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  • Each year, policy dollars provide hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged young adults with good relationship education. Tweet This
  • Government-supported relationship-strengthening efforts expand their impact by stimulating cultural shifts to help more people form and sustain healthy marriages. Tweet This
  • I've heard from academic colleagues across the country that wait-lists are long for college courses focused on building and sustaining healthy relationships and strong marriages.  Tweet This

It’s been a quarter of a century since a few states began experimenting with public policy support for relationship education services to help couples form and sustain healthy relationships and stronger marriages. Just a few years later, the federal government began investing $75-$100 million a year in community-based relationship education programs targeted primarily to diverse, lower-income individuals and couples. In a dozen blogs for the Institute for Family Studies over the past decade, I have chronicled these policy experiments and the research trying to evaluate their effectiveness,1 and I have published widely in academic outlets on this new policy initiative.2

But I haven’t stayed cooped up in my ivory tower. I was a visiting scholar with the Administration for Children and Families that directs federal policy efforts in this area. I have visited relationship education programs supported by public funds in Alabama, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas, and talked at length with many more relationship education administrators running programs in other locations. I am on the Research Advisory Group for one of the premier programs in the nation in Oklahoma City. And last year I retired from my academic position to work for a few more years for one of the other premier relationship education operations in the United States here in Utah.

Recently, I found myself waxing philosophical about this work, wanting to step back and sense the bigger picture. And I confess that right now I feel both optimistic and pessimistic over this policy initiative. I delight in the solid education these needy individuals and couples are getting to help them “paddle upstream”—to work on their relationships—not just let relationship currents drag them south. These kinds of relationship-strengthening programs have a long, replicated track record of helping couples, privileged and less so. It seems my optimistic side should be winning this battle.     

But my skeptical-scientific brain frets that I am expecting too much of this pollyannaish policy initiative. Conundrum 1: How can a set of classes, most with an average total dosage of only about 10 hours, overpower the negative cultural forces—not to mention the daunting personal challenges—that face these stressed and distressed couples? Conundrum 2: Even if these programs are more potent than my skeptical scientific self allows, how can we reach these aspiring couples and co-parents in the kinds of numbers that could really move the needle on healthy, stable families in our society? 

After 25 years, here is my working answer to this first conundrum: I think there are “sticky” meta-messages that sink into these participants’ heads and stay in their hearts from these relationship classes that make an enduring difference. But regardless of the educational content and method: relationships are a learning and growing thing. Fate is not in the driver’s seat; you are. Relationships aren’t especially natural; they take work. But people can get smarter and do them better. 

But I don’t anticipate that the federal government—with its ballooning budget deficit and chronic congressional dysfunction—will be doubling down on their investment in relationship education to reach more needy souls. So, my evolving response to the second conundrum is this: I think these government-supported relationship-strengthening efforts—even though they only reach a small proportion of people each year—expand their impact by stimulating cultural shifts to help many more people form and sustain healthy relationships and stronger marriages. We are cultural creatures and flow with the cultural currents. We desperately need those currents to move in the right direction. Government can help by sending clear, strong signals. 

I’m not optimistic about help from other societal institutions. Will media take up the cause of strong marriages and stable families in the same way they have helped, say, to promote the cultural value of diversity and inclusion? I’m skeptical. Similarly, I doubt academia will adopt a pro-marriage agenda anytime soon, despite reams of research showing its salutary effects on children and adults. Progressive ideologies that have been baked into academia tend to view marriage as a fading, anachronistic institution in modern society. Institutional religion, of course, generally preaches the value of strong marriages. But the data are pretty clear that contemporary young adults in their family formation years are increasingly absent from the pews. 

Each year, policy dollars provide hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged youth and young adults with good relationship education. These policy dollars are a strong cultural signal of what is important to building successful lives and thriving communities. 

Government, however, under both Republican and Democratic stewardship, has been experimenting on a small scale with what can be done directly to help individuals and couples gain the knowledge and skills needed for healthy relationships. I hold out hope that all these government-funded interventions can reach beyond actual class participants to nudge the broader culture towards smarter relationship formation strategies and fighting relationship entropy. 

Usually, culture trickles down from the advantaged to the disadvantaged. But while the advantaged personally invest in marriage and receive its dividends, they often recoil at promoting this stock to others less fortunate whose family lives are more unstable. If government efforts to enhance family stability and marriage among those who are least able to access its benefits can yield some modest success—and I think they can—maybe all this good educational programming will defy social gravity and trickle out into the broader cultural conversation to change attitudes and behaviors at scale. I see some evidence of anti-gravitational properties already. For instance, a handful of books by progressive authors published in prestigious presses over the past decade are taking this policy initiative and its goals seriously. Some conclude it is not a good idea, while others provide tepid and conditional applause. But at least they are paying attention and affirming the problems it is trying to address. Similarly, articles in high-profile media outlets are keeping a spotlight on the need for good policies. Also, I have heard from academic colleagues from across the country that wait-lists are long for college courses focused on building and sustaining healthy relationships and strong marriages. 

A note of caution, however. Having followed the research on the effectiveness of various social policy initiatives and having taught family policy courses many times, I’m keenly aware of how our do-gooder policy aspirations often fall short of solving the problems they are asked to fix. The distance between design and performance is often wide and discouraging. It’s as if some of our social problems have become resistant to our policy antibiotics. 

But stable families make essential contributions to civil society. What does it say if our elected representatives shrug off this major social problem that impacts millions of children’s chances in life and derails many young adult lives? What other major contemporary social problem is outside the bounds of public policy concern? Government funds are fighting rising rates of childhood obesity and skyrocketing levels of teen depression and anxiety. Fertility rates have fallen well below population replacement levels, and national leaders at home and abroad are wringing their hands about what appropriate measures can be taken to supply the next generation of needed workers and citizens. And of course, government is already heavily involved in trying to ameliorate costly problems caused when healthy relationships fail to form or fall apart. 

It may be trite, but building inexpensive fences at the top of the cliff seems like a better idea than buying costly ambulances at the bottom. I think we need to stay engaged, trying to address the problem of family instability, even with all its complexity and uncertainty of how to fix it, delicately balancing potential collective gains with individual freedoms and diverse values. There are smart people who disagree with me that public support for relationship education is a good way to address the problem. But I think we need to keep trying. 

We can make a difference in couples’ lives with good relationship education in all its different forms. Good marriages are not easy, but we know how healthy relationships are formed and we understand what knowledge and skills and virtues sustain them. We probably overestimate, however, how much of this knowledge people really understand at a behavioral level—in a way that they can apply it in their day-to-day lives. Each year, policy dollars provide hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged youth and young adults with good relationship education. These policy dollars are a strong cultural signal of what is important to building successful lives and thriving communities.  

This is the bigger picture I try to see when I’m observing these relationship education programs across the nation and reading the studies on their effectiveness. I see a gradual infusion of the culture with the idea that lasting love is a learning and growing thing, and that forever dreams are possible with smart work to make them come true (and some cultural cheerleading). That idea creates hope, and hope is powerful. 

Alan J. Hawkins is the manager of the Utah Marriage Commission and vice-chair of the National Alliance for Relationship and Marriage Education. This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in Public Square Magazine

1.  Search “Alan J. Hawkins” on the Family Studies blog search bar for a complete list. 

2. To see a list of relevant publications, search “Alan J. Hawkins relationship education” on Google Scholar.