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Journal Issue: Marriage and Child Wellbeing Volume 15 Number 2 Fall 2005

Healthy Marriage Programs: Learning What Works
M. Robin Dion

Creating Marriage Programs for Low-Income Couples

Many of the publicly sponsored healthy marriage initiatives try to reach across various population groups and across socioeconomic status. But the problems associated with forming and sustaining healthy and stable marriages are particularly acute in poor communities, where rates of nonmarital births, divorce, and single parenting are especially high. Despite the greater family instability in low-income populations, marriage programs designed to serve these groups are extremely rare.18

This situation is especially surprising given that many low-income men and women would welcome the chance to participate in classes or sessions to help them with their relationships.19 Between 86 and 90 percent of low-income men and women surveyed in Florida, Oklahoma, and Utah considered it a “good or very good idea” for government to develop programs to strengthen marriage and reduce divorce. More telling, 72 to 87 percent indicated that they would consider using workshops or classes to strengthen their own relationships if such were available.

As noted, the vast majority of marriage interventions in use today were primarily designed for and tested with white, middle-class, well-educated couples who were engaged or already married. Thus, although the foundation supporting marriage education programs may be promising, there is some question whether these standard programs can meet the needs, interests, and circumstances of low-income couples.20

Responding to the Needs of Low-Income Couples
New research on the relationship dynamics of low-income couples suggests that certain issues may stand in the way of a healthy marriage. For example, some unmarried parents set an “economic bar” as a prerequisite to marriage that is perhaps unrealistically high, and many struggle with issues of trust, fidelity, and commitment.21 The prevalence of traumatic experiences such as childhood sexual abuse may be higher among disadvantaged individuals and may make it harder to form healthy adult relationships.22 Couples who conceive a child soon after beginning to date may be romantically involved but need more time to get to know one another better.23 Research has documented that whether or not they are married, low-income couples often struggle with issues related to having children by multiple partners.24 Compared with the general population, lower-income couples tend to be less well educated, to have lower levels of literacy, to have had less success in school, and to be members of minorities and come from diverse cultural backgrounds.25 All of these differences have implications for both the content and the presentation of marriage and relationship skills education for lower-income couples.

Most marriage experts believe that the basic concepts and skills taught in conventional programs (such as communication skills) are likely to be universally important. Many practitioners who serve low-income men and women also agree that such skills are likely to be useful, but they consider the standard materials inadequate because they do not deal with the issues unique to low-income couples. Experts who work with low-income families tend to find conventional teaching methods, such as lectures and didactic instruction, inappropriate for the literacy levels and learning styles prevalent among lower-income populations. In light of these concerns, several developers and practitioners have begun to adapt conventional programs or create new curriculums that are specifically responsive to the needs and circumstances of low-income couples. In preparation, some developers have conducted focus groups, curriculum field tests, and pilot programs.26

These “next generation” curriculums often take a more experiential, hands-on, and engaging teaching approach. Abstract concepts are made more concrete, the level of language fluency and literacy is adjusted, and materials are revised to rely less on written exercises, reading, and homework and more on discussion, dialogue, role playing, and skills practice. In addition, curriculums are often made more culturally appropriate, particularly in terms of illustrative stories, examples, references, and activities.

New curriculum materials tend to supplement traditional topics and skills to help couples work on such issues as trust, fidelity, and commitment; deal with problems related to multiple-partner fertility; learn how to set and achieve economic goals as a team; heal from past psychological injuries, such as physical or sexual abuse; avoid violence; and understand the characteristics of healthy relationships and marriage. Several of these next generation programs for low-income families will be tested as part of large-scale national evaluations of healthy marriage initiatives; a sampling follows.27

Loving Couples Loving Children (LCLC) is a curriculum developed by John and Julie Gottman especially for low-income couples who are expecting a child. John Gottman is world-renowned for his scientific work identifying the predictors of relationship success and failure, while Julie Gottman is a master clinician who provides advanced training in marriage education and couples therapy. The Gottmans based Loving Couples Loving Children on the concepts and skills taught in Bringing Baby Home, their curriculum for new parents that has recently shown positive impacts on couples and their children. To engage and retain the interest of low-income couples, they substantially modified the presentation of the material by developing a series of video “talk shows” in which racially and ethnically diverse low-income couples discuss relationship issues. Each of the forty-two sessions in LCLC begins with such a talk show, which leads to a lively discussion among group participants. In these unscripted shows real couples, not actors, describe the challenges they have faced in their relationship and how they overcame them. The second half of each group session is devoted to activities that teach specific skills and techniques that couples can use to address the issues raised in the video. Participants practice skills with their partners during the session, with individual attention from the male and female co-facilitators, as needed.

