- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2012

Marriage education improves relationships and lowers levels of marital distress, but doesn’t deter divorce, at least in the short-term, says a new federally funded study.

The findings offer new evidence that teaching relationship skills to low-income married couples with children - especially when they are backed up by a competent support system - can improve the quality of their relationships.

However, the most important findings of the Supporting Healthy Marriage (SHM) project are yet to come: A long-term follow-up report, expected in 2013, will report on the SHM couples’ risks for separation and divorce, fathers’ involvement in their families, and outcomes for the children.

The eight SHM programs “are designed to support stable, nurturing marriages for the well-being of children,” said George H. Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for children and families in the Department of Health and Human Services, which started the project in 2003.

Future evaluations should offer even more insights into what works, he said Friday.

The new report shows a “consistent pattern of small, positive effects” among couples 12 months after they participated in a SHM program, said the report, which was written by Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. (MDRC).

For instance, SHM couples reported higher levels of marital happiness, greater “warmth and support” and more positive communication between each other, compared with couples in control groups, the report said.

SHM couples also had lower levels of marital distress and were less likely to feel sad or anxious.

The SHM programs also looked for evidence of domestic violence. It found that both men and women in SHM programs reported less psychological abuse, and husbands reported that their wives “physically assaulted them less often,” compared with husbands in control groups, the report said.

SHM programs, however, “did not significantly affect whether couples stayed married at the 12-month follow-up point.” The 2013 report, which will look at how the couples are doing 30 months later, should provide a better picture of marital stability, the MDRC report said.

Friday’s report on the SHM project is more upbeat than those on an earlier federal marriage project conducted from 2002 to 2011.

HHS’ Building Strong Families (BSF) project, which targeted unwed, low-income couples with children, experimented with different marriage-education programs in eight sites.

Except for the Oklahoma-based BSF program, the results were dismal, showing that the programs had little or no impact on couples. However, a subsequent BSF study, which focused on couples who actually attended many of the marriage-education sessions, found that those couples were signficantly more likely to still be together 15 months later.

Separately, a federally funded California marriage coalition - now named Healthy Relationships California - reported this month that, on average, persons who took a marriage-education course reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction and communication, both 30 days later and six months later.

Data like this, which were obtained from 17,245 Californians, “show clearly that our classes really help people make significant long-term improvements in their lives and relationships,” said Dennis Stoica, president of the marriage coalition.