

Many scholars point to family systems theory for an explanation which suggests a sort of ripple effect that occurs in families. Just as a pebble dropped in a pond causes little waves to radiate outward, causing a stir throughout the water, when one individual or relationship within a family is changed or influenced, the rest of the family will be impacted in some way by that change. Researchers have found this to be especially true when it comes to changes in the couple relationship.[3]

One study illustrating this phenomenon, which was published just last month, evaluated how the Supporting Father Involvement (SFI) intervention impacted couple functioning as well as co-parenting behaviors. Researchers evaluated 239 participants (mothers and fathers/father figures with young children) who were randomly assigned to the SFI program or a wait-list control group. Half of the participants were Mexican American. They participated in the 32-hour program over the course of 16 weeks and were evaluated several times up to a year after the program ended.[4]  Researchers measured changes in couple conflict, parenting behaviors, father involvement, and children’s behavior outcomes.

Here are some of the key findings:

  • Lower conflict. Significant decreases in couple conflict were found as a result of the intervention. These effects were larger than many other CRE programs targeting lower-income couples (d = .42).
  • Better child outcomes. This reduction in couple conflict led couples to exhibit less anxious and harsh parenting behaviors which, in turn, led to fewer child problems as reported by the parents. The intervention’s theory of change was confirmed. Better parenting resulting from reduced couple conflict relationship led to fewer child behavior problems.
  • Higher conflict couples experienced greater increases. Couples who had a higher level of conflict before the intervention showed greater decreases in couple conflict than those who started the program with lower levels of conflict.
  • Effects maintained. Couples whose conflict was lower after the intervention ended were more likely to describe lower conflict almost a year later and were also more likely to describe themselves as using less anxious/harsh parenting.
  • Increase in income. There was an unexpected and fascinating finding in this study. Household income in the intervention group increased more than $5000 on average compared to the control group. Although this finding needs to be tested further in the research,[5] the authors speculate that improved relations between the parents may help them be more focused and productive at work.

These are important findings that have several implications for relationship educators:

  • Target couples. Co-parenting interventions that involve both partners may have more benefits for couples and children than targeting just one parent.
  • Implement parenting principles. It may be helpful to blend parenting principles and skills with couple relationship skills when facilitating CRE programs. We need to think about breaking down the silos between couple and parenting/co-parenting/fathering interventions.[6]

Ultimately, this study is important for the way it affirms that CRE can improve outcomes for children. Strengthening couple relationships (reducing couple conflict) improved parenting (reduced harsh discipline) which reduced children’s behavior problems. As the authors stated: “The lynchpin for the cascade of family change is the couple relationship, particularly the partners’ ability to negotiate conflict in a prosocial manner toward the goal of supportive co-parenting” (p.63).

 

Endnotes:

[1] 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(4), 361–383. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1037/law0000025

[2] Adler, B. F., Calligas, A., Skuban, E., Keiley, M., Ketring, S., & Smith, T. (2013). Linking changes in couple functioning and parenting among couple relationship education participants. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 62(2), 284–297. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1111/fare.12006

[3] 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(4), 361–383. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1037/law0000025

[4] Pruett, M. K., Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Gillette, P. and Pruett, K. D. (2019). Supporting Father Involvement: An intervention with community and child welfare–referred couples. Family Relations, 68, 51-67. doi:10.1111/fare.12352

[5] In the PACT evaluation study summarized in an earlier blog, program participants didn’t see much change in economic well-being, but the fathers who participated in the educational programs reported they felt better about their financial situation.

[6] Cowan, C. P., & Cowan, P. A. (2019). Enhancing parenting effectiveness, fathers’ involvement, couple relationship quality, and children’s development: Breaking down silos in family policy making and service delivey. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 11, 92-111. doi:10.1111/jftr.12301