Marriage education (also known as relationship enhancement or RE) has gotten a big, warm spotlight lately. A recent big-deal writeup in the Washington Post hit on the high points: Marriage education programs are big business, they have a lot of federal money supporting them, and there’s not a lot of research on them. Do they work?
That was the basic question tackled yesterday by Howard Markman at the AAMFT Research Conference in Alexandria, VA. In general, it looks like the research base for such programs is growing but still fairly small relative to the number of RE programs in existence. Markman and his colleagues located 30 studies examining 21 different programs since 2002 — meaning that a large number of programs offered at the annual SmartMarriages conference have not been researched at all. The research that does exist is usually promising, but not definitive: programs are generally shown to produce short-term improvements in couple satisfaction and communication skills. However, there have not been studies addressing whether these programs actually do what they set out to do, reducing the risk that couples will eventually divorce over the long term.
The federal government has been running a huge study that should be able to offer clearer answers. Involving eight sites and more than 5,000 couples around the country, the Building Strong Families (BSF) project sponsored by the Administration for Children and Families is testing voluntary RE programs offered to unmarried couples who are expecting or recently had a baby. The project just released its 15-month follow-up data, and the news is not good:
When results are averaged across all programs, RE did not make couples more likely to stay together or get married. In addition, it did not improve couples’ relationship quality.
As Markman was quick to note, the news was not all bleak. It would be more accurate to say that couples didn’t finish the programs than it would be to say that the programs didn’t work; with the exception of the project’s Oklahoma site (which performed much better than other sites in a variety of ways), only 9% of couples completed at least 80% of the relationship enhancement curriculum offered to them. That’s a big problem. Where couples did tend to finish their program — at the Oklahoma site — they were more likely to still be together at the 15-month follow-up, and experienced a number of other measurable improvements as well. Furthermore, only the Oklahoma site used a program that included most of PREP, one of the best-known and more well-researched relationship enhancement programs around. Other sites used less established curricula.
The study will be releasing its 3-year follow-up data in 2012. As Markman noted, the 15-month followup may simply be too early to see the hoped-for impact on marriage that these programs would offer; by definition, preventing marriage breakup is a long-term goal. It is possible that changes will emerge over time. Until they do, however, RE programs will continue to face skepticism. Which is good, if it drives more research that will develop programs that really do ultimately meet their preventive goals.