Does Marriage Education Work?
There is considerable evidence that efforts to teach couples how to build a lasting relationship are effective, according to Scott Stanley, a noted marriage researcher and frequent writer at the University of Denver. “A large number of studies show that marriage and relationship education for couples works,” Stanley wrote May 13 in his “Sliding versus Deciding” blog.
One might hope Stanley would be confident about educational approaches geared to helping couples protect and nurture their relationships. After all, he commits much of his energy and a large part of his career to these endeavors.
By “marriage and relationship education,” Stanley does not mean professional “therapy,” though he says therapy can be useful when done well. Rather, he is talking about educational approaches that teach “skills, strategies and attitudes associated with success in relationships.” Helping couples communicate better and improve the ways they handle conflict is part of marriage and relationship education, for example.
When he talks about the beneficiaries of marriage and relationship education, Stanley has both couples and individuals in mind.
This field for decades has focused on “couples who are planning marriage or couples who are already married and want to tune-up their relationship,” he noted. It might be said that relationship education for couples often assumes the form of preventive “medicine.”
The hope is that couples can “prevent major problems in marriage” before their problems establish “a serious foothold,” and even that “the odds of divorce or break-up” can be reduced, Stanley said.
But at the present time this field is reaching out not only to couples, but to individuals. Stanley said, “The more recent, rapidly growing focus is on relationship education for individuals.” These are efforts aimed at helping individuals “realize their own aspirations for success in marriage.”
Learning how to distinguish healthy relationship patterns from unhealthy ones is an important goal of relationship education for individuals. For example, they are encouraged “to consider carefully” whether someone “is a good choice” as a partner, Stanley said.
In this vein, recent work by Stanley has accented the need for a not-yet-married man and woman who are dating, but who are starting to think about marriage, to “decode” each other’s level of commitment to the relationship. This involves asking what signs of commitment – such as a willingness to sacrifice for the relationship – are found in the other person.
It is not surprising that Stanley would consider relationship training for individuals noteworthy. His blog’s title reflects his conviction that many people today “slide” into cohabiting relationships without ever “deciding” or even addressing whether they want to have a future together.
“A lot of the effort in individually oriented programs” of relationship education focuses “on getting people to go slower, make better choices” and think about what is needed to move “closer to their own goals for happy, healthy and lasting love,” Stanley wrote. The hope is to help individuals “decide” rather than “slide” when it comes to the steps they take “at key turning points” in their lives and relationships.
As evidence mounts that marriage and relationship education is effective, Stanley finds it noteworthy that “those who need help the most are most likely to get the greatest benefit from such services.” He reported that “when studies examined higher- versus lower-risk couples or individuals, those at greater risk often benefit the most.”
But the effectiveness of marriage and relationship education for higher-risk couples “may be shorter lived, suggesting the need to provide occasional booster shots (to augment the original inoculation) to help couples stay on track,” Stanley said. “Higher risk,” he observed, “can mean many things,” such as being the child of parents who divorced.
A problem for the field of marriage and relationship education is that its services tend to be “much more available” to people who, in economic terms, are somewhat better off, Stanley indicated. Though government efforts over the past decade have helped to broaden the range of people receiving such services, Stanley said that as “in any other area, effective services are the least available to those who are economically disadvantaged.”
There is room for this field to grow, Stanley made clear. He said that while there is “a lot of evidence” that people benefit from this education, that does not mean it works as well as it could. People in this field “want to learn how to continually improve what we do,” he stated.
Today, there are “optimists and pessimists” when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of marriage and relationship education, Stanley said. Though he is on the side of the optimists, he nonetheless appears thankful for the pessimists because they “can raise legitimate concerns” that may prompt the field to continue to grow and improve.