Relationship education and premarital counseling promote practices and principles of premarital education, relationship resources, relationship restoration, relationship maintenance, and evidence-based marriage education.
The formal organization of relationship education in the United States began in the late 1970s by a diverse group of professionals concerned that the results of conventional methods and means of marriage therapy resulted in no appreciable reduction in the elevated rate of divorce and out-of-wedlock births.
The motivation for relationship education was found in numerous studied observations of the elevated rates of marital and family breakdown, school drop-outs, incarceration, drug addiction, unemployment, suicide, homicide, domestic abuse and other negative social factors when divorce and/or out-of-wedlock pregnancy were noted. In all of the negative categories noted above, statistical over-representation of adults whose childhood did not involve both of their parents was present.
Initial planning for the field of relationship education involved the participation of psychologists, counselors, family life educators, social workers, marriage and family therapists, psychiatrists, clergy from various faith traditions, policy makers, academicians in the fields of social science, attorneys, judges, and lay persons. The goal was to seek the broadest possible dispersal of research and marriage education skills courses which could improve interpersonal relationship functioning, especially with married and pre-marital couples.
Early contributors to the field of relationship education included David and Vera Mace, who founded The Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment. The Maces conducted their first couples retreat in 1962. Bernard and Louise Guerney launched the "Institute for the Development of Emotional and Life Skills," later known as "Relationship Enhancement," in 1972. In 1975, Lori Heyman Gordon developed a semester-long, 120-hour relationship education course for American University graduate students, which she called "PAIRS," an acronym for the "Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills." Virginia Satir, considered the "Mother of Family Therapy," began training therapists as relationship educators in 1984.
Two large scientific studies published in 2011 provided evidence that marriage and relationship education helps reduce divorce among military and distressed couples. Another showed evidence of significant gains for singles, couples and as a potential strategy to reduce rates of teen pregnancy. Other studies, notably the Building Strong Families Program, have shown that relationship education does not "improve relationship quality/satisfaction" for low-income, unwed couples, while another provided evidence of statistically significant benefits for low-income married couples.
In 1984, Satir encouraged marriage and family therapists to shift their focus to relationship education:
"We’re at a crossroads, an important crossroads of how we view people. That’s why it’s possible now for all the different kind of therapies to go into education, education for being more fully human, using what we know as a pathology is only something that tells us that something is wrong and then allows us to move towards how we can we use this to develop round people. I’m fortunate in being one of the people who pushed my way through to know that people are really round. That’s what it means to me to look at people as people who have potential that can be realized, as people who can have dreams and have their dreams work out. What people bring to me in the guise of problems are their ways of living that keep them hampered and pathologically oriented. What we’re doing now is seeing how education allows us to move toward more joy, more reality, more connectedness, more accomplishment and more opportunities for people to grow."— Virginia Satir
Impact of women's liberation
Satir said the need for relationship education emerged from shifting gender roles as women gained greater rights and freedoms during the 20th century:
"As we moved into the 20th century, we arrived with a very clearly prescribed way that males and females in marriage were to behave with one another ... The pattern of the relationship between husband and wife was that of the dominant male and submissive female ... A new era has since dawned ... the climate of relationships had changed, and women were no longer willing to be submissive ... The end of the dominant/submissive model in relationships was in sight. However, there was very little that had developed to replace the old pattern; couples floundered ... Retrospectively, one could have expected that there would be a lot of chaos and a lot of fall-out. The change from the dominant/submissive model to one of equality is a monumental shift. We are learning how a relationship based on genuine feelings of equality can operate practically."— Virginia Satir, Introduction to PAIRS
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began funding significant multi-year demonstration projects through the Administration for Children and Families to expand the availability of marriage education classes in more than 100 communities nationwide. This project, known as the "Healthy Marriage Initiative," was designed to improve the well-being of children by providing tools and education to strengthen marriages and families.
Relationship education for premarital couples
A multi-year federal study, known as the Building Strong Families Program, and 2010 meta-analysis of 47 studies found that relationship education "does not improve relationship quality/satisfaction" for unmarried couples.
