Relationship education and counselling

Recent research findings
CFCA Paper No. 33 – July 2015


The ways in which intimate couple relationships1 are entered in to and sustained have altered significantly over the last few decades (Moloney & Weston, 2012), with many unprecedented changes to how couples form and dissolve relationships and make decisions to have children (Weston & Qu, 2013). Couples choosing to live together without being married, getting married at increasingly later ages and having greater access to divorce, are some of the trends in relationships that are important to consider when designing programs and delivering services to couples and families (Weston & Qu, 2013).

A significant amount of research has reported considerable personal and social repercussions for couples and their children stemming from relationship distress and dissolution (e.g. Halford, Markman, & Stanley, 2008; Markman & Rhoades, 2012). Marital distress, for example, has been associated with an increased risk of psychological disorders (Whisman, 2007). Further, children whose parents separate, or have high levels of relationship conflict, perform worse on outcomes ranging from infant development to adolescent social adjustment (Markman & Rhoades, 2012). Research has also identified that being in a happy, satisfying marriage is one of the strongest factors across a range of cultures that determines life satisfaction for adults (Halford, 2011). It is these findings, along with the demographic shifts noted, that have led to research and policy interest in prevention and intervention strategies aimed at reducing relationship distress and breakdown.

The serious and wide-ranging negative effects that relationship distress can have on individuals and their children highlight the need for a greater understanding of the effectiveness of prevention and intervention strategies. There has been a recent increase in the amount of research available investigating relationship education as a prevention strategy. In contrast, although widely used as an intervention for couples experiencing distress, relationship counselling research has been somewhat neglected, with limited new research taking place over the past decade. This paper reviews the literature available on the effectiveness of relationship education and counselling. A search of the recent literature identified meta-analyses and a number of reviews focusing on the effectiveness of either relationship education or counselling strategies. Where possible, large-scale primary research and/or Australian findings are reported. Due to differences in the focus of the two strategies (i.e., prevention versus intervention), the paper has been divided into two sections; addressing, firstly, relationship education and, secondly, relationship counselling.

Implications for practitioners working with families and children are discussed in the concluding section.

1 In the context of the current paper a relationship is considered any “long-term committed union of romantic partners” (Lebow, Chambers, Christensen, & Johnson, 2012, p.2) and includes married and cohabiting couples.