In the latter half of the twentieth century, government actions removing barriers to divorce have been far more common than efforts to help marriages remain intact. In the last decade, however, the federal government has begun to fund efforts to help couples form and sustain healthy marriages. Early studies of these efforts did not reveal much promise. But an emerging body of research—including an important new study—suggest that educational programs can strengthen or even save marriages. Given the significant pro-social effects of marital stability, both federal and state governments should gradually increase investments in educational programs that help married couples work through conflict, improve their relationships, and avoid divorce.
Since 2006, the federal government has invested about $700 million in relationship education programs, providing free courses to 1.8 million lower-income individuals. Various community organizations compete for government grants (usually one to two million dollars per year) to fund relationship education programs. Currently, about fifty community organizations are being funded. Altogether, since 2006, about 225 organizations have received funding for these services. One state, Utah, also operates a state-based initiative through the Utah Marriage Commission.
All of these programs offer education, not therapy. In the classes, typically taught over four to eight weeks in groups of approximately twenty people, couples learn more effective communication skills, discuss and align expectations, develop a deeper understanding of each other, and work on strengthening their commitment. Many who volunteer for these kinds of programs are already experiencing some pain in their relationship and want to address it. Some classes target youth and young adults, helping them to cultivate their relationship literacy, avoid common relationship pitfalls, and make wiser, intentional decisions about their love lives—encouraging them to decide, not slide.
Social Science Data: The Results of Relationship Education
A recently-released, rigorous study suggests that support for relationship education programs may enhance marital commitment. The study focused largely on lower-income, stressed couples and found that those who participated in the programs were significantly more committed one year later, and married couples were more likely to still be together.
Conducted by the nonpartisan Mathematica Policy Research organization and supported by the Administration for Children and Families, the Parents and Children Together study pooled more than 1,500 similarly situated couples in two cities (New York and El Paso) who volunteered for the relationship-strengthening program and then randomly assigned them to two groups: (1) a control group that didn’t receive any services (only information about other available community resources), and (2) a group that received an average of fifteen hours of classroom instruction. Those who were assigned to the control group were free to go get other help on their own. Researchers followed the married and unmarried couples for about a year after the program.
Those who received classroom instruction had fewer destructive conflicts. Importantly, women reported less physical assault from their partner. The couples had generally warmer and more supportive relationships, and they worked more effectively as co-parents.
These results add a new dimension to the ongoing debate about the wisdom and effectiveness of policies supporting relationship education. The first large-scale evaluation of similar programs (published in 2012), the Building Strong Families study, failed to demonstrate sustained positive relationship outcomes for unwed couples who signed up to participate in relationship education classes. Unfortunately, actual attendance at classes was low. The study was thorough and rigorous, and, based on the findings, some simply concluded that family strengthening initiatives were moribund. Subsequent analyses, however, by noted sociologist Paul Amato, provided a more complete reading of the findings, showing some positive results among the most economically vulnerable participants.
A report of a second, large-scale evaluation project, the Supporting Healthy Marriage study, published in 2014, looked specifically at lower income-married parents and documented small but statistically significant improvements in relationship quality. At about the same time, another study, this one of Army couples, found that a relationship education program reduced divorce rates over a two-year period. A number of other recent studies are showing positive results as well.
This latest study—the Parents and Children Together study—adds to a growing corpus of research suggesting that educational programs can be a policy lever for strengthening or even saving flagging marriages. This scholarship should also encourage private providers who do not receive government support but do some of the heavy lifting in providing relationship education services. Religious organizations, for example, often offer these services to millions of individuals and couples every year.
Why the Government Should Invest in Marriage
Some question, of course, whether government should be in the marital intervention business at all, since it involves the decisions of consenting adults. But this ignores the reality that divorce doesn’t just end a marriage, it frequently also involuntarily weakens a parent-child relationship—usually with the father—and, over time, can result in the negative effects of little or no connection at all. A generation of extensive scholarship shows that children who experience the divorce of their parents are at two-to-three times greater risk for a wide range of problems that extend through childhood to their adult years. This is especially true among vulnerable populations. On average, the presence of both parents in the home has a positive impact on a child’s well-being.
There is little question that the option of divorce is necessary in dangerous or unhealthy marriages. When parents are in a perpetually high-conflict marriage, there is solid research indicating that divorce is usually better for children than continuing to expose them to serious trauma. And stigmatizing families that do not meet the gold standard of two married biological parents helps no one. Many divorced couples find effective ways to co-parent, and the majority of children touched by the painful experience of divorce often turn out much like their peers. Children are resilient and able to bounce back from negative experiences.
But, on the margins, there are lasting effects. And, when one considers that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce and 40 percent of children are now born to unwed parents, the margins can get quite large. To ignore the chronic trauma faced by these children amounts to collective social negligence. As one religious leader asked years ago: “How much more research does the world need before we can accept parents as pivotal and before we focus on the family without apology and half-heartedness?”
A Closer Look at "Irreconcilable Differences"
Many marriages today end for reasons other than destructive or abusive behavior. The most common reason that divorced individuals proffer for calling it quits is a lack of commitment by one or both spouses, listed by about 75 percent of divorced individuals. Too much arguing or conflict is also up there (55 percent); unrealistic expectations (45 percent) and lack of equality (44 percent) trail close behind. While all of these reasons reflect real pain, they are also problems that couples often can work through while preserving the marriage and providing children the stability and ample advantages that come from a married, two-parent household. Even couples who experience infidelity sometimes can overcome such breaches of trust. About half report that they work through the difficult process and are able to heal (and sometimes even strengthen) the marital relationship.
The reality is that most divorces are not preceded by high-conflict relationships but by moderately unhappy, low-conflict marriages. And, when given time and assistance, some unhappy marriages can rebound to become happy. Simply put, marriages are dynamic and go through ups and downs. In one recent study, nearly 30 percent of married individuals said they had thought seriously about divorce in the past but were not thinking about it now, and nearly 90 percent of them said they were glad they were still together. About one in four married individuals aged twenty-five to fifty have had thoughts about divorce in the last six months, but most of them still report that they are hopeful about their marriage.
Relationship education programs may offer the promise of intervening at times of marital stress or fatigue, helping preserve relationships that both parties hope can work out. Or, even better, these programs can prevent good marriages from falling into disrepair due to the inevitable forces of marital entropy. This is crucial not only for couples but also for their children.
Unfortunately, for many reasons, most couples do not seek out professional help to repair their relationship, and participation in marriage and relationship education appears to be on the decline. Government can and should play a role in promoting more opportunities for couples who are searching for ways to make their marriages work. A varied portfolio of programs will likely produce the most effective policy. Some programs might target youth and emerging adults, helping them to become more relationship-literate and to avoid common mistakes that make forming and sustaining healthy marriages harder down the road.
The best time to prevent divorces is before couples marry. (Most divorces don’t come from marriages that started strong and then fell apart; they come from marriages that started with serious issues but vague hopes of overcoming them.) Next, we should provide more opportunities for married couples to tune up their marriages and prevent tough issues from becoming fatal flaws. And more states should take up this policy ball and run with it, not leaving it to the federal government. This would foster more innovation and respond better to local needs and challenges. Decades worth of social science data detail the benefits of stable marriages for individuals, families, and society. For too long, government did too little to support marriage and family formation; but there’s increasing evidence that relationship education is working. Society should now look to build on this success.
Alan J. Hawkins is the Camilla E. Kimball Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University. He is the former chair of the Utah Marriage Commission and has consulted with several state governments, as well as the federal government, on relationship education policy. Hal Boyd is a visiting fellow at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life.