Don’t dump couple relationship education until coparenting support has been included and the benefits for children are known

Continued financial backing of group support for couples is under threat even though evaluation has largely ignored its value for children and parenting.

Governments around the world may soon abandon what could prove to be a powerful tool for stabilizing family life and supporting children. They may be persuaded by critics who have concluded that group support for couples, known more generally as Couple Relationship Education (CRE), is largely a waste of public money that offers few benefits.

In contrast, our own research with couples warns that this could be a mistaken and possibly disastrous conclusion, based on appreciating only half of what already has been – and could be – achieved through strengthening couple and co-parenting relationships. We have identified two major flaws in the current assessment and practice of CRE that may have resulted in considerable underestimation of its benefits. We advise policy makers to look very hard before they leap to accept a negative verdict and reduce financial backing for couple relationship support.

First, CRE program designs and evaluations typically focus only on couple relationships. As a result, they often fail either to develop or evaluate how such programs can benefit couples as parents and, most important, benefit their children. Second, general analyses of these programs, looking across large groups of studies, have tended to ask a simple question: “Does CRE work, Yes or No?” But this crude approach reveals little about which types of these varied programs have positive effects on which kinds of couples. They tend not to distinguish the ingredients of success and failure, such as the intensity, content and length of program support as well as the expertise of its leadership.

Policy makers should look very carefully before they leap to accept a poorly evidenced negative verdict and reduce support for these programs.

Our wide-ranging review of evidence suggests that well-run CRE programs have considerable and frequently unevaluated benefits for children. Moreover, these programs could be still more effective, both for children and the adults involved, if they engaged with couples as coparents as well as partners, regardless of whether they are married, not married, or divorced. Our review also suggests that the programs most likely to be effective are those that provide moderate rather than low level support, that use professionally trained group leaders, and that observe both parents and their children. All of these potential elements of success – and how they interact – need to be properly teased out by more systematic in-depth research before the jury delivers a verdict on the effectiveness of support for couples.

A longstanding problem is that CRE and parenting support programs have been like ships passing in the night, emerging from separate ports, bound for different destinations. This is partly because programs and research studies around parenting have historically focused on mothers. Only recently, as research has shown how fathers contribute to children’s welfare, have a few approaches to parenting begun to consider both mothers and fathers and, fewer still, to focus on coparenting – that is, coordination (or lack of it) in the parenting strategies of two parents. It’s staggering that this shift to linking partnership support with parenting has taken so long. After all, it’s simple common sense that, when parents are having a difficult time, their stress can spill over into the parent-child relationship and affect the atmosphere in which children are developing. Likewise, if the couple relationship is going well, parents are happier in themselves because their own needs are being met. They can then be warmer and more responsive to their children’s needs, set reasonable limits for them, and have the patience to follow through on keeping those limits. With encouragement, parents can also reflect on their earlier lives with a view to avoiding the repetition of negative patterns from their own childhoods.

Failure to evaluate the potential benefits for children is puzzling, given that many programs supporting couple relationships have been justified on the grounds that, if couple relationships were strengthened, children would be better off. However, when we reviewed hundreds of published studies, we could find only nine (three of them by us) that actually evaluated the impact on children of working on the relationship between their parents. Our studies have found that couple relationship support has long-acting, positive effects on children’s wellbeing that can be seen from kindergarten to high school. Even as teenagers, children who were toddlers when their mothers and fathers received relationship support were rated by their teachers as less aggressive, withdrawn, anxious, or depressed than their peers.

One stark fact argues for strengthening the relationship between parents. Research demonstrates that, without any particular support, parents’ satisfaction as a couple, on average, declines over time, and that parents’ distressed couple relationships have negative consequences for their children. In more than 50 studies in a number of industrialized countries, marital or couple relationship satisfaction declined over time, even more quickly after couples became parents, and this decline increased risks for children’s cognitive, social and emotional development. The decline was steepest for the couples who were initially least satisfied with their relationship, which suggests that the gains for both children and adults might be greatest in CRE programs that focus on couples in distress. Our review of parenting programs and our own intervention studies further suggest that programs that involve both parents, rather than only the mother or only the father, show greater positive effects on family relationships and children’s behavior.

All of these insights have led us, as researchers, to design more comprehensive programs to strengthen couple relationships. Our couples groups, designed with Marsha Kline Pruett and Kyle Pruett, meet weekly over three or four months, use clinically trained leaders, incorporate support for couple and co-parenting relationships, and encourage the parents to consider which patterns from their families of origin they wish to change. The programs are evaluated in terms of their impact on the adults as individuals, as couples, and as parents, and on their children’s well-being or distress.

The UK’s Department of Education has recently allocated £2.9m ($4.84m) to the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships and Family Action for a trial of such an approach among low income and vulnerable families, called “Parents as Partners”. This is the direction in which we suggest CRE design and evaluation should move in general. Only then can governments expect to be reliably informed of the potential that more comprehensive programs may have to strengthen parents, children, and their families.

Policy Implications

The implications for family policy are to be open to funding interventions that strengthen both the couple and co-parenting relationships – and to investigate their potential for fostering successful outcomes for the well-being and development of mothers, fathers, and children.

Practical Implications

When professionals are working with mothers, fathers, children, or whole families, it is important to keep in mind the importance of the quality of the relationship between the parenting figures –as this will affect their own and their children’s well-being, mental health, and development.

Cowan & Cowan

Philip A. Cowan & Carolyn Pape Cowan

Professor of Psychology Emeritus and Adjunct Professor of Psychology Emerita, University of California, Berkeley, USA

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Original research and references

  1. Cowan PA & Cowan CP Controversies in Couple Relationship Education (CRE): Overlooked Evidence and Implications for Research and Policy Psychology, Public Policy and Law, Vol 20(4), Nov 2014, 361-383