Implementing Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Programs with Couples

FamiliesMar 24, 2021

High-quality and stable romantic relationships can have important benefits for both partners and their children.1,2,3 To promote healthy romantic relationships, healthy marriage and relationship education (HMRE) programs provide information and coaching on relationship skills such as managing conflict, improving communication, and building intimacy.4 In addition to class or workshop content on relationship skills, many HMRE programs also offer case management services, employment assistance, and parenting content, which are meant to further support the quality and stability of romantic relationships.5,6,7 These types of HMRE programs are designed to work with either individuals or couples, and the topics that HMRE programs address may be similar regardless of whether one or both partners participate. However, working with couples in HMRE programs is different than working with individuals.8

A couple is typically composed of two people who have a romantic and/or co-parenting relationship, who form a team or unit, and who have some shared experiences, concerns, plans, and goals. Those two partners are also individuals with separate personalities, histories, perspectives, desires, and needs. Although couples can participate in HMRE programs together, and may share some goals for their relationship, each partner may have different reasons for attending the program. Each partner may also differ by level of commitment to the relationship, degree of willingness to work on problems in the relationship, and amount of recognition of their own contributions to problems in the relationship.8 These differences can make programming for couples somewhat challenging.

This brief draws on implementation evaluation research and descriptive reports on the design of HMRE programs for couples to provide an overview of HMRE program implementation with couples. First, the brief describes the characteristics of couples participating in HMRE programs and how these programs define couples. It then summarizes a range of approaches HMRE programs use to recruit, retain, and engage couples. When possible, it highlights specific challenges and successes related to these approaches that have been identified in the literature. Given the unique safety concerns associated with working with couples, especially in cases where one or both partners disclose violence in the relationship, the brief also discusses how HMRE programs create opportunities for disclosure of domestic violence and respond to domestic violence among couples (see Spotlight on preventing and addressing intimate partner violence in HMRE programs).