A Comprehensive Framework for Marriage Education*
Hawkins, Alan J., Carroll, Jason S., Doherty, William J., Willoughby, Brian, Family Relations
We offer a framework to help marriage educators think more thoroughly, systematically, and creatively about intervention opportunities to strengthen marriage. We draw attention to the educational dimensions of content, intensity, methods, timing, setting, target, and delivery, and their implications for marriage education. Our discussion points out the potential value of developing marriage education with greater specificity in content, timing, and target. We call for intervention that embeds marriage education in diverse institutional settings and provides access to couples across the socioeconomic spectrum. In the end, we address the need to take marriage education beyond a valuable helping profession and an expanding educational service to a vibrant social movement.
Key Words: education, family life education, marriage, marriage movement.
In a progressive society such as the United States, we usually take problems, such as high divorce and nonmarital childbearing rates, as a cause for action rather than a reason for resignation. Thus, it should surprise no one that the beginnings of a marriage movement have emerged in the United States over the last decade (Gallagher, 2000). A prominent part of this emerging movement has been a wide array of educational initiatives; however, to date there has been no formal effort to develop an integrative conceptual framework of marriage education. Some efforts to articulate the overarching paradigm of the marriage movement have occurred (Gallagher; Doherty, & Carroll, 2002), but there has been less emphasis on the development of theoretical models or heuristics to organize marriage education.
In this article, we attempt to provide marriage educators with a set of concepts to help them better understand their craft and discover unseen possibilities. Too often, educators have only a narrow view of the breadth of what marriage education actually might encompass. We offer a map or framework, depicted in Figure 1, to help marriage educators think more thoroughly, systematically, broadly, and creatively about opportunities to strengthen marriage. We draw attention to the elements of content, intensity, method, timing, setting, target, and delivery in marriage education. We note that we have much to learn about marriage education for lower income couples who potentially have the most to benefit from educational initiatives. We emphasize the value of developing marriage education with greater specificity in content, timing, and target, and we call for intervention that embeds marriage education in diverse institutional settings with access to couples across the socioeconomic spectrum. We end by addressing the need to take marriage education beyond a valuable helping profession-and even an expanding educational service integrated into the human services-to a vibrant social movement.
First, we highlight a few caveats. The focus of our framework is educational intervention. Although we value other forms of intervention that seek to strengthen marriage, such as therapy and policy, our focus here is on education. Our framework stresses possibilities for marriage education more than description, because the field remains open to creative effort. We use the term marriage education here rather than relationship education to capture both the relational and institutional dimensions of marriage with a life course perspective to facilitate covering issues of importance to youth and unmarried adults. We acknowledge our positive bias toward marriage education. We also acknowledge the need for more data to confirm the general efficacy of marriage education, especially for low-income and minority couples. While we wait for those data to accumulate, however, we believe that enough is known to continue the work that has begun. Finally, we clarify that our use of the word marriage is short-hand for healthy marriage-a generous, respectful, equal partnership free of abuse.
Dimensions of Marriage Education
Dimension I: Content-What Is Taught?
The content of most marriage education is based in some way on the excellent research over the past 20 years that has illuminated couples' interactional processes as central in the breakdown of marital relationships. However, less attention has gone to basic knowledge about the institutional features and benefits of marriage, or to the virtues that sustain healthy marriages. We discuss three subdimensions of content: relational skills; awareness/knowledge/attitudes; and motivations/virtues. Importantly, whatever the content, we acknowledge the importance of empirically derived curricula rather than personal, idiosyncratic content.
Relationship skills have been the primary emphasis of most marriage education efforts. A generation of good research points to the importance of interactional processes, communication patterns, and problem-solving behaviors that sustain or weaken marriages (Gottman & Notarius, 2000). The importance of relationship skills has increased concomitant with our cultural expectations for marriage. We expect marriage to bring us life-long joy, companionship, growth, and sexual fulfillment. This might be an unrealistic standard, but most couples hold it and, thus, need better skills to achieve their vision of marital success.
Evaluation research provides hope that vital relationship skills can be learned (Halford, Moore, Wilson, Farrugia, & Dyer, 2004; Stanley et al., 2001). Still, Browning (2003) argued that a skills education perspective tends to see marriage in a therapeutic worldview that is less attentive to the institutional features of marriage and the virtues that undergird healthy marriages, which also are important content domains. Some skills-based programs are sensitive to this concern and have upgraded curricula accordingly (e.g., PREP, PREPARE/ENRICH).
