Relationship education and counselling

Recent research findings
CFCA Paper No. 33 – July 2015

Implications and conclusions

The research findings from both areas have implications for policy, practice and future research. For example, while relationship education research has expanded since the mid 2000s to study a wider range of couples, such as those with lower incomes, unmarried couples who have children together, couples where one partner has an illness or couples who have fostered or adopted a child, this still may not be reflective of the diversity of couples in the wider community (Markman & Rhoades, 2012; Halford & Bodenmann, 2013). There is potential to expand this wider application of relationship education to the many groups who still remain under-served, such as older couples, gay, lesbian or transgendered couples, separated and divorced people, cohabiting couples, individuals looking for a relationship (Markman & Rhoades, 2012), couples with ageing parents, couples forming stepfamilies and couples transitioning to retirement (Halford & Bodenmann, 2013). Couples in these diverse groups are still “not well understood or represented in relationship education programs” (Bradbury & Lavner, 2012, p. 115). These findings can be extended to relationship counselling research where there has also been limited research focusing on these groups (Lebow et al., 2012). It is important, however, that any programs or interventions catering for diverse couples are evidence-based and that this evidence is generated from studies that sample a diverse range of couples (Johnson, 2012) so that it is clear from the evidence that these couples will benefit from the relationship education or counselling offered to them.

An implication for relationship educators to consider in their practice could be that offering a fixed curriculum for all couples may be less effective than offering a tailored relationship education program (Halford & Bodenmann, 2013). If the program can offer content that addresses the risk factors specific to individual couples, then that material may be more relevant and meaningful. There is limited evidence for the universal application of relationship education programs, particularly over a longer-term period, and there is developing evidence suggesting some couples may be more likely to benefit from programs than others based on shared and individual risk factors. Bradbury and Lavner (2012) write that offering interventions to all couples regardless of their levels of risk for relationship deterioration “ignores important information, is likely to compromise the effects of interventions, and devotes resources to couples least likely to need them” (Bradbury & Lavner, 2012, p. 117).

The findings from the two large-scale trials of relationship education in the United States, Building Strong Families and Supporting Healthy Marriages, highlight implications for policy makers. Relationships for lower-income couples can come under added stress from a range of other factors such as “lack of economic resources, poor educational opportunities, [un]stable jobs, unsafe neighbourhoods, drug addictions, traumatised childhoods, and so on” (Hawkins & Ooms, 2012, p. 543). Hawkins and Ooms (2012) highlighted suggestions that a more effective policy tool would be to direct funding towards some of these underlying causes of relationship instability, rather than toward the relationship itself. Hawkins and Ooms (2012), however, still see the value in supporting marriage and relationship programs for disadvantaged groups, where the intervention “is intended to supplement other antipoverty efforts, not replace them” (Hawkins & Ooms, 2012, p. 543). Furthermore, there is potential for relationship education programs to act as a gateway for program participants who may need help from other services (Hawkins & Ooms, 2012).

Further to this, with the high co-occurrence and cyclical nature of relationship distress and psychopathology (such as depression, anxiety and substance misuse), there is merit in mental health workers assessing for relationship difficulties and practitioners working with couples assessing for individual psychopathology. There is opportunity for workers in these areas to provide referrals to relationship counselling or mental health services as required, thus potentially increasing the likelihood of positive outcomes for clients.

Finally, while relationship education and counselling may differ in their target groups (those in relatively satisfying relationships versus those experiencing distress) and aims (e.g., prevention of relationship issues versus intervening in relationship issues), there are commonalities across the two. As highlighted by Halford and Snyder (2012), although research in relationship education and counselling has found several evidence-based approaches to be effective, there is still little understanding in both fields of the precise mechanisms of change and also that “all approaches to couple therapy and relationship education have significant limitations in their efficacy, and to date it has not been possible to find a general approach that is reliably more effective than pre-existing approaches” (p. 8). Further research is required to understand why effective interventions work and, importantly, why there are people for whom these interventions do not work in order to potentially increase the overall effectiveness of relationship education and counselling interventions in the future.