How or Why Does Relationship Education Work?

A Summary of 6 Years of RE Research

by Hailey Palmer and Alan J. Hawkins

Bottom-Line First: Several factors have been identified by researchers as possible mechanisms for how or why relationship education (RE) works for program participants. However, because none of these factors has been consistently studied, we can’t yet make strong conclusions. Rather, we offer direction for future areas of research. This blog may be of special interest to RE researchers.

In our last blog, we looked at studies from 2013 to now in an effort to discover who benefits most from relationship education. In addition, we have also been looking at recent relationship education research to gain greater understanding in how or why RE works. That’s our focus for this blog post. But this will not be like the last blog post; the “Who benefits most?” question was an easier question to answer because we found consistency in findings across several studies. In contrast, the “How/why does relationship education work?” question yielded a growing set of studies, but each focused on different mechanisms. Borrowing from the stool metaphor from our last post, each finding was a wobbly stool supported by no more than two studies (usually just one). As such, we cannot claim definitive answers. Instead, our summary is better suited for highlighting possibilities for future research.

Findings from these studies seemed to fall into two categories: programmatic factors and curriculum factors.

Here is a sampling of what we found:

Programmatic Factors:

  • Two studies found that a stronger relationship with the program facilitator and higher levels of facilitator support led to positive outcomes such as decreases in depressive symptoms.[1] One study suggested that participants may develop feelings of responsibility toward their facilitator, often leading to a stronger relationship with the facilitator.[2]
  • Curriculum Fidelity. One study described an curious finding relating to curriculum fidelity. For participants who had high satisfaction with the program, fidelity to the program led to lower relationship outcomes. For participants who had low satisfaction with the program, fidelity to the program led to higher relational outcomes.[3]
  • Several different studies focused on varying aspects of program format.
    • One study found that a 2-day training format led to better results compared to a weekly format in terms of program dropouts.[4]
    • Another study focused on youth RE found that within week/weekly and after school groups showed better results compared to the monthly and in-school groups on romantic relationship self-efficacy.[5]
    • Other formats that were evaluated included the individual couple vs group format, in which couples either participated in a group setting with other couples or alone with just the facilitator. Those who participated in the individual couple format showed lower gains in positive communication compared to those who participated in the group format.[6]
    • One evaluation study of a program compared individuals attending the program alone (but may be in a relationship) with individuals who attended with their partner. The researchers found that couples attending together improved more in relationship quality, confidence, and reduced conflict.[8] Similarly, another study found that participants who attended a RE program with their partner reported significant improvement in their parental alliance while those who attended without their partner did not.[8]
  • In one study, a significant relationship was found between received dosage (received hours in the program and improvements in commitment among participants.[9]
  • Private vs. Group Intervention. Another evaluation study compared those who just read a book (Hold Me Tight) to those who attended a 16-hour group program (and read the same book). The book-only group led to more positive change than attending the course and reading the book.[10]
  • Cohesion/Group Dynamics. Participants’ perceptions of cohesion among program participants was found in one study to contribute to positive changes in couples’ relationship functioning.[11]
  • One study found that more steady attendance was associated with stronger outcomes.[12]

Curriculum Factors:

  • In one program, improvements in communication among RE participants led to increases in relationship satisfaction and confidence.[13] Another study similarly found that when couples improved their positive interaction skills, this led to improvements in relationship hope.[14]
  • Gender-role Attitudes. One study found that a change in traditional gender role attitudes was correlated with a change in dating violence acceptance.[15]
  • Dyadic Coping. After participating in a RE program, couples who increased in their ability to help one another to positively cope with life’s challenges experienced greater relationship outcomes (e.g., relationship satisfaction).[16]
  • One study of Army couples found that participation in RE increased levels of commitment in the treatment group that led to lower risk of divorce among couples who cohabited before marriage.[17] Another study found that improvement in positive and negative interactions increased commitment which then influenced positive changes in relationship quality.[18]
  • Mental Health. One study found that a decrease in feelings of depression among RE participants led to an increase in relationship quality.[19]

We see at least one important implication from this review of research, particularly for relationship education researchers:

  • More work, more focus. The “How and why does relationship education work?” question has proven to be more complicated than the “Who benefits most?” question. This may be because there are so many different RE programs with different guiding theories, learning approaches, and curricula, that generate an infinite number of possibilities of how and why participation in RE can create change. To make progress, we think RE researchers would do well to pick some of the more promising general mechanisms (e.g., facilitator quality, delivery format, communication skills, commitment) and focus sustained attention on them until we can come to a firmer answer, a more stable stool.
  • Stronger Designs. Also, many of these studies examined the mechanisms of change in RE indirectly by looking at the statistical association between change in some potential mechanism (e.g., program fidelity, mental health) and relationship outcomes. While this method sometimes is necessary and can be very helpful, the strongest way to test a mechanism of change, when possible, is to build it into the experimental research design. For instance, if learning a particular communication skill is thought to be a crucial mechanism for strengthening a relationship, randomly assign some participants to a version of the curriculum that includes teaching that communication skill and some to a version that does not. Then compare relationship outcomes between these two groups (and, ideally, a control group). This will produce a much stronger answer to the question of whether that skill is an important mechanism that produces relationship change.


[1] Roddy, M. K., Rothman, K., & Doss, B. D. (2018). A randomized controlled trial of different levels of coach support in an online intervention for relationship distress. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 110, 47-54.; Ketring, S. A., Bradford, A. B., Davis, S. Y., Adler‐Baeder, F., McGill, J., & Smith, T. A. (2017). The role of the facilitator in couple relationship education. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 43, 374-390.

[2] Quirk, K., Owen, J., Inch, L. J., France, T., & Bergen, C. (2014). The alliance in relationship education programs. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 40, 178–192.

[3] Owen, J., Antle, B., & Barbee, A. (2014). Does adherence to relationship education curriculum relate to participants’ outcomes? Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 3(, 99–109.

[4] 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.

[5] Futris, T. G., Sutton, T. E., & Duncan, J. C. (2017). Factors associated with romantic relationship sslf‐efficacy following youth‐focused relationship education. Family Relations, 66, 777-793.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] Carlson, R. G., Barden, S. M., Daire, A. P., & Swartz, M. (2014). Examining parental alliance for low-income participants who attended relationship education with or without a partner. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 13, 153–170.

[9] 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.

[10] Fisher, A. R., Stokey, M. F., Sasaki, H. M., & Sexton, T. L. (2014). When it helps, when it hurts: Preliminary results of relationship enhancement education and The Hold Me Tight Program. Psychology, 5, 1254–1259.

[11] Owen, J., Antle, B., & Barbee, A. (2013). Alliance and group cohesion in relationship education. Family Process, 52, 465–476.

[12] Kivlighan III, D. M., Owen, J., & Antle, B. (2017). Members’ attendance rates and outcomes of relationship education groups: A consensus-dispersion analysis. Journal of Family Psychology, 31, 358-366.

[13] Barton, A. W., Beach, S. R., Lavner, J. A., Bryant, C. M., Kogan, S. M., & Brody, G. H. (2017). Is communication a mechanism of relationship education effects among rural African Americans? Journal of Marriage and Family, 79, 1450-1461.

[14] 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 Relation, 66, 441–452.

[15] 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(3), 59-69.

[16] 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.

[17] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., & Allen, E. S. (2015). Can marriage education mitigate the risks associated with premarital cohabitation? Journal of Family Psychology, 29, 500-506.

[18] 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.

[19] 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.