Awareness, Knowledge, and Attitudes
We believe that relational skills will develop and work best in the context of a good understanding about healthy marriage and attitudes that foster it. Even when they focus primarily on relational skills, most programs still teach participants some basic knowledge and attitudes about marriage. For instance, most programs make couples aware of common problems to avoid. Awareness of basic problems helps to motivate couples to work harder on their relationships (Halford et al., 2004). In addition, virtually all programs discuss or imply that sustaining healthy marriages requires effort. In essence, most marriage education invokes a principle of marital entropy: Marriages naturally decay unless we put energy into them. Understanding that marriage requires regular effort might be gaining importance in a society with increasing acceptance of the notion that a perfect soulmate is available with which to form an effortless marriage (Whitehead & Popenoe, 2001).
There are other areas of knowledge that appear to be less integrated into current marriage education despite the real possibility that mental and ethical elements of the marital infrastructure that support healthy marriages (e.g., realistic expectations, a willingness to make significant personal sacrifices) need shoring up (Fowers, 2000). One domain of knowledge that is usually taken for granted is a discussion of the basic institutional and societal features of marriage (Nock, 2002). For instance, what societal purposes does a strong, stable marriage serve? What public responsibilities are inherent in this private relationship? With the roots of marriage education in clinical psychology (DeMaria, 2003) rather than sociology or anthropology, it is not surprising that marriage educators have given less attention to basic knowledge about the public dimension of marriage. However, in some communities, healthy marriages are a minimal feature of the social environment. Some low-income couples have virtually no models of healthy marriage (Edin & Kefalas, in press). Understanding how one's marriage makes an important contribution to one's community and society might provide greater motivation to maintain a healthy relationship.
In addition to needed skills and basic knowledge, the motivations and virtues brought to marriage are important content domains for marriage education. Doherty (2000) argued that we are in danger of deeding marriage over to the consumer culture that governs many other aspects of our affluent lives. Further, he asserted that a consumer marriage is weak because individuals are in it for present personal benefits. If a consumer ethic is a dominant motive in marriage, even good skills and knowledge might be insufficient to keep spouses together.
Commitment is one important motivation that usually is addressed in marriage education. A growing body of research finds that commitment is crucial to healthy, stable marriages (Amato & Rogers, 1999; Stanley, Whitton, & Markman, 2004). Powers (2000) argued that character and the motivations that individuals bring to relationships are fundamental to understanding healthy marriage. He put virtues, such as generosity, justice, and loyalty, at the center of marriage, implying that marriage educators teach relational skills and knowledge in a moral domain, not just an instrumental one. We believe that these and other virtues deserve more attention from educators.
Dimension II: Intensity-What Is the Dosage?
Proper dosage is an important part of any intervention; too little means ineffective treatment, but too much can be costly or even dangerous. Like public health practitioners, marriage educators also need to think carefully about the resources needed for an intervention to achieve its goals with as wide a group as possible. For instance, some hypothesize that marriage intervention for disadvantaged low-income couples needs to be more intensive than traditional approaches to be effective (Dion et al., 2003). On the other hand, practical concerns suggest the need for some marriage education to be less intense. Lower dosage offerings might attract couples less inclined to seek out marriage education, especially preventive education targeting less distressed couples who might not sense an immediate need. Dishion (2003) showed how shorter interventions for parents of adolescents can attract more participants and still be effective.
If more intense programs are beneficial to recipients, they still might have limited impact because they reach relatively few. A common response to this problem is to teach educators more effective marketing; however, better marketing does not override the need to question whether treatment dosages fall within the resource budgets of potential participants. In short, we are calling for a creative and flexible approach to marriage education that varies the dosage along a continuum of intensity. Moreover, we argue that intervention researchers should regularly include dosage as a design feature in their studies.
Public health educators suive to increase population health with low-level educational interventions such as media campaigns (e.g., Hornik, 2002). We believe that marriage educators also should explore the potential of lower dosage interventions. There are some noteworthy efforts beginning to emerge. For instance, First Things First (http://www.firstthings.org) of Chattanooga, Tennessee, has used creative low-level media messages to teach basic principles of healthy marriages and encourage greater involvement in marriage education services as part of their communitywide marriage initiative. They also have produced a pamphlet, What You Need to Know About Living Together, for wide distribution to youth, that addresses popular misconceptions about cohabitation. The potential of these kinds of efforts for strengthening marriage is largely uninvestigated, but we believe that the documented successes with public health campaigns (Hornik) could be replicated in marriage education.
