Brief Review of Relationship and Marriage Education Research

By Dr. Dannelle Larsen-Rife
Co-Director of Research, Healthy Relationships California

Under the Bush administration, 100 million dollars was allocated for Marriage Education. While some report that the results for Relationship and Marriage Education (RME) are disappointing (Johnson, 2012), there is ample evidence that RME is effective. The Washington Post (June 27, 2010) reported several examples of research in support of RME. There are two primary examples that have been cited suggesting that RME does not work (see below), especially for high-risk couples (low-income and minorities).

Building Strong Families study (BSF; Wood, et al., 2010) 

  • 8 locations (Baton Rouge, Florida counties, Houston, San Angelo, Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Indiana counties, Baltimore)
  • Unmarried couples, expecting or just had first baby
  • Program:
  1. Group RME (conflict management, expressing affection, considering marriage) an average of 14 hours
  2. Family coordinator to provide support and encouragement for continued participation
  3. Referrals to services
  • Follow-up over 15 months – experimental and control groups were nearly identical with very little to no improvement; Exceptions
  1. Improved observed communication skills
  2. African American couples improved overall

Supporting Healthy Marriages (SHM; Hsue, et al., 2012)

  • Small, positive effects on marital happiness, marital distress, warmth and support, positive communication, fewer negative behaviors
  • Small effects
  • Hispanic couples improved

Further Examination of BSF and SHM indicates:

  • Attendance at BSF was relatively low (only 55% of those assigned to BSF attended);
  • There may be differences between unmarried and married participants as unmarried participants likely have lower levels of trust and commitment; and
  • Participants were generally recruited to BSF through Medicaid, WIC clinics, clinics and doctor’s offices, and word of mouth and agreed to participate; participants were paid up to $350 for attendance and participation. Thus, improving their relationships may not have been a primary focus of participation for some participants.

Other research in the field of RME:
Established programs (Best Practices)

  • PREP programs – includes quasi-experimental and a randomized controlled trial
  1. Improved relationship satisfaction two and five years after marriage
  2. Lower rates of spousal violence
  • Minnesota Couples Communication Program (MCCP)
  • Relationship Enhancement (RE)
  • Practical Application of Intimate Relationships skills (PAIRS)


  • Hawkins, Blanchard, Baldwin, and Fawcett (2008)
  1. Effect sizes for relationship quality improvement were small to moderate
  2. Effect sizes for communication skill improvement were small to moderate
  • Hawkins and Fackrell (2010)
  1. Lower-income, high risk couples – small to moderate effects
  • Hawkins and Fellows (2011)
  1. 50 programs supported by federal funds – moderate effect sizes


  • 500 young Army married couples with deployment – lower likelihood of divorce one year after RME, minority couples had the largest reduction of divorce (Stanley, Allen, Markman, Rhoades, & Prentice, 2010).
  • Impact Report: Research on the Impact of Relationship and Marriage Education Programs in California provides evidence of the effectiveness of RME in California. The results are congruent with previous meta-analyses and other recent research. The effect sizes are practically significant (Healthy Relationships California, 2013).
  1. In contrast to BSF and SHM, participants in the classes taught through Healthy Relationships California seek out RME and sign up for the classes on their own.       Course attendance is relatively high.
  2. Data from this Impact Report support the proposition that RME may foster hope, normalize relationship difficulties, reinforce the idea that marriage can be                     improved upon by learning relationship skills and provide a supportive network to work on a devitalized marriage.

Hawkins, A.J., Blanchard, V. L., Baldwin, S. A., & Fawcett, E. B. (2008). Does marriage and relationship education work? A meta-analytic study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 723-734.

Hawkins, A. J., & Fackrell, T. A. (2010). Does relationship and marriage education for lower-income couples work? A meta-analytic study of emerging research. Journal of Couple and Relationship therapy, 9, 181-191.

Hawkins, A. J., & Fellows, K. J. (2011). Findings from the field: A meta-analytic study of the effectiveness of healthy marriage and relationship education programs. Washington D.C.: The National Healthy Marriage Resource Center. Available at:

Howell, P., Krafsky, K.J., McAllister, & Collins, D. Impact Report: Research on the Impact of Relationship and Marriage Education Programs in California. (2013). Leucadia, CA: Healthy Relationships California. Available at:

Hsue, J., Alderson, D. P., Lundquist, E., Michalopoulos, C., Gubits, D., Fein, D., & Knox, V. (2012). The Supporting Healthy Marriage evaluation: Early impacts on low-income 8 families.

OPRE Report 2012-11. Washington D.C.: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Johnson, M. D. (2012). Healthy marriage initiatives: On the need for empiricism in policy implementation. American Psychologist, 67, 296-308.
Washington Post, June 27, 2010 “The Marriage Myth: Who do so many couples divorce? Maybe they just don’t know how to be married.”

Wood, R.G., McConnell, S., Moore, Q., Clarkwest, A., & Hsueh, J. (2010). Strengthening unmarried parents’ relationships: The early impacts of Building Strong Families. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

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