In addition to building intimacy, dealing with conflict, and developing shared meaning, which are addressed in Bringing Baby Home, Loving Couples Loving Children includes topics that are important for low-income couples-—trust and fidelity, dealing with expartners, healing old wounds, avoiding relationship violence, understanding the importance of the father's role, dealing with incarceration and addiction, and learning what it means to be happily married, to name a few. The curriculum was field-tested with numerous low-income couples in several cities and is now being piloted and evaluated in the Building Strong Families (BSF) project, a large-scale national demonstration.

Love's Cradle is based on the well-established Relationship Enhancement program, adapted and supplemented by new material developed especially to address issues identified by researchers as crucial barriers to positive family formation in fragile families. Created by Mary Ortwein, a marriage and family therapist with experience serving low-income families, and Bernard Guerney, the original developer of RE, Love's Cradle relies on a simplified and more culturally sensitive version of Relationship Enhancement taught at the fifth-grade level, and adds content to the standard RE skills. The simplified version avoids psychological jargon and teaches skills at a slower pace, with greater access to individual skills coaching. Love's Cradle consists of twenty-one two-hour group sessions. Ten sessions, most at the beginning of the program, are devoted to the simplified RE skills. Eleven additional sessions adapted from Supplementary Marriage Education Modules for Low-Income Couples (see below) allow couples to use their new skills to address the issues indicated by research to be common to low-income couples, including how to build, rebuild, and maintain trust; deal with multiple- partner fertility; manage emotions; work as a team on money matters; and reframe their understanding of marriage. Love's Cradle was field-tested with low-income couples and will be part of the Building Strong Families national evaluation.

Exploring Relationships and Marriage with Fragile Families is a new curriculum to help low-income single parents, especially African Americans, learn about relationships and marriage. With support from the state of Louisiana, it was developed by staff at the Center for Fathers, Families, and Workforce Development, a nonprofit organization serving low-income African American men and women. The curriculum includes three stand-alone components-—for mothers, for fathers, and for couples—-consisting of eight two-hour sessions. Each single-gender component is for parents in the early stages of deciding whether to make a relationship commitment; the couples component is designed for men and women in a relationship that they want to last. The material borrows concepts from a range of marriage education programs, but rather than telling participants what to do, it offers various activities that set up experiences from which parents can draw their own conclusions. The curriculum is especially tailored for an African American audience, drawing on African symbols, rituals, and proverbs, and including notes for facilitators on cultural issues. Several organizations are being trained in the curriculum, though it has not yet been field-tested or evaluated.

Supplementary Marriage Education Modules for Low-Income Couples was developed to fill gaps in conventional marriage education curriculums regarding the needs of low-income families. It is not a stand-alone curriculum, but rather a supplement to traditional programs; for example, most of the modules have been integrated into the simplified version of the Relationship Enhancement program to create Love's Cradle. It was developed in direct response to work by fragile family researchers to address the issues that low-income, especially unmarried, couples have reported as obstacles to achieving happy and satisfying relationships and marriage. These include multiple-partner fertility, gender distrust, the high economic bar placed on marriage, and the lack of accurate information on and positive role models for marriage. The modules were developed by a multidisciplinary and multicultural group led by Pamela Wilson, a highly regarded expert in curriculum development for low-income families. The group also included a marriage and family therapist, the director of a homevisiting program for at-risk families, a specialist working with low-income African American fathers, a public health practitioner who works with unwed pregnant African American women, and a professional counselor. The material in this curriculum will be included in the national evaluation of the Building Strong Families program.

Better Together is an eight-session curriculum for low-income unmarried, cohabiting parents who are living with their children. Created by a team led by Judy Charlick and Sandra Bender of the Cleveland Marriage Coalition, the curriculum was developed with the assistance of a committee composed of African American and white educators and a couple from the target population, who identified topics likely to be important to low-income unmarried parents. The curriculum borrows some content and teaching methods from a program called Survival Skills for Healthy Families but adds other topics to fit the needs of unmarried, low-income couples and to make it more culturally sensitive to African American families.28 It takes a down-to-earth, concrete approach to teaching basic skills for parenting, speaking and listening, problem solving, managing money, and coping with stress and change. The sessions also provide information on the stages of relationships, the traits of a healthy family and a healthy marriage, the advantages of being sexually faithful, and the role of paternity and child support. The curriculum has not been evaluated but was recently piloted in a small program in Cleveland, Ohio.