Brief on Relationship Education

  Children should know …  … The upsides of healthy relationships When relationships go right, couples who stay together tend to be happier, healthier


Children should know …

 … The upsides of healthy relationships

  • When relationships go right, couples who stay together tend to be happier, healthier and ultimately wealthier (Waite & Gallagher 2000)
  • Conversely when relationships go wrong, couple distress is strongly linked to problems with individual health and well-being (Lebow et al 2012)
  • The children of couples who stay together – and therefore have both mother and father present in the house – are more likely to thrive in their well-being and education (McLanahan et al 2013; Lee & McLanahan 2015)

… Risk factors for a healthy relationship

  • Some factors known to affect future relationship success are “static”, hard to change. Others are more “dynamic”, open to change. Typical “static” factors include parental divorce and aspects of individual personality, such as being defensive. Typical “dynamic” factors include commitment and the way couples communicate and resolve conflict. (Stanley 2001)
  • The current largest ongoing US study of young – initially unmarried – couples affirms how personal history and relationship history both influence subsequent marital satisfaction. However some of the risk factors that are static and hard to change for young adults are still dynamic and changeable when considered by teenagers. For example, not finishing school, having more than one sexual partner, and not making a clear decision to live together before moving in, all influence subsequent happiness when couples do eventually marry (Rhoades & Stanley 2014)
  • In other words, children have the opportunity to build their own personal history

… How to build a personal history #1: The components of a healthy relationship

  • The seeds of future marital problems often present themselves in early interactions (Markman & Rhoades 2012)
  • Clear commitment, good communication and good conflict resolution are the foundations of a successful relationship (Fincham et al 2007; Rhoades & Stanley 2014)
  • The good news is that all of these factors can be translated into practical skills that can be easily taught (Markman & Rhoades 2012)

… How to build a personal history #2: Commitment

  • It is increasingly accepted that commitment comes in two main forms: “dedication” – the inner bond that makes a couple want to be with each other – and “constraints” – the added layers of a relationship that make it harder to leave, should either partner choose to do so (Stanley et al 2006a)
  • Dedication” is the key to a successful relationship, centring on the mutual decision to be a couple with a future
  • Constraints” increase in a relationship every time couples pass through a transition, such as moving in together, having a baby, or getting married.
  • Alternative ways to think of constraints are “inertia” or “premature entanglement
  • Couples who “slide” through transitions tend to increase “constraints” without necessarily increasing “dedication”. This is most common in cohabitation. Couples who “decide” through transitions are increasing “dedication” before adding “constraints”. This is most common in marriage. The timing effect of building “dedication” before adding “constraints” is therefore extremely important, especially for men (Kline et al 2004)

… How to build a personal history #3: Cohabitation and Marriage

  • It’s one of the biggest mismatches between scientific evidence and public perception. Many people think that cohabiting is good for relationships yet study after study shows that cohabiting is associated with far higher rates of instability than marriage (DeRose et al 2017)
  • Cohabitation is a relatively new phenomenon. Until the 1970s and the introduction of widely available birth control, only 5 per cent of babies were born outside of marriage (ONS 2017)
  • The debate around marriage and cohabitation tends to centre around selection effects, whether it is the nature of marriage or cohabitation itself that causes changes in stability and other outcomes for the family marriage, or whether it is pre-existing factors that select couples into marriage or cohabitation.
  • Almost all studies acknowledge the reality of selection, for example, that more or those who marry are better educated and older. However even when accounting for these factors statistically, marriage continues to exert a significant influence (eg Benson & McKay 2017)

…How to build a personal history #4: What children should learn

  • Based on the top US relationship programme PREP and its various offshoots, the sort of things that children should learn are as follows:
  • Listening: good listening skills are easily taught. Using the well-established speaker-listener technique, the speaker offers a short burst of information. The listener responds by paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words, then checks with the speaker to see if that was correct.
  • Time out: arguments can easily escalate in the heat of the moment. Taking a time out can de-escalate potential or actual conflict safely and allow the topic to be revisited later, when less tired or emotionally wound-up.
  • Sliding/deciding: making a clear mutual decision – rather than sliding and making assumptions – before taking any big step forward in a relationship, such as moving in or having a baby or getting married, removes ambiguity and anxiety.
  • The success sequence: the odds of relationship success and avoiding poverty are greatest if children complete school, get married, have children – in that order


Government and Schools should know …

Relationship education programmes work

  • Studies of the best programmes teaching relationship skills to adults centre around commitment, communication, and conflict resolution. A growing number of studies have shown that these programmes can successfully reduce conflict, improve satisfaction and reduce divorce across a variety of settings and socio-economic groups (Carroll & Doherty 2003; Stanley et al 2006b; Stanley et al 2014)
  • There are fewer studies of relationship education programmes in school. However programmes based on similar “dynamic” factors have produced promising results as long as four years after programme completion (Gardner & Boellard 2007).
  • A larger study of 222 sixth form students receiving a relationship programme over one school term revealed more nuanced results, showing gains in relationship skills one year later to children living in two parent families but not to those with more disadvantaged backgrounds (Halpern-Meekin 2011)
  • More recently, a randomised controlled trial of two twelve-hour relationship programmes involving 1448 teenagers living in low income families led to increased use of birth control and fewer sexual encounters at six months (Barbee et al 2016)


Barbee, A., Cunningham, M., van Zyl, M., Antle, B., & Langley, C. (2016). Impact of Two Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Interventions on Risky Sexual Behavior: A Three-Arm Cluster Randomized Control Trial. American journal of public health, 106, S85-S90.

Benson, H. & McKay, S. (2017). Couples on the brink. Cambridge: Marriage Foundation

Carroll, J. & Doherty, W. (2003), Evaluating the Effectiveness of Premarital Prevention Programs: A Meta-Analytic Review of Outcome Research. Family Relations, 52, 105–118.

DeRose, L., Lyons-Amos, M., Wilcox, W., & Huarcaya, G. (2017) the cohabitation go-round: Cohabitation and family instability across the globe. New York: Social Trends Institute

Fincham, F., Stanley, S., & Beach, S. (2007). Transformative processes in marriage: An analysis of emerging trends. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 275-292.

Gardner, S., & Boellaard, R. (2007). Does youth relationship education continue to work after a high school class? A longitudinal study. Family Relations, 56, 490-500.

Halpern-Meekin, S. (2011). High school relationship and marriage education: A comparison of mandated and self-selected treatment. Journal of Family Issues, 32, 394-419.

Kline, G., Stanley, S., Markman, H., Olmos-Gallo, P., St Peters, M., Whitton, S., & Prado, L. (2004). Timing is everything: Pre-engagement cohabitation and increased risk for poor marital outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 311.

Lebow, J., Chambers, A., Christensen, A., & Johnson, S. (2012). Research on the treatment of couple distress. Journal of Marital and Family therapy, 38, 145-168.

Lee, D., & McLanahan, S. (2015). Family Structure Transitions and Child Development Instability, Selection, and Population Heterogeneity. American Sociological Review, 80, 738-783.

Markman, H., & Rhoades, G. (2012). Relationship education research: Current status and future directions. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38, 169-200.

McLanahan, S., Tach, L., & Schneider, D. (2013) The Causal Effects of Father Absence. Annual Review of Sociology, 39, 399-427.

Office for National Statistics (2017) Birth summary tables, England and Wales, 2016

Rhoades, G. & Stanley, S. (2014) Before “I Do” What Do Premarital Experiences Have to Do with Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults? Virginia: National Marriage Project

Stanley, S. (2001). Making A Case for Premarital Education. Family Relations, 50, 272-280. 

Stanley, S., Amato, P., Johnson, C., & Markman, H. (2006b). Premarital education, marital quality, and marital stability: findings from a large, random household survey. Journal of Family Psychology, 20, 117-126

Stanley, S., Kline, G., & Markman, H. (2006a) Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.

Stanley, S. et al (2014). A randomized controlled trial of relationship education in the US Army: 2 year outcomes. Family Relations, 63, 482-495

Waite, L., & Gallagher, M. (2000). The case for marriage. New York: Doubleday

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