Is Relationship Education for Individuals At-risk for Intimate Partner Violence a Good Idea?

by Alan J. Hawkins

   The Bottom-line First. Researchers consistently are finding that individuals and couples who are at greater risk for experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV) are participating in relationship education (RE) in significant numbers. A recent study found that individuals who began a RE program with higher risk for IPV reported greater relationship equality and reduced controlling violence and relational violence at the end of the RE program.

As relationship educators know well these days, many participants in their programs have experienced IPV and some are even experiencing it in a current relationship.[1] The couple relationship education field for some time has worried about how to handle participant couples who are experiencing some level of violence or abuse.[2] Joint participation by both partners might risk exacerbating violence and abuse, especially with more controlling types of IPV. Some scholars and program developers have wondered if individually-oriented RE (rather than couple RE) might be a safer way to help individuals who are experiencing IPV or who have experienced it in the past, to learn about healthy relationships and gain relationship skills to improve current or future relationships.[3] A new study headed by a leading scholar in the RE field sheds some valuable light on this issue.[4]

This study involved 230 lower income individuals – about half currently in a romantic relationship – who completed the 12-hour (PREP-based) Within My Reach program over a month. In this study, more than 70% of individuals reported some or severe violence in a current or most recent relationship. (The study was not able to disentangle past from current IPV, unfortunately.) This level of IPV is higher than found in some other studies, and the researchers speculate that individually-oriented RE may attract participants with more IPV experience and risk than couple-oriented RE. Here are some key findings:

  • Individuals who entered the RE program with very low levels of past and current IPV did not see change in relationship equality, controlling violence, or relational conflict by the end of the program.
  • On the other hand, individuals who entered the RE program with some or severe levels of past and current IPV reported significant increases in relationship equality, and significant reductions in controlling violence and relational conflict at the end of the program.

I think there are a couple of important, straightforward implications of this study for relationship education:

  • First, individually-oriented RE can be especially beneficial for participants who have recently experienced – or or who are currently experiencing – IPV. These programs can heighten awareness of IPV issues and provide solid relationship skills for managing conflict better.
  • Second, this study underlines and reinforces the need for program developers to make sure their programs attend to IPV issues, given the high rates of IPV experience among individuals attending individually-oriented RE programs. In addition, program administrators need to have solid, functioning IPV protocols in place and make sure that facilitators are well trained in teaching the relevant curriculum and sensitively handling IPV issues as they arise in group settings and individually.

Overall, this study is good news for the RE field as it continues to try to help individuals and couples prevent or deal more effectively with the serious societal problem of intimate partner violence.


[1] Bradford, K., Skogrand, L., & Higginbotham, B. J. (2011). Intimate partner violence in a statewide couple and relationship education initiative. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 10, 169-184; Wilde, J. L., & Doherty, W. J. (2011) Intimate partner violence between unmarried parents before and during participation in a cople and relationship education program. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 10, 135-151.

[2] Hawkins, A. J. (2011). Programs to help prevent intimate partner violence: Introduction to a special issue. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 11, 95-96.

[3] Rhoades, G. K., & Stanley, S. M. (2011). Using individually-oriented relationship education to prevent family violence. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 10, 185-200.

[4] Carlson, R. G., Wheeler, N. J., Adams, J. J. (2018). The influence of individual-oriented relationship education on equality and conflict-related behaviors. Journal of Counseling & Development, 96, 144-154.