Is Communication Key?

How Communication-Skills Training in Relationship Education Affects Couple Relationships

by Jennifer Griffith

The Bottom Line (at the Top): Some critics don’t think learning better communication skills in RE programs is responsible for any improvements seen in couple relationships. This study begs to differ. Improved communication leads to improved satisfaction.

Atop the decorated tables at many wedding receptions frequently lay a photo album. Within this album, on each side of the engagement photos that seem to scream, “we’re in love!” lay pieces of advice from those attending the reception – a memento for the happy couple to keep as their guestbook. If one were to flip through those pages, it would be difficult to find a page without some mention of good communication being the key to any successful relationship. An emphasis on communication has been placed at the forefront of relationship advice for decades. But is it really that effective? Over the past several years, relationship researchers have begun to question whether communication-skills training impacts outcomes in relationship education (RE) programs.[1] Recently, a study released by researchers from the University of Georgia headed by Dr. Allen Barton waded into this debate: “Is Communication a Mechanism of Relationship Education Effects Among Rural African Americans?”[2]

In this study, the researchers sought to add empirical evidence to the debate about how communication-skills training may or may not contribute to positive outcomes in RE programs. Although the study was focused specifically on rural African Americans, its findings can be informative for other groups as well.

The current study followed 346 African American families in rural Georgia.[3]  These families were randomly assigned into a RE intervention group and a control group. Couples in the intervention group participated in the Protecting Strong African American Families (ProSAAF) program. All participants completed a pretest and a posttest 6 months after the program. Those in the intervention group had a trained African American facilitator visit their home approximately every week for 6 weeks, guiding them through video instruction, activities, and discussions. Those in the placebo control group received a book (12 Hours to A Great Marriage) by mail to study (voluntarily). Here is a summary of what the researchers found:

  • First, there was a greater effect on relationship satisfaction for men, whereas women showed a greater positive change in their relationship confidence. For both men and women, those in the intervention group experienced greater gains than those in the control group.
  • Communication Skills Are Key. Improving a couple’s relationship satisfaction and confidence did not effectively improve their communication. However, focusing on positive change in communication-skills did improve both relationship satisfaction and confidence.
  • Marital Status. Marital status was not a significant factor in whether or not the intervention was effective (37% in the study were unmarried).

Overall, participation in a RE program designed to strengthen communication is positively associated with an increase in relationship outcomes for couples. What does this research mean for RE at large?

Here are some possible implications from the above findings to consider:

  • Stress Communication Skills. While a debate is still going on about how important communication-skills training is for RE outcomes, relationship educators can have greater confidence now in programs that facilitate improvement in couples’ communication.
  • Target Demographics. In addition, consider targeting a specific group when offering RE programs. This study was effective, in part, because it focused on the specific stressors rural African American couples are more likely to experience. Focusing on the specific stressful experiences of RE participants may help them to improve communication, satisfaction, and confidence.
  • Meaningful Activities. Consider using more couple-with-instructor, in-home training and implementation instead of (or as a supplement to) class-based intervention. Having couples practice techniques in-home with a personal facilitator could help them form a basis for more independent work on improving their relationship rather than having them practice on their own following classes (which facilitators know is a hit-and-miss proposition).



[1] For instance, see: Johnson, M. D., & Bradbury, T. N. (2015). Contributions to social learning theory to the promotion of healthy relationships: Asset or liability? Journal of Family Theory & Review, 7, 13–27. doi:10.1111/jftr.12057; Rogge, R. D., Cobb, R. J., Lawrence, E., Johnson, M. D., & Bradbury, T. N. (2013). Is skills training necessary for the primary prevention of marital distress and dissolution? A 3-year experimental study of three interventions. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81, 949–961. doi:10.1037/a0034209; Williamson, H. C., Altman, N., Hsueh, J., & Bradbury, T. N. (2016). Effects of relationship education on couple communication and satisfaction: A randomized controlled trial with low-income couples. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 84, 156–166. doi:10.1037/ccp0000056.

[2] Barton, A. W., Beach, S. R. H., 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(5), 1450-1461. doi:10.1111/jomf.12416

[3] For this study, a family is defined as an African American couple raising an early-Adolescent child living within a low-income community in rural Georgia. To be eligible, the couple had to be in a relationship for at least 2 years, coparenting an African American child ages 10-13 for at least 1 year, and not planning to move anytime within the 6 weeks engaged in the CRE program.