The current state of romantic relationships in the United States is not too promising. Consider the following: the current divorce rate is estimated at 45 percent;41 percent of children are born to unmarried women; and 1 in 10 high school students report being victims to dating violence.
What do we know about the hope youth and adults have that they will be able to form happy, stable relationships that last a lifetime? Compared with previous generations, young adults today have less confidence that they will have a happy, stable marriage. For many individuals in more complex families (for example, where one or both partners have children from previous relationships), having hope for a stable marriage seems unattainable. So what can be done?
We know that education in developing countries can help to alleviate suffering and brings hope and new vocational possibilities, helping people help themselves and improve their own situations. Could this same principle apply to a country low in relationship hope? Could relationship education help the American people have more hope in their relationships?
Relationship education is where participants learn skills and knowledge about how to form and maintain . Many studies find that relationship education can help improve relationship quality and, where appropriate, can even prevent divorce. However, two large experimental studies, Building Strong Families and the Supporting Healthy Marriage, recently found that relationship education had little or no effect on relationships among low-income parents. These studies determined a program’s success by measuring a wide variety of constructs, such as communication, conflict resolution, and overall marital satisfaction. One concept that has not been evaluated, though, is relationship hope.
I define relationship hope as a belief by a couple that even though they have problems in the present, there is hope for their relationship in the future. I would like to suggest that this might be the first thing that changes after a relationship education program. After a program, a couple comes out having “learned about” or “heard about” a lot of different skills like communication, solving conflict, etc. However, it seems unlikely that the couple has already been able to successfully apply all of these new skills and behaviors in their relationship. Change in behavior takes time and effort and many couples already come to these relationship education workshops with problems. These couples may wonder: can I really change how our relationship is going? Can we really turn this bad relationship into a good one? Many couples may feel powerless in the face of changing their unhealthy habits into good ones. If so, then having relationship hope could be a critical foundation to build the other elements of a healthy relationship. For this reason I recommend measuring participants’ overall levels of “relationship hope” at the end of a workshop in addition to measuring their newly learned skills. (Note: There is anecdotal evidence that perhaps some couples experience a decline in hope after attending these workshops, because they didn’t realize that their relationship was unhealthy before they attended. Helping these couples achieve hope once more, after reality hits may be an important goal of these programs.)
But why is giving couples hope for the future so important? From a therapist’s point of view, the difference between hope and hopelessness is great. Whether a person has hope or not determines their motivation and ability to change their behaviors.
In order to further define relationship hope, we can look at what could be the antithesis: relationship uncertainty and disillusionment. According to Leanne Knobloch (2010), being uncertain about your relationship makes people interpret comments, actions, or behaviors in a negative light and can lead to more negative communication. On a similar note, marital disillusionment, a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be, is a strong predictor of divorce. Perhaps relationship hope could help couples interpret their partner’s comments and actions in a more positive light and be a buffer to divorce.
This year, I will be exploring the concept of relationship hope as Brigham Young University collaborates with Public Strategies Inc., and the Oklahoma Healthy Marriage Initiative to learn how relationship education can give couples more hope for the health and success of their relationships. Let’s hope so!
I welcome your comments on this topic.
Sage Erickson, Child Trends research intern, Summer 2014