- Just under 2 in 5 (38.3%) of early married individuals in the U.S. participated in any form of marital intervention, be it traditional in-person or self-directed, per a 2020 study. Tweet This
- Our analyses show that early marriage participants in marital interventions start out their marriages on [better] footing, especially Blacks, the better educated, and the more religious. Tweet This
While recent divorce rates are now lower than record rates tallied in the early 1980s, marriage permanence remains a somewhat high-risk proposition, with individuals in the U.S. population still facing somewhere between a 40% to 50% chance of ending their unions. In response to the inherent risks, marital interventions have long been recommended, dating back to the 1930s.1 While not unequivocally positive, evidence suggests that marital interventions offered premaritally or maritally, in educational (college class, church/community workshop, or self-directed) or therapeutic formats, are generally effective in improving relationship satisfaction, communication, and relationship skills.2 When compared with each other, different methods of marital interventions are all viewed as helpful and change producing, with one premarital study sample slightly favoring classes and self-directed approaches3 and a national study of early married couples slightly favoring counseling.4
These studies are very promising and suggest that marital interventions of whatever stripe are important to participate in, whether before and after marriage. However, with only one exception, these studies have not been conducted using national population samples, making generalization of the findings to any known population impossible.
To overcome this limitation, my colleagues and I conducted two new nationally representative studies of early marriage that argue for the critical importance of marital interventions in early marriage, and suggest how we might make these findings and interventions better known to this population.
The two studies were part of the Couple Relationships and Transitions Experiences (CREATE) study of early marriage in the United States. Participants were taken from a sample of the nationally representative survey of 2,187 couples.
Marital Interventions: Participation, Helpfulness, and Change.
The purpose of the first study, which was published in 2020, was to document intervention participation of early married couples before or after marriage and whether this was perceived to be helpful and change producing. We found just under 2 in 5 (38.3%) of early married individuals in the U.S. participated in any form of marital intervention, be it traditional in-person (college class or community/church-sponsored workshop), counseling, or self-directed. All interventions were seen as helpful and change producing by the couples, but especially counseling. Most marital intervention participation at this stage occurred at the premarital level.
That only 2 in 5 couples participated was concerning to us. That is something far less than the inoculation of all possible early married couples, many of whom we believed would stand to benefit from an early intervention. We would like to reach something more like “herd immunity,” where nearly everyone is receiving some “dosage” of marital intervention. But is there evidence that the intervention-receiving population statistically have better marital outcomes at early marriage? That gave rise to our second study.
The Benefits of Marital Interventions
Even though participation rates were less than ideal, surely early marrieds are benefiting from their participation as a population, right? This new study,5 which is currently under review, was designed to examine whether early married couples who have participated in marital interventions in the U.S. experience significant measurable improvements when compared to nonparticipating couples on an array of assessments corresponding to the everyday ecology of marital life, namely positive/negative interaction, marital virtues, and transformative processes, and if these differences were moderated by age, education, and religiosity.
We now have nationally representative evidence to show that early marriage interventions are helpful and change producing in a variety of nontrivial ways important for marital health.
Eight measures were used to assess positive and negative interaction processes: conflict frequency, conflict resolution quality, marital interaction frequency, marital power, marital problems, relationship communication, sexual satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction. Five measures were used to assess marital virtues (admiration and teamwork, gratitude, marital centrality, marital instability, trust). Two measures were used to assess transformative processes: forgiveness, commitment.
Here is what we found.
Positive and negative interaction processes. Past involvement in a marital intervention, by itself was related to better scores on the quality of conflict resolution. Across all eight outcome measures, early married participation in counseling was related to significantly higher scores, after controlling for other factors in the model. Across six of the eight outcome measures, Blacks scored higher than other racial groups, holding other effects constant. Among covariates, religious orientation and education was significant in seven of eight outcome measures, with more religious and educated participants having better scores. Older participants had higher interaction scores, but also higher frequency of conflict scores.
Marital virtues. Past involvement in a marital intervention, by itself, was related to higher marital centrality and trust scores. Across all five measures of marital virtues, Black participants scored higher than White participants while Latino participants scored higher than White participants on four of 5 measures. Among covariates, education was significant across all virtues areas, religious orientation was significant across four of five, and older participants had higher gratitude and marital centrality scores. Greater variation of influence by intervention was observed here. Counseling participants had higher stability, admiration, and trust scores, while workshop participants had higher gratitude and stability scores, and self-directed participants had higher marital centrality scores than nonparticipants.
Transformative processes. Past involvement in a marital intervention, by itself, was also related to higher marital commitment scores. Participants who were Black and Latino and were involved in counseling had higher scores on commitment and forgiveness. Higher education and religious orientation moderated the association, with those better educated and more religious having higher scores.
Our mixed model analyses show that early marriage participants in marriage interventions, whether that intervention occurs before or soon after marriage, start out their marriages on higher level footing in a variety of marital process areas. This was especially so among Blacks, the better educated, and more religious participants.
Clearly, this is a positive indication that participation in marital interventions during the marital horizon stage of marriage manifests its benefits in a variety of non-trivial ways. This is good news for the marriage enhancement field and suggests that the transitional touchpoint of early marriage may be an especially fruitful time for marital interventions.
Promoting Early Marital Intervention
With these national studies touting benefits of marital interventions, particularly counseling, at early marriage transitional stages, is this enough evidence to strongly recommend early intervention as a matter of “marital public health policy?” Should these benefits, which our national research shows that only 2 out of 5 early married persons are taking advantage of, be fostered among all premarital and early married couples?
We now have nationally representative evidence to show that early marriage interventions are helpful and change producing in a variety of nontrivial ways important for marital health. There is ample reason to raise the call for promoting early marital intervention, especially prior to marriage, as important to marital health.
Stephen F. Duncan, Ph.D., CFLE, is a Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University.
Editor's Note: The citations have been updated with corrections since publication.
1. Stahmann, R., & Salts, C. Educating for marriage and intimate relationships. In M. E. Arcus, J. D. Schvaneveldt, & J. J. Moss (Eds.), Handbook of family life education (Vol. 2, pp. 33–61). (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1993).
2. See: Hawkins, A. J., Blanchard, V. L., & Baldwin, S. A. (2008). Does marriage and relationship education work? A meta-analytic study. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 6, 723–734. Also: Fawcett, E. B., Hawkins, A. J., Blanchard, V. L., & Carroll, J. S. (2010). Do premarital education programs really work? A meta-analytic study. Family Relations, 59, 232–239. Carlson, R., Daire, A., Munyon, M., & Young, M. (2012). A comparison of cohabiting and non-cohabiting couples who participated in premarital counseling using the PREPARE model. Family Journal, 20, 123–130. And: Georgia, E. J., & Doss, B. D. (2013). Web-based couple interventions: Do they have a future? Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 12, 168–185.
3. Duncan, S. F., Childs, G. R., & Larson, J. H. (2010). Perceived helpfulness of four different types of marriage preparation interventions. Family Relations, 59, 623–636.
4. White, T. J. E., Duncan, S. F., & Yorgason, J. B., James, S. L. & Holmes, E. K. (2020). Marital interventions: Participation, helpfulness, and change in a nationally representative sample. Family Relations, 69, 125-137.
5. Duncan, S. F., White, T. J. E., & James, S. L. (2021). "Do marital interventions buoy up the early marital ship? A nationally representative study." Manuscript under review.