"Previous studies have asserted that premarital education programs have a positive effect on program participants. Using meta-analytic methods of current best practices to look across the entire body of published and unpublished evaluation research on premarital education, we found a more complex pattern of results. We coded 47 studies and found that premarital education programs do not improve relationship quality/satisfaction when unpublished studies are included in the analysis, although studies that follow couples past the honeymoon stage to detect prevention effects are rare. In contrast, premarital education programs appear to be effective at improving couple communication, with studies that employed observational measures rather than self-report measures producing large effects. Still, given the mixed, modest results, there is ample room and a real need to improve the practice of premarital education."
Building Strong Families Program
Between 2002 and 2011, Mathematica Policy Research conducted the Building Strong Families Program study for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, "to learn whether well-designed interventions can help couples fulfill their aspirations for a healthy relationship, marriage, and a strong family."
The study specifically evaluated the impact of relationship education classes delivered to more than 5,000 low-income, unwed couples at 12 locations in seven states. "The intervention featured up to 42 hours of multi-couple group sessions led by trained facilitators, focusing on skills that, according to earlier research, are associated with relationship and marital stability and satisfaction."
In May 2010, Mathematica reported findings from a 15-month follow-up of program and control group participants:
- BSF had no effect on whether couples were still together 15 months after they had applied for the program, when data from the eight BSF programs are combined. At this point, 76 percent of BSF couples were still romantically involved, compared with 77 percent of control group couples. Similarly, BSF and control group couples were equally likely to be married to each other at that time (17 and 18 percent respectively) and to be living together, whether married or unmarried (62 percent for both research groups)."
- Fifteen months after they applied for the program, BSF and control group couples reported being equally happy in their romantic relationships, with average ratings of 8.4 and 8.3 respectively on a 0-to-10 relationship happiness scale. Similarly, BSF and control group couples gave very similar ratings of supportiveness and affection in their relationships, with average support and affection scale values of 3.5 on a 1-to-4 scale for couples in both research groups. In addition, BSF had no overall effect on how faithful couples were to each other.
- When results are averaged across all eight programs, BSF did not improve couples’ ability to manage their conflict. Couples in both research groups reported similar levels of use of constructive conflict behaviors, such as keeping a sense of humor and listening to the other partner’s perspective during disagreements. Similarly, there was no difference between the research groups in the avoidance of destructive conflict behaviors, such as withdrawing when there is a disagreement or allowing small disagreements to escalate. In addition, when results are averaged across all programs, BSF had no effect on how likely couples were to experience intimate partner violence. Similarly, when results are averaged across all programs, BSF did not improve co-parenting or increase father involvement. BSF and control group couples reported that their co-parenting relationships were of equally high quality. In addition, at the 15-month follow-up, couples in both research groups were equally likely to report that fathers were living with their children, spending substantial time with them, and providing them with substantial financial support.
- The Baltimore BSF program [Loving Couples, Loving Children] had negative effects on couples’ relationships. BSF couples were less likely than control group couples to remain romantically involved, 59 percent versus 70 percent. Baltimore BSF couples reported being less supportive and affectionate toward each other than control group couples did. In addition, women in the Baltimore BSF program were more likely than women in the control group to report having been severely physically assaulted by a romantic partner in the past year, 15 percent compared with 9 percent. Baltimore BSF couples also rated the quality of their co-parenting relationship lower than control group couples did and reported that BSF fathers spent less time with their children and were less likely to provide them financial support than control group fathers were.
Relationship education for married couples
Several studies, notably the Supporting Healthy Marriage Project funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, a meta-analysis by Hawkins and Ooms and a five-year impact report by Peluso, Eisenberg and Schindler found that relationship education provided statistically significant benefits for married couples.
"The emerging evidence suggests that MRE [marriage and relationship education] programs can work for low-income populations as well as for those who are economically better off. The evidence from a new meta-analysis of 15 program evaluations (including three randomized control trials) shows that MRE programs can have positive, moderate size effects on low-income couples’ relationship outcomes, at least in the short run. However, the largest and most rigorous study of low-income, unmarried couples produced mixed results and shows there is still much to learn ... Across nearly all the studies reviewed for this Report, MRE improves communication—a core, essential relationship skill—as well as other measures of relationship quality. There is also some initial evidence that MRE for low-income couples can decrease divorce rates, reduce aggression, and improve children’s problem behaviors.
