Over the past 15 years, I’ve spent a great deal of my scholarly time and energy trying to understand how effective couple and relationship education (CRE) can be at strengthening couple relationships, especially for more disadvantaged couples. I have blogged about this topic a few times over the past few years here and here.

In short, I think there is good evidence that more advantaged couples who participate in CRE can strengthen their relationships. The evidence is less clear about whether CRE can help more disadvantaged, lower-income couples, with some studies showing positive effects and others showing no effects. There is also emerging evidence that the most distressed couples who participate in CRE benefit the most. Of course, we’ve been intensely studying CRE with lower- income couples for only a decade now, so it’s going to take a little more time to figure out the answer to this challenging question, as I argued in a recent blog here.

But whether CRE works is only one important question. Just as important is coming to understand how CRE works. And progress in increasing the effectiveness of CRE will require more evidence of how it works. Scholars recently have begun to address the how question.1

Along these lines, over the past few years, I’ve been wondering what role relationship hope plays in CRE. Couple therapists have known for years that clients’ hope for the future of their relationship plays an important role in motivating couples’ work to improve their relationship.2 So therapists deal explicitly with hope. They provide couples with a safe place and time to work on their relationship, reinforce the hard relationship work they do and the progress they make, and reflect hope for their desires of a better future together. But oddly, CRE practitioners and researchers haven’t paid much attention to this important element of couple relationships. Yet many CRE participants today are experiencing relationship distress and come to CRE for help, and this may be so especially for lower income individuals.3 The traditional model of change implied in much of CRE is that educational interventions operate to enhance healthy relationship interaction skills, which in turn increase relationship quality and satisfaction over time. Change in relationship skills may increase a sense of hope for the relationship, which, in turn, may be an early facilitator of later improvements in relationship quality.

Couple and relationship education practitioners may want to consider making relationship hope a more direct focus of their work.

Luckily, I had a chance recently to explore the role of relationship hope in CRE with a study of about 200 lower-income unmarried and married couples with children in an excellent program in Oklahoma. We measured hope with their responses to items like: “I believe that we possess the tools we need to fix problems in our relationship now and in the future,” and “I feel like our relationship can survive what life throws at us.” Here is what we found:

  • First, there was significant variation in levels of relationship hope as these couples entered the program; their scores on relationship hope were spread across the full spectrum of our measure, with about 25 percent of both mothers and fathers reporting very low levels of hope.
  • About 70 percent of program participants reported increased levels of hope at the end of the program.
  • Importantly, participants’ reports of changes in positive interaction skills as a result of the program were associated with higher levels of relationship hope at the end of the program. (We did not find much support for a reverse hypothesis–that–changes in hope as a result of the program improved their positive interaction skills.)
  • Interestingly, we discovered that fathers’ changes in positive interaction skills had a much stronger effect on mothers’ relationship hope at the end of the program than vice versa. The positive changes that fathers report seem to be especially important at increasing relationship hope of mothers.
  • Also, those who had the lowest levels of hope as they entered the program saw the biggest improvements in hope by the end.

What we learned from this study is that many lower-income couples who come to CRE programs for help have pretty low levels of hope for the future of their relationship. But deciding to participate in the program gives them a way to increase their hope. Participants who learn more effective ways to interact with their partner substantially increase their level of relationship hope for the future. That sense of hope may be crucial for their ongoing motivation to maintain and strengthen their relationship. CRE practitioners may want to consider making relationship hope a more direct focus of their work.

Alan J. Hawkins, Ph.D., is the Camilla E. Kimball Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University.


1. For instance, see: Bodenmann, G., Bradbury, T. N., & Pihet, S. (2009). “Relative contributions of treatment-related changes in communication skills and dyadic coping skills to the longitudinal course of marriage in the framework of marital distress prevention,” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 50, 1–21; Bradford, A. B., Adler-Baeder, F., Ketring, S. A., Bub, K. L., Pittman, J. F., & Smith, T. A. (2014). “Relationship quality and depressed affect among a diverse sample of relationally unstable relationship education participants,” Family Relations, 63, 219–231; Owen, J., Manthos, M., & Quirk, K. (2013). “Dismantling study of Prevention and Relationship Education Program: The effects of a structured communication intervention,” Journal of Family Psychology, 27, 336–341; Rauer, A., Adler-Baeder, F., Lucier-Greer, M., Skuban, E., Ketring, S., & Smith, T. (2014). “Exploring processes of change in couple relationship education: Predictors of change in relationship quality,” Journal of Family Psychology, 28, 65–76; Rogge, R. D., Cobb, R. J., Lawrence, E., Johnson, M. D., Bradbury, T. N. (2013). “Is skills training necessary for the primary prevention of marital distress and dissolution? A 3-year experimental study of three interventions,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81, 949–961.

2. For instance, see: Reichard, R. J., Avey, J. B., Lopez, S., & Dollwet, M. (2013). “Having the will and finding the way: A review and meta-analysis of hope at work,” Journal of Positive Psychology, 8, 292–304; Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), 249–275; Ward, D. B., & Wapler, K. S. (2010). “Moving up the continuum of hope: Developing a theory of hope and understanding its influence in couples therapy,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 36, 212–228; Worthington, E. L. J. (2005). Hope-focused marriage counseling: A guide to brief therapy. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

3. For a summary, see: Bradford, A. B., Adler-Baeder, F., Ketring, S. A., Bub, K. L., Pittman, J. F., & Smith, T. A. (2014). “Relationship quality and depressed affect among a diverse sample of relationally unstable relationship education participants,” Family Relations, 63, 219–231.