Relationship education is designed to provide participants with knowledge and skills that can help them form and sustain healthy romantic relationships and strong marriages by preventing serious problems before they arise or become serious.1 Most relationship education has focused on committed or married couples—more than 80% of research in this field has focused on education for committed couples—but we think the field can benefit by placing more focus on educating younger individuals.
Elsewhere we have outlined arguments for shifting the field of relationship education to give priority to relationship literacy education for youth.2 To summarize, serious problems are common in adolescent and young adult romantic relationships. Also, increasing numbers of youth follow paths from adolescence to marriage that make it harder for them to form and sustain a healthy marriage. One study suggests that in two-thirds of marriages, at least one spouse had premarital doubts about the future success of the marriage.3 Many couples today begin marriages at low-to-modest levels of satisfaction, with challenging problems already embedded in the relationship. Not surprisingly, they are at greater risk for divorce than couples who begin their marriage happily and later experience serious problems.4 Moreover, most couples who are struggling in their marriage do not seek out professional help, and if they do, it is often after a crisis, which makes repairing the marriage more difficult. In short, we need to help individuals begin their marriages with less baggage and stronger, happier relationships.
This is where increased and improved relationship literacy education for youth would be beneficial. While there is much more empirical work to do, the early evidence on the effectiveness of individually-oriented youth relationship education provides some reason for optimism. In our recent study “Learning about Love: A meta-analytic study of individually-oriented relationship education programs for adolescents and emerging adults,”5 we set out to determine if relationship education programs tailored to teens and young adult individuals (rather than committed couples) have positive impacts on outcomes that may correlate with future healthy relationships. The goal of these programs is to help improve attitudes that can lead to relational unhappiness, such as attitudes about waiting for a soulmate, love conquers all, or even that living together is the best way to prepare for marriage. Additionally, they try to increase knowledge about unhealthy relationship expectations, and they typically teach skills for conflict resolution and positive communication patterns.
Most couples who are struggling in their marriage do not seek out professional help, and if they do, it is often after a crisis, which makes repairing the marriage more difficult.
In our meta-analysis of 30 studies focused on relationship education for younger individuals, we looked at these programs and found that overall, they are having small-to-moderate positive impacts on two sets of outcomes: 1) knowledge and attitudes about healthy romantic relationships and marriages (e.g., unrealistic expectations), and 2) effective communication and problem-solving skills, including avoiding the use of aggression and violence. The outcome effects were a little stronger for programs that targeted emerging-adults (compared to teens), but these differences were not statistically significant. Also, we found some evidence that programs with at-risk, lower-income participants had larger impacts than programs with a mix of lower-income/middle-class participants (although this needs further confirmation).
The biggest shortcoming in this body of research, however, is the lack of long-term investigations; no rigorous studies to date have followed participants long enough to confidently infer that early relationship education leads to healthier trajectories toward marriage and stronger marriages down the road. A few studies had followed up with their participants a year or two later, but these studies usually had problems with sample attrition (participants dropping out of the study) which limits confidence in any conclusions. Studies that are able to follow an intact sample of youth for a decade or more are needed. The challenges and expense of this kind of longer-term study call for federal support, perhaps from the Administration for Children and Families, which has funded two rigorous, large-scale studies of relationship education for lower-income couples already in a serious married or unmarried relationship.
Nevertheless, the results from our study on relationship literacy education for young people give a reason for some optimism. Young people can learn about love and healthy relationships from these programs, which may encourage more schools, churches, communities, and states to invest resources in relationship education for their youth and emerging adult populations. Additionally, this early evidence may help expand the resources needed for researchers to better understand a field that is still young.
Continued work with adults in committed romantic relationships is needed, but for many adults, it may be too late to wait until they settle into a serious romantic union to provide them with sound education about maintaining a healthy relationship. We need to prioritize our efforts upstream to prepare young people to make better decisions about romantic relationships and provide them with tools that can make their romantic relationships more satisfying and longer lasting. While this is only part of a larger portfolio of programs and policies that could help our youth attain more satisfying and productive adult lives, it is one that deserves more attention. The field of relationship education needs to get back to its roots—preventing problems before they begin.
David Simpson is a Ph.D. student studying Educational Inquiry, Measurement, and Evaluation at Brigham Young University. Alan Hawkins is the Camilla E. Kimball Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University.
1. Halford, W. K. (2011). Marriage and relationship education. What works and how to provide it. New York: Guilford.
2. Hawkins, A. J. (in press, 2017). "Shifting the relationship education field to prioritize youth relationship education." Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy.
3. Lavner, J., Karney, B., & Bradbury, T. (2012). "Do cold feet warn of trouble ahead? Premarital uncertainty and four-year marital outcomes." Journal of Family Psychology, 26, 1012–1017.
4. Lavner, J., Bradbury, T., & Karney, B. (2012). "Incremental change or initial differences? Testing two models of marital deterioration." Journal of Family Psychology, 26, 606–616.
5. Simpson, D. M., Leonhardt, N. D., & Hawkins, A. J. (2017). "Learning about love: A meta-analytic study of individually oriented relationship education programs for adolescents and emerging adults." Journal of Youth and Adolescence.