Foundations for Strong Families 101. What Do Marriage and Family Strengthening Programs Do?


Marriage and family-strengthening programs seek to develop participants’ relationship skills (e.g. communication, problem solving) in order to develop and sustain healthy relationships, marriages and families. Learning how to create and maintain a stable relationship is important especially for parents because of the higher poverty rates associated with single parenthood and divorce.6 Close to 75 percent of children in single-parent homes will experience poverty before they reach 11 years old, compared with 20 percent of children in two-parent homes.7 Economic and other disadvantages related to the absence of a parent and unhealthy family relationships can negatively affect children’s academic performance and social development8 while also limiting their long-term economic prospects.9 On average, children from married-parent families are less likely to have a teen birth,10 drop out of school,11 have health problems12 and psychological disorders,13 and commit crimes.14 They are more likely than children in single-parent homes to attain positive outcomes15 and have higher grade point averages and vocabulary test scores,16 go to college, achieve better labor market outcomes,17 and have more stable marriages.18

Due to these economic and social consequences associated with family break-up, family conflict, and absent parents, the federally sponsored Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI) was enacted to implement broad-based marriage education programs nationwide at the local level to strengthen healthy family relationships and marriages. Over 125 grantees around the country are providing relationship skill-building services, including mentoring services, education in schools, and other marriage education classes for adults who want to strengthen their marriage or relationship, are considering marriage, or who are at risk of getting a divorce. In addition, over 100 grantees are providing services to fathers and their partners to improve family functioning through a menu of services that includes parenting and marriage education.

Marriage and family-strengthening programs provide families and individuals with the support, knowledge, and skills necessary to build stable families so that they can achieve their goals, both financial and otherwise. These programs focus on skill-building and address important issues, such as conflict management, communication skills, developing and maintaining fun and friendship, understanding commitment and trust, and developing shared long-term goals as a couple or family. Relationship skills educators recognize and address expectations about relationships that come from families of origin and early experiences, and are adept at recognizing hidden barriers to stability. One example of a family-strengthening curriculum, Family Wellness, is provided in Figure 1.

It is important to note that marriage and relationship skills education programs provide a different set of services than marital or family counseling. Counseling includes treatment of couple-specific issues and conflicts whereas marriage and relationship skills education provides a skill-building curriculum geared toward prevention of family problems. While marital counseling by definition occurs with a married couple, marriage education programs may work with individuals to develop their relationship skills in anticipation of future relationships or with couples that are considering marriage or recently married.

One primary goal of the HMI is to broaden the target group receiving marriage education services and reach out to families that may otherwise might not know about, or have access to, marriage education and family-strengthening programs. Marriage education services for low-income couples, as well as diverse ethnic groups and families, are being widely funded by Federal grants. Programs that target a specific ethnic group have been established, including the African-American Healthy Marriage Initiative and the Hispanic Healthy Marriage Initiative. These programs are culturally adapted to better understand issues unique to the populations being served. Programs that teach about marriage and building healthy relationships serve all types of people: unmarried or married couples, individuals who are not married who want to learn about what it takes to develop a successful relationship and marriage, and even young people who want to learn more about healthy relationships and how to identify a good partner.

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