- The Washington Times - Monday, July 5, 2010

This week, the nation’s largest “marriage movement” conference gets under way in Orlando, Fla. As always, marriage education will be a hot topic at the “Smart Marriages, Happy Families” conference.

But a cloud has been forming on the horizon for the marriage-ed movement.

A massive federal study of eight programs aimed at improving relationships among low-income unmarried couples offers bleak new findings. Only one of the Building Strong Families (BSF) programs had a positive outcome; the others had no impact — or made things worse for the participants.

Two California psychologists now suggest that marriage interventions like these are the wrong way to go.

The BSF programs targeted low-income couples (virtually all with newborns) and asked them to attend months of meetings, Benjamin Karney and Thomas Bradbury, psychology professors at the University of California at Los Angeles, wrote in a recent essay.

“Asking couples who are already spread thin to take on new tasks, even to improve their relationships and parenting, may be unreasonable,” they concluded.

Moreover, it’s even questionable that the “basic idea” of relationship-skills training will help these couples improve their intimate relationships, they said.

“Emerging evidence suggests that the quality of couples’ intimate relationships is powerfully constrained by the environments in which couples live,” the professors wrote. Thus, it might be better to devote multimillion-dollar resources toward “improving living conditions in low-income communities.”

I am sure Mr. Karney and Mr. Bradbury speak for many observers. Marriage education in low-income communities is not popular.

But in my 30-odd years of reporting, I have written about dozens of anti-poverty programs. They covered virtually all conceivable problems — housing, food, education, jobs, health, crime, drugs, sanitation, playgrounds, graffiti, even dog waste. And despite them all, poverty grinds on.

Hence, my abiding interest in relationship skills and marriage education for individuals and couples. This was and is a truly unexplored anti-poverty angle.

The recently released BSF study, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, has indeed been a crushing blow for marriage education, but there was a very bright spot in it: The Oklahoma City BSF did exceptionally well on several important outcomes.

The Oklahoma BSF was unique in several ways, Mary Myrick, founder of Public Strategies Inc., which ran the program, told me.

It was the only site to use the Becoming Parents curriculum, based on the highly respected Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP).

The couples were asked to attend longer — but fewer — sessions, and 45 percent came to most of the sessions.

Becoming Parents was also presented as fun and easy, as well as educational; it offered many incentives (gifts) for couples; and it held its meetings in pleasant settings, with comfortable chairs for the pregnant women. It was like going to the house of someone “who really cares about you,” said Ms. Myrick.

In addition, the Oklahoma program included a few married couples, and it may have been that the “peer modeling” of those married couples helped the unmarried ones succeed too, she said.

And succeed they did: Fifteen months after attending the program, compared with similar couples in a control group, the Oklahoma BSF couples were more likely to still be together; more likely to be happy, supportive and affectionate; more likely to be faithful; and more likely to use “constructive conflict behaviors.”

BSF fathers were also more likely to live with their families and provide “substantial” financial support than men not participating in the program.

I maintain that offering disadvantaged people high-quality training in interpersonal skills, such as marriage education, is a missing piece in the poverty puzzle. I hope it is not abandoned in its infancy.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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