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  • In a nationally representative sample of over 2,000 recently-married couples, only 27.6% had participated in some form of marriage intervention. Tweet This
  • Men and women socialized to see the importance of marriage early on may see more reason to invest in the promise of improved benefits later. Tweet This

Marriage and relationship education (MRE) enjoys a long and distinguished history. Some of the earliest formal MRE interventions can be traced back to the 1930s. Research suggests MRE is effective in helping couples increase positive and decrease negative interactions, improve the handling of conflict and solving problems, enhance communication skills, and increase relationship satisfaction.1

Even though MRE programs have been shown to be effective, they are notoriously under-attended. For example, estimates of participation in marriage preparation range from 30%2 to 37% in religious settings,3 to 44% among those married since 1990.4

The trend of involvement in MRE, at least among newly married couples, appears to be going in the opposite direction, according to a new first-of-its-kind U.S. national study of participation in marital/premarital interventions.5 In our nationally representative, population-level sample of 2,187 recently-married couples, only 27.6% had participated in some form of marriage intervention, either before or since getting married.

This points to a potential decline in participation in MRE programs. Of course, it is possible that because previous estimates were not based on a nationally representative sample of couples, there may not have been any decline at all, particularly among the early married. However, if the decline in participation rates is real, there are two trends that may be contributing to it.

Lower marriage rates. The proportion of married adults younger than age 65 declined by 10 percentage points or higher between 1990 and 2016, with the strongest declines among those aged 18 to 34 (from 44% in 1990 to 26% in 2016).6 These declines have occurred across all racial and ethnic groups. Even though new marriages are increasing, they are more than canceled out by declining marriage rates overall. More individuals are delaying marriage or foregoing marriage altogether. As a result, participation in a marriage strengthening intervention may not be on the horizon for many young people because marriage is less likely to be viewed as a major adult event.

Declining investment in and importance of marriage. Lower marriage participation may reflect a devaluating of marriage, and in turn, less investment in what is needed to maintain and strengthen the marital union. As W. Bradford Wilcox, Nicholas Wolfinger, and Charles Stokes have discussed in this space,

The collective result of these cultural changes is that a less family-oriented, more individualistic approach to relationships, marriage, and family life has gained ground since the 1960s. For instance, young adults have become less likely to associate parenthood with marriage.7

Furthermore, among young adults who say they believe that marriage preparation is very or extremely important, only a minority of them say they would participate in even 1-2 hours of marriage prep.8

Encouraging Participation in MRE

Whether these trends are contributing to lower participation rates or not, I suspect that most MRE practitioners would agree that a 1 in 4 participation rate is a bit underwhelming. So, how can we encourage more involvement in MRE?

1. Tout the Benefits of Marriage.

When compared with singles, divorced, or cohabitors, married people are better off emotionally, physically, economically, and sexually.9 These benefits are present even after accounting for race, income, and health status prior to marriage. As noted, marriage among young adults has been declining, yet when they do marry, they experience immediate reductions in depressive symptoms and higher life satisfaction, which holds true for the married across incomes, ethnic groups, and gender.10 Participants in marriage enhancing experiences tend to improve the quality of their marriage in some way. Hence, as marriage in general means a better life, participation in marriage enhancement can make things even better.

2. Enhance Access and Flexibility

Use of MRE goes up with increased availability.11 Elsewhere, I have argued that we need to increase the reach of evidence-based programs and expand the range and flexibility of formats, even including marriage strengthening apps on handheld devices.12 Research shows when traditional face-to-face formats are combined with other formats (also known as blend-learning) in order to reinforce concepts, outcomes for participants improve.13 Traditional face-to-face programs will likely attract and benefit more participants if they add other forms of learning.

3. Tailor Interventions.

Through the research my colleagues and I have conducted, we have learned about the characteristics of people and couples who are more likely to participate in marriage interventions. For example, persons more likely to attend marriage preparation are kinder, more mature, value marriage more, and have problems that need solving.14 In turn, the interventions are most likely to benefit those with similar positive attributes.15 Through focus group research, we have learned that interventions need to be tailored to specific target groups to garner the most participation.16,17

4. Catch Them Earlier 

Finally, while emerging adulthood is a great time to promote the benefits of marriage, evidence suggests that attitude-forming schemas that influence beliefs about intimate relationships, such as marriage and mate selection, are already taking shape well before formative coupling time.18 So it may be too little, too late if practitioners wait until young adulthood to plant the seed of marriage education's importance. Offering relationship education when young people begin to form relational values and plans, such as during the adolescent years, may be an appropriate time to emphasize the characteristics of individuals that are associated with relationship literacy and marital satisfaction.19 Men and women socialized to see the importance of relationships early on may see more reason to invest in the promise of improved benefits later as they approach their own marital horizons.

Stephen F. Duncan, Ph.D., CFLE, is a Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University.

1. 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, 76, 723–734.

2. Olson, D. H. (1983). How effective is marriage preparation? In D. R. Mace (Ed.), Prevention in family services: Approaches to family wellness (pp. 65–75). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

3. Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (1997). Marriage in the 90s: A nationwide random phone survey. A marital research poll by PREP, Inc. Denver: PREP, Inc.

4. Stanley, S. M., Amato, P. R., Johnson, C. A., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Premarital education, marital quality, and marital stability: Findings from a large, random, household survey. Journal of Family Psychology, 20, 117-126.

5. White, T., Duncan, S. F., & Yorgason, J. (2017, November). Participation, helpfulness, and change in marital interventions. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Council on Family Relations, Orlando, FL.

6. Wang, W. (February 12, 2018). The State of our Unions: Marriage up Among Older Americans, Down Among the Younger. Retrieved from https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-state-of-our-unions-marriage-up-among-older-americans-down-among-the-younger

7. Wilcox, W. B., Wolfinger, N. H., & Stokes, C. E. (March 10, 2016). The Role of Culture in Declining Marriage Rates. Retrieved from https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-role-of-culture-in-declining-marriage-rates

8. Duncan, S. F., & Wood, M. M. (2003). Perceptions of marriage preparation among college-educated young adults with greater family-related risks for marital disruption. The Family Journal, 11, 342-352.

9. Waite, L. J., & Gallagher, M. (2000). The case for marriage: Why married people are happier, healthier, and better off financially. New York: Doubleday.

10. Staton, J., & Ooms, T. (2008). Making the connection between healthy marriage and health outcomes: What the research says. Oklahoma City: National Healthy Marriage Resource Center.

11. Schumm, W., & Silliman, B. (1997). Changes in premarital counseling as related to older cohorts of married couples. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 23, 98-102.

12. Duncan, S. F. (2015). Relationship and marriage education best practices: Conceptual and methodological issues. In J. Ponzetti (Ed.), Evidence-based approaches to relationship and marriage education (pp. 16–30). New York: Routledge.

13. McAllister, S., Duncan, S. F., & Hawkins, A. J. (2012). Examining the early evidence for self-directed marriage and relationship education: A meta-analytic study. Family Relations, 61, 742-755.

14. Duncan, S. F., Holman, T. B., & Yang, C. (2007). Factors associated with involvement in marriage preparation programs. Family Relations, 56, 270-278. DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2007.00458.x

15. Duncan, S. F., Rogers, M. A., & McAllister, S. (2017). Individual personality characteristics associated with marriage preparation outcomes of perceived helpfulness and change. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy. doi:10.1080/15332691.2017.1372836

16. Snyder, I. B., Duncan, S. F., & Larson, J. H. (2010). Assessing perceived marriage education needs and interests among Latinos in a select western community. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 41, 347-367.

17. Smith, C. B., Duncan, S. F., Ketring, S., & Abell, E. (2014). Assessing marriage and relationship education needs in Aruba. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 13, 133-152.

18. Kerpelman, J. L., Pittman, J. F., Adler-Baeder, F., Stringer, K. J., Eryigit, S., Cadely, H. S., & Harrell-Levy, M. K. (2010). What adolescents bring to and learn from relationship education classes: Does social address matter? Journal of Couple & Relationship Education, 9, 95–112.

19. Goddard, H. W., Olson, J. R., Galovan, A. M., Schramm, D. G., & Marshall, J. P. (2016). Qualities of character that predict marital well-being. Family Relations, 65, 424–438. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1111/fare.12195