Childhood Maltreatment Among Couples Seeking Relationship Education Services Calls for Trauma-informed Approaches

BlogFamiliesJul 18 2023

Healthy marriage and relationship education (HMRE) programs are designed to help couples develop the skills and knowledge they need to build stable, good-quality relationships that promote family well-being. Partners who participate in these programs sometimes have experienced significant adversity in childhood, such as experiences of maltreatment, that can affect their relationships as adults.

According to a new analysis of data from the Supporting Healthy Marriage study—an evaluation of federally funded HMRE services for heterosexual couples who had or were expecting children—at least one partner in 33 percent of couples[1] seeking HMRE services reported that they had experienced maltreatment in childhood (Figure 1). Maltreatment was defined as having “often” experienced verbal abuse, physical abuse, or neglect while growing up.[2] Experiences of maltreatment were more common among wives (22%) than among husbands (17%).[3][4] In 4 percent of couples, both partners reported experiencing maltreatment in childhood. The most common type of maltreatment reported was emotional abuse (28%), followed by neglect (19%) and physical abuse (15%).

Figure 1. In 33 percent of couples seeking HMRE services, at least one partner reported childhood maltreatment*

Percentage of couples in which either partner reported experiencing childhood maltreatment**

In 33 percent of couples seeking HMRE services, at least one partner reported childhood maltreatment

Data Source: 2003-2014 Supporting Healthy Marriage (SHM) evaluation.

*Maltreatment was defined as reporting experiencing emotional abuse, physical abuse, or neglect “often.”

**Includes couples in which at least one partner provided information on childhood maltreatment (N=6,217).

Couples in which at least one partner has experienced maltreatment in childhood might need additional support from HMRE programs to help them recover from the trauma these experiences may have inflicted. If left unaddressed, the long-term effects of childhood maltreatment—which could include mental health difficulties, behavioral problems, and difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships—can hinder their family life and their children’s well-being. Individuals who experience childhood maltreatment are more likely to experience marital difficulties, such as lower communication quality, greater marital conflict, and lower marital satisfaction. A history of childhood maltreatment is also associated with difficulty engaging in positive parent-child interactions that can affect children’s development.

Given the high prevalence of maltreatment among couples who are likely to seek HMRE services, it’s critical that HMRE programs adopt trauma-informed approaches in their programming—especially since leaving couples’ mental health needs unaddressed may reduce the effectiveness of HMRE programming. Trauma-informed approaches involve increasing program staff awareness about trauma and its effects, educating staff on how trauma manifests in individuals and families, creating a safe space for couples that minimizes the risk of re-traumatization, and recognizing the signs of trauma among clients and responding appropriately. While federal funding for HMRE programming does not allow the use of funds to provide mental health services, programs can still offer a warm handoff (i.e., a referral) to partnering organizations that can provide these services.

About the Supporting Healthy Marriage study



[1] For this analysis, “couples” refers to the husbands and wives analyzed in the study.

[2] Information on sexual abuse during childhood was not collected in the study. Thus, estimates are likely to underrepresent maltreatment experiences in childhood.

[3] Programs in this multi-site study varied in how they verified marital status. Consequently, some couples (18%) were not legally married at the beginning of the study. For simplicity, we refer to all couples and individuals as if they were married.

[4] The difference in the prevalence of maltreatment between wives and husbands is statistically significant at the .05 level.

[5] Hsueh, J., Alderson, D. P., Lundquist, E., Michaelopoulos, C., Gubits, D., & Fein, D. (2012). The Supporting Healthy Marriage Evaluation: Early Impacts on Low-Income Families, Technical Supplement (OPRE Report 2012-27). Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, & U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

[6] Lundquist, E., Hsueh, J., Lowenstein, A. E., Faucetta, K., Gubits, D., Michalopoulos, C., & Knox, V. (2014). A Family-Strengthening Program for Low-Income Families: Final Impacts from the Supporting Healthy Marriage Evaluation (OPRE Report 2014-09A). Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, & U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Suggested citation

Ramos-Olazagasti, M., & Gebhart, T. (2023). Childhood maltreatment among couples seeking relationship education services calls for trauma-informed approaches. Child Trends.