Relationship education

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Relationship education promotes 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Early contributors to the field of relationship education included David and Vera Mace, who founded The Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment.[1] 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.[2] 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."[3] Virginia Satir, considered the "Mother of Family Therapy," began training therapists as relationship educators in 1984.[4]

Two large scientific studies published in 2011 provided evidence that marriage and relationship education helps reduce divorce among military and distressed couples.[5] Another showed evidence of significant gains for singles, couples and as a potential strategy to reduce rates of teen pregnancy.[6] 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[7] provided evidence of statistically significant benefits for low-income married couples.[8]


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."[4]

— 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."[9]

— Virginia Satir, Introduction to PAIRS

Goals for couples

Goals of relationship education include helping couples learn to:[10]

  • Confide in one another regularly with emotional openness and empathic listening.
    In more basic terms, trust one another. Trust is one of the most important building blocks in every healthy relationship. Without it, a         relationship can not grow stronger. Feelings should not be kept secret and walls must be broken down when entering a relationship. Being trustworthy with one another brings many positive outcomes for both partners and can also bring the couple closer to each other. For this reason, trust is something that you do not want to break. In most cases, if trust is lost, it is very difficult to regain. Though it is not impossible, it is best to keep honesty alive and well in a relationship. As long as both partners are completely open and comfortable with each other, trust will be present. 
  • Complain to one another regularly (without attacking) including requests for change. Can listen to complaints without defensiveness.
  • Resolve differences and conflicts by seeking to learn rather than to prevail. Use fair fighting that involves confiding, empathic listening, complaining with requests for change, and contracting, effective win-win solutions, all without manipulation or dirty fighting.
  • Agree upon areas of autonomy, areas of consultation, and areas of mutually shared ownership and decision-making.
  • Clarify hidden assumptions and unspoken expectations to minimize misperception and misunderstanding.
  • Help one another heal pains and disappointments, resolve emotional allergies, and clarify hidden assumptions. Conjointly heal and resolve emotional allergy infinity loops.
  • Meet basic needs for sensuality, appropriate sexuality, physical closeness, bonding, and intellectual and emotional sharing with one another.
  • Follow clear, equal, negotiated boundaries regarding what is private and not shared with others outside the relationship.
  • Initiate change when the status quo (division of roles, responsibilities, and privileges) is not satisfactory. Follow through on negotiated changes.


The National Council on Family Relations[11] focuses on preparing professionals in family life education, a prominent approach to relationship education.

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.

Jeffry H. Larson conducted several studies on marriage and relationship education, including a review of three widely used premarital inventories - Focus, Prepare, and Relate.[12]

Seven principles of relationship education

1. It’s Your Ship, You’re the Captain: Relationship education is about helping people find strategies and solutions that fit for their unique circumstances, values and relationship goals. That includes respecting their own personal responsibility for their success and the decisions they make for their lives. Evidence-based skills training provides techniques that are easy to understand and use to surface greater awareness of what lies beneath the tip of the iceberg, navigate typical relationship challenges, and overcome differences that are a natural part of any close relationship.[13][14]

2. One Mouth, Two Ears: Relationship education provides safe, time-limited structures for conversations that matter, which are often much more about listening than talking. Learning to actively listen with empathy and respect to another person’s perspective and experience –without judgment, defensiveness, blame, or an effort to quickly try to “fix” the issue or the person — makes it safer for intimates to develop greater awareness of themselves and each other.[13][14]

3. Riding the Waves: Relationship education teaches practical, usable skills for better understanding and safely expressing the full range of emotions, including anger, sadness and fear. Upsetting feelings held in eventually either implode or explode. Confiding painful feelings to a significant other leaves more room to experience feelings of love, pleasure and happiness. Just as the most powerful waves lose their energy when they break against the shore, the same is generally true of emotions.[13][14]

4. It’s Rarely the Problem that’s the Problem: Relationship education enables distressed couples — with good will towards each other, openness to learning, and a desire for the relationship to succeed — to deal with differences and problems in ways that often lead to greater closeness, understanding, acceptance and commitment. The issues that surface are typically symptoms of communication breakdowns, hidden assumptions and expectations, behaviors that come from holding in upsetting feelings, or lack of skills for constructive conflict resolution.[13][14]

5. Love is a Feeling: Relationship education helps people develop their emotional intelligence, including understanding that feelings of love come from the anticipation of pleasure in our interactions with others. If instead of anticipating pleasure, we expect pain, feelings of love are unlikely to survive, let alone thrive. What’s a pleasure changes during different stages and passages of life. Sustaining feelings of love requires learning what it takes in today’s circumstances to stay a pleasure in each other’s lives. And doing it.[13][14]

6. Marriage is a Contract: Relationship education recognizes that although nearly all traditional marriage vows include the promise to “love ‘till death do us part,” the marriage contract itself cannot be dependent on “feelings” of love, which naturally wax and wane. That doesn’t mean commitment or obligations wax and wane. Emotions are affected by many factors, often unrelated to issues inside our closest relationships. Marriage is the glue that’s meant to hold couples and families together during periods of growth, change and challenge that are natural part of life.[13][14]

7. Relationships are Work: Relationship education is built on the understanding that what happens in our closest relationships impacts quality of life, fulfillment, happiness, and the ability to pursue cherished dreams and aspirations. Relationships take regular attention. Without intentionally nurturing relationships, it’s easy to become strangers, for relationships to wither and become vulnerable. Beyond staying a pleasure in each other’s lives, the work of an intimate relationship is to consistently meet each other’s needs for bonding (emotional and physical closeness). Relationship education provides a road map and usable skills for sustaining healthy relationships that are an ongoing source of love, pleasure, happiness, and fulfillment for both partners.[13][14]

Qualities of effective relationship educators

PAIRS Foundation defines the qualities of effective relationship educators to include:[6]

Personal Qualities

  • Warmth, optimism, authenticity, poise, and maturity
  • Emotionally stable and comfortable with emotional intensity
  • Appropriate professional appearance and grooming
  • At ease with groups
  • Asks for help when needed

Presentation Qualities

  • Fully prepared for each class with clear, organized presentations
  • Speaks clearly with appropriate pacing, expression, and is easily understood
  • Relevant and appropriate self-disclosure
  • Avoids wordiness, professional jargon, terminology
  • Use of appropriate humor
  • Establishes group rapport
  • Avoids inappropriate comments or offensive behavior
  • Knowledge of the curriculum and its intended purpose
  • Provides clear and accurate direction
  • Stays within boundaries and topics of each class
  • Effectively teaches evidence-based curriculum content as it is written
  • Covers all required material and exercises within time allowed
  • Handles transitions effectively
  • Appropriately evaluates and reads participant responses
  • Receives positive evaluations from class participants

Presenting as a Couple or Team

  • Works cooperatively with staff and team members
  • Authentically models curriculum tools and values

Ethical Practices

  • Knowledge, understanding, and adherence to Ethical practices[15]
  • Understands and respects the vulnerabilities of class participants
  • Ability to maintain a safe educational environment, including appropriate boundaries

Relationship education for U.S. Veterans

The Veterans Health Administration announced a nationwide relationship education initiative for Veterans in October 2012. The program, known as "Warriors to Soul Mates," is based on a curriculum developed by PAIRS Foundation. "The Department of Veterans Affairs has a new goal to care for and heal our wounded Veterans. In addition to repairing their damaged bodies and minds, VA has embarked on a unique campaign to repair their crumbling intimate relationships."[16]

Relationship education for same-sex couples

Following the 2014 ruling of U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle that Florida’s same sex marriage ban violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution,[17] PAIRS Foundation began offering relationship education classes in Miami-Dade and Broward County, Florida specifically geared to committed, engaged and married same sex couples.[18] Based on Florida's 1998 Marriage Preparation and Preservation Act,[19] completion of the four-hour class gives same sex couples a discount on marriage licenses and exemption from the state's standard waiting period.


Relationship education for premarital couples

A multi-year federal study, known as the Building Strong Families Program, and 2010 meta-analysis[7] 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."[7]

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."[20]

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."[20]

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)."[8]
  • 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.[8]
  • 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.[8]
  • 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.[8]

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[21] and a five-year impact report by Peluso, Eisenberg and Schindler[6] found that relationship education provided statistically significant benefits for married couples.[8]

"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.[21]

Supporting Healthy Marriage Study

In August 2012, Manpower Development Research Corporation (MDRC),[22] 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).[23] A 12-month report on the program's impact found:[24]

Couple practices communication skills during PAIRS Foundation relationship education class in Florida.
  • 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.

See also


  1. [1] Building Better Marriages: The Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment
  2. [2] National Institute of Relationship Enhancement website.
  3. DeMaria, Rita. Building Intimate Relationships, "The Saga of PAIRS." Routledge, December 2002.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Eisenberg, Seth. "Revolutions of a Lifetime at Home and Abroad," Fatherhood Channel, February 21, 2011.[3]
  5. [4] "Marriage Education and Relationship Skills Classes Gaining Traction," Fatherhood Channel, July 13, 2011.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 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.[5]
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 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.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 [6] Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Wood, Robert G., et al., "The Building Strong Families Project," May 2010
  9. Satir, Virginia, "Introduction to for our future, for our family", in PAIRS Foundation, For our future, for our family: participant handbook, Broward County, Florida: PAIRS Foundation, p. 6<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Participant handbook for PAIRS 30-hour curriculum for Supporting Healthy Marriages.) Cited with permission. (2012112710011715). Preview on ISSUU.
  10. Adams, Donald W., "Goals of Relationship Education," PAIRS Foundation, Hollywood, FL. Cited with permission.[7]
  11. [8] - National Council on Family Relations website.
  12. [9] Larson, Jeffrey. "A review of three comprehensive premarital assessment questionnaires," Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, April 2002.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 Eisenberg, Seth. "Studies Offer Insights into Value, Principles of Evidence-Based Relationship Skills Training," Fatherhood Channel, January 20, 2013. [10]
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 14.5 14.6 Eisenberg, Seth. "The ABC's of Marriage and Relationship Education," Coalition for Divorce Reform, February 28, 2013. [11]
  15. Sample Ethical Practices agreement - Sample Ethical Practices agreement.
  16. [12] "Helping Veterans Strengthen Their Most Significant Relationships," Fatherhood Channel, October 20, 2012.
  17. "Federal Court Rules that Florida Ban on Marriage for Same-Sex Couples is Unconstitutional". ACLU. 8 August 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. PAIRS Classes for Same Sex Couples
  19. Florida Marriage Preparation and Preservation Act of 1998
  20. 20.0 20.1 [13] U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation.
  21. 21.0 21.1 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.[14]
  22. [15] MDRC website
  23. [16] "National Study Shows Strong Consumer Satisfaction with Marriage and Relationship Education Classes," Fatherhood Channel, October 17, 2012.
  24. Knox, Virginia, et al. "Early Impacts from the Supporting Healthy Marriage Evaluation," MDRC, New York, NY, March 2012.[17]

External links

Further reading

  • DeMaria, Rita (2002). Building Intimate Relationships. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-1583910764.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Gordon, Lori (1993). Passage to Intimacy. New York: Fireside Books. ISBN 0671795961.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>