Supporting Healthy Marriage Study
In August 2012, Manpower Development Research Corporation (MDRC), a nonprofit, nonpartisan social policy research organization, reported that a federally funded, multi-year, random assignment, control group study known as the Supporting Healthy Marriage Project found high levels of consumer satisfaction among 4,989 adults participating in relationship education courses based on the work of PREP Inc., PAIRS Foundation and John Gottman at sites in Florida (Orlando), Kansas (Wichita), Pennsylvania (Reading and Bethlehem), Texas (El Paso and San Antonio), New York (Bronx), Oklahoma (Oklahoma City), and Washington (Shoreline and Seattle). A 12-month report on the program's impact found:
- The SHM program produced a consistent pattern of small positive effects on multiple aspects of couples’ relationships. Relative to the control group, the program group showed higher levels of marital happiness, lower levels of marital distress, greater warmth and support, more positive communication, and fewer negative behaviors and emotions in their interactions with their spouses. The consistency of results across outcomes and data sources (surveys and independent observations of couple interactions) is noteworthy.
- Compared with individuals in the control group, program group members reported experiencing slightly less psychological and physical abuse from their spouses. Men and women in the program group reported less psychological abuse in their relationships, and men in the program group reported that their spouses physically assaulted them less often, compared with their control group counterparts.
- Men and women in the program group reported slightly lower levels of adult psychological distress (such as feelings of sadness or anxiety) than their control group counterparts.
- The program did not significantly affect whether couples stayed married at the 12-month follow-up point.
- Emotionally focused therapy
- Family life education
- Family therapy
- Family Relations (journal)
- PAIRS Foundation
- Relationship counseling, especially "Methodologies" subheading
- Relationship and Sex Education
- Supporting Healthy Marriage Project
- Building Strong Families Program
- Sex education
- Comprehensive sex education
-  Building Better Marriages: The Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment
-  National Institute of Relationship Enhancement website.
- DeMaria, Rita. Building Intimate Relationships, "The Saga of PAIRS." Routledge, December 2002.
- Eisenberg, Seth. "Revolutions of a Lifetime at Home and Abroad," Fatherhood Channel, February 21, 2011.
-  "Marriage Education and Relationship Skills Classes Gaining Traction," Fatherhood Channel, July 13, 2011.
- Peluso, Paul; Eisenberg Seth; Schindler, Rachel. "Marriage Education Impact Report," PAIRS Foundation for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, September 2011.
- Hawkins, Alan J.; Fawcett Elizabeth B.; Blanchard, Victoria L.; Carroll, Jason. "Do Premarital Education Programs Really Work? A Meta-analytic Study," Volume 59, Issue 3, pages 232–239, July 2010.
- "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-07-20. Retrieved 2012-11-23.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Wood, Robert G., et al., "The Building Strong Families Project," May 2010
- Satir, Virginia, "Introduction to for our future, for our family", in PAIRS Foundation (ed.), For our future, for our family: participant handbook, Broward County, Florida: PAIRS Foundation, p. 6, archived from the original on 2016-03-05 (Participant handbook for PAIRS 30-hour curriculum for Supporting Healthy Marriages.) Cited with permission. (2012112710011715). Preview on ISSUU.
-  - National Council on Family Relations website.
-  Larson, Jeffrey. "A review of three comprehensive premarital assessment questionnaires," Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, April 2002.
-  U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation.
- Hawkins, Alan; Ooms, Theodora. "What Works in Marriage and Relationship Education," National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Washington, D.C.
-  MDRC website
-  "National Study Shows Strong Consumer Satisfaction with Marriage and Relationship Education Classes," Fatherhood Channel, October 17, 2012.
- Knox, Virginia, et al. "Early Impacts from the Supporting Healthy Marriage Evaluation," MDRC, New York, NY, March 2012.
- DeMaria, Rita (2002). Building Intimate Relationships. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-1583910764.
- Gordon, Lori (1993). Passage to Intimacy. New York: Fireside Books. ISBN 0671795961.
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- Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education
- National Council on Family Relations
- Healthy Marriage Initiative Department of Health and Human Services
- National Healthy Marriage Resource Center
- PAIRS Foundation
- Proceedings of the London Relationship Education Conference 2007.
- The PAIR project A longitudinal study of courtship and marriage.
- Marriage Education Research PAIRS Marriage and Relationship Education Research.