Providing specific cutoffs that distinguish low-level from moderate-level interventions might be impossible; intensity is more fluid than solid and resists categorization. However, we provide some possible examples of moderate-dosage efforts and some elements that tend to produce higher dosages. For example, a half-day marriage-enhancement seminar does not demand the time of a multisession workshop, but it accommodates more content than low-level efforts. In addition, flexible self-guided interventions might fit well here. Larson's (2003) The Great Marriage Tune-Up Book shows promise as a self-guided intervention. A pilot study of the flexible self-guided Couple CARE program in Australia (Halford et al., 2004) provides evidence that these kinds of interventions can strengthen couple relationships. Web-based programs that capitalize on flexibility and self-guided participation also might fit in a category of modest-level education. (For example, see a Web-based marriage preparation course, "Saying 'I Do': Consider the Possibilities" at http://www.utahmarriage.org.) Educational offerings in the middle of the intensity continuum might make interventions more attractive to work or healthcare organizations whose primary missions lie elsewhere.
Moderate-dosage intervention also should be identified by some assessment of the psychological costs required of participants. Our experience has been that programs that ask participants to explore psychologically sensitive areas scare away some potential participants. Thus, moderate-intensity programs should avoid psychologically intense activity.
Finally, moderate-level intervention might restrict the scope of the curriculum. When marriage education programs try to be comprehensive in their coverage of crucial content, they require more time and energy of the participants. We believe that there also is a need for marriage education that focuses on just one or two topics. For instance, money management and debt are serious problems that influence marital quality and stability (Johnson et al., 2002). In addition, interventions aimed at couples with special circumstances, such as couples caring for a special-needs child or elderly parents, are needed. Moderate-intensity formats focused on specific problems would fill an important niche in a comprehensive set of marriage education offerings. They might be better attended, because they are more likely to address a concrete challenge experienced by many couples.
High-dosage educational offerings also will be crucial to a comprehensive marriage education strategy. More intense marriage education allows for in-depth exploration of a fuller range of topics. It also might allow for individuals and couples to explore personal issues at deeper levels with trained facilitators, and it might allow educators to build supportive structures into their curriculum, such as mentor couples (McManus, 1993). Although individuals will differ on an exact delineation of high-dosage intervention, we hinted at relevant factors in the previous section. They include time commitment, psychological security, and the amount of professional training required of program leaders. One example is the Becoming Parents program (Jordan, Stanley, & Markman, 1999), which is a marriage and parenting curriculum adapted from the Premarital Relationship and Enhancement Program (or PREP) model (see http://www.PREPinc.com) and targeted specifically to couples transitioning to parenthood. Seminars require 27 classroom hours. Moreover, this intervention requires specialized training for instructors who must complete an extensive for-fee 3-day training workshop. These kinds of interventions can be effective for couples with the personal desires and resources to invest in them. It might be that lower dosage education that reaches more individuals also could serve to increase interest in more intensive learning experiences.
Dimension III: Methods-How Is It Learned?
Regardless of the content of marriage education offerings, decisions need to be made about how the content is presented and learned. Our experience teaches us that teaching processes might be as crucial to educational outcomes as the content itself. Although our list of topics is not exhaustive, we discuss three important method issues: instructor, learning styles, and maintenance. (Note that most of our comments assume a higher dosage educational format.)
We believe that the more instructors are familiar with the particular issues that participants face, the more credibility they will have. They also will be able to adapt and present curricular content to fit the lived experiences of participants most effectively. For instance, lower income African American couples face daunting challenges to forming and sustaining marriages (Fein, Burstein, Fein, & Lindberg, 2003). An instructor who relates to these complex barriers might be as important to the success of the program as the content offered. Hispanics reflect many different cultural traditions related to marriage, and unless marriage educators understand these differences and can tailor instruction and program materials in relevant ways, they will struggle to help important groups. Gender also can be an important issue. Our experience suggests that some men are more responsive to the content of a program if delivered by a male-female team of coinstructors instead of just a woman instructor. Similarly, couples who share a particular faith might be served best by an educator who can communicate content within the culture and language of their religious beliefs and practices. In short, messages are enhanced or inhibited by messengers. Importantly, all instructors must receive training to assure competence.
Curricula differ in how much emphasis they place on cognitive versus experiential learning. Most marriage education programs that we know of include a variety of methods tailored to diverse learning styles, such as didactic presentation of information, showing examples (e.g., in a video), interactive discussion, and role-playing. The choice of methods requires careful and empirically informed tailoring. Well-educated individuals and couples are accustomed to more cognitive and didactic approaches typical of higher education. However, this approach might be less effective for individuals without extensive formal education, who might prefer more active, experiential learning methods. Similarly, our experience is that individuals in some non-Western cultures are uncomfortable with public disclosure of personal lives and emotions, a method that marriage educators commonly rely on to normalize issues. Some work suggests that lower income U.S. couples are less comfortable in formal settings with self-disclosure of intimate and emotional aspects of their lives (Dion et al., 2003). No firm rules exist for making these decisions, but one guiding principle is that such decisions should be made by those who are well connected to and experienced with typical participants, reprising the earlier point about the need for culturally sensitive instructors.
Although there is encouraging initial evidence that marriage education helps couples build and sustain healthy relationships (Carroll & Doherty, 2003; Halford et al., 2004), research is less clear about how long intervention effects are maintained. Given the steady stream of new stresses that couples face and the short duration of interventions, diminishing effects are not surprising. For some time, marriage educators have speculated about the benefits of follow-up "booster" sessions to reinforce learned ideas and behaviors (Silliman, Stanley, Coffin, Markman, & Jordan, 2001). However, few programs integrate booster sessions into their curricular process. Cowan and Cowan (2000) effectively included postnatal booster sessions in their intervention that strengthened marriages during the transition to parenthood. And Jordan (Jordan et al., 1999) also includes booster sessions in her Becoming Parents program, which is now being evaluated. Because attendance at follow-up sessions might be spotty, other ways to deliver booster curriculum deserve consideration. Newsletters sent periodically to program graduates might reinforce program effects and encourage ongoing maintenance activities. Marriage educators could employ e-mail and the Internet efficiently and creatively to follow up with participants and reinforce learning. Building virtual communities of graduates who can support each other over time also might be effective. Doherty and Carroll (2002) took the concept of booster sessions in a different direction. They urged consideration of another model in which couples who first receive education then give back to their communities by reaching out to help other couples in some fashion, such as mentoring other couples, becoming educators themselves, and advocating in their communities for healthy marriages.
Marriage educators need to give more attention to methods that can help participants maintain program benefits. In addition, as a profession, marriage education can extend this work temporally to think about multiple interventions across the life cycle because regular marital inoculations may be needed to cope successfully with normal changes over time.
Dimension IV: Timing-When Does It Occur?
Marriage educators frequently teach general principles and skills for building and sustaining healthy marriages that appear to transcend temporal and circumstantial boundaries; however, marriages are not static. General principles exist, but there are good reasons for marriage educators to temporally tailor their work. An important reason for temporal specificity is that it makes curricula more concrete. For example, learning general problem-solving skills is important, but young engaged couples who are blinded by new love might be least aware of their differences. For them, it might be as important to attend to such issues as assessing risk and protective factors in the relationship and understanding the basic duties that marriage imposes. Similarly, couples beginning a second marriage with responsibilities to children from a previous union bring challenges to their union that childless couples do not face. The more tailored educational offerings are to the temporal and life circumstances of their participants, the more likely they are to meet perceived needs. By extension, they also might attract more participants.
Life Course Changes
We believe that marriage education has focused primarily on young engaged or newly married couples. Reaching adolescence and young adults who are forming attitudes about marriage, as well as couples whose children have been launched, will reveal rich educational possibilities.
Adolescence. We see adolescence as a fertile time to begin to reach out to youth with relationship and marriage eduation. Some high school curricula, such as the PREP-based Connections, integrate relationship and marriage education into the classroom. Healthy relationship skills are a staple of these programs, but it might be equally important that they address other issues, such as common marriage and divorce myths and guidelines for effective marriage preparation. Many adolescents have experienced parental divorce and an absent father personally, and some struggle to point to any healthy long-term marriages in their families and neighborhoods. Further, they are large consumers of television and other media (Roberts, 2000) that give confusing and false messages about intimate relationships (Harris & Scott, 2002). Under these circumstances, many adolescents lack a solid understanding of what marriage means, how society benefits from it, and how healthy, stable marriages are sustained. Accordingly, Pearson (2000) has argued that marriage educators should attend to adolescents' basic understanding of marriage and not ignore difficult issues that weigh on adolescents. Pearson also argued that adolescents are bored by the typical sex education curriculum that focuses on body parts and diseases; instead, they need and want to understand a fuller and richer meaning of sexuality. Marriage education for adolescents carries the potential of wiser choices leading to stronger marriages.
Early adