It seems that I’ve been misleading my students for nearly 20 years: the divorce rate has not been going down since the mid-1980s as researchers long thought. As Kay Hymowitz has reported on this blog, a new, sophisticated analysis of divorce rates in the United States suggests that divorce rates have continued to rise, especially for less educated and lower-income couples. Half of first marriages have been ending in divorce. Elsewhere I have suggested that publicly supported educational efforts to provide married couples with marriage maintenance education might help more couples fight the relationship entropy that wears away at virtually all marriages.
So I eagerly inhaled a long-awaited research report released last week by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, which has supported a wide variety of marriage and relationship education initiatives for lower-income individuals and couples over the past decade. The report publicized the results of a rigorous, large-scale evaluation of the Supporting Healthy Marriage (SHM) project that delivered marriage-strengthening classes to more than 3,000 couples with children (and followed a comparable control group) in eight cities across the nation.
The first noteworthy finding was simply that lower-income couples sought out the classes in significant numbers and participated, on average, in almost 30 hours of education and enrichment activities over the course of a year in the SHM program. And more than 70% of couples who showed up for the first class received a full dose of the program. This high level of interest and participation suggests an important success.
Two years earlier, a similar educational effort for unmarried couples having a child together struggled to recruit and retain couples in the program; only about 10% received a significant dose of a relationship development program. Not surprisingly, then, that program had few long-term positive impacts. Perhaps more couples participated fully in the SHM enrichment program because they had already chosen to marry but thought that their marriage had been in trouble during the past year or may encounter difficulties in the future. These kinds of classes may be meeting a need among lower-income couples who clearly value marriage but cope with greater stresses and likely can’t afford marriage counseling (and might be reluctant to attend counseling even if they could afford it).
There is good and bad news about the SHM program’s effectiveness. The bad news is that about two years after completing the program, couples were no less likely to have separated or divorced than their control-group counterparts. But on many other outcome measures, the program had small but significant effects—effects that would predict more stable marriages down the road. Compared to control-group couples, SHM couples were less likely to report that their marriage had been in trouble over the past three months. And they reported a little less psychological abuse, substance abuse, and infidelity, each of which is a strong predictor of subsequent divorce. SHM couples reported more marital happiness, greater warmth and support, and more positive and less negative communication, as well.
While the effects were small (but statistically reliable), they were hardly trivial. For instance, two years after the program, about 42% of SHM couples reported that their marriage had been in trouble recently compared to about 47% of control-group couples. That 5% difference means nearly 150 more SHM couples than control-group couples felt that their marriage was solid.
So the positive effects of the SHM program were small but noticeable. Unfortunately, stronger couple relationships did not translate readily into better parenting practices or child outcomes, as the program designers predicted. Although there was some evidence of positive effects for the youngest children in the study, there has none for the older ones.
Supporting Healthy Marriage was a rigorous evaluation of a first-generation, publicly supported attempt to help lower-income married parents, who face higher risks for divorce, to strengthen their marriages and to avoid the relationship instability that puts their children at greater disadvantage. While SHM had no impact on short-term divorce rates, it may turn out to have longer-term effects due to positive changes in important dimensions of relationship quality and behavior. Program developers will need to learn and improve their services, however, to provide better help to married couples and to produce better outcomes for their children. Fortunately, many dedicated educators across the country involved in this kind of service are anxious to get back to work and make a difference.
Alan Hawkins is a Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University who has published widely on the effectiveness of marriage and relationship education programs. He is the author of The Forever Initiative, which chronicles government educational efforts to help couples form and sustain healthy marriages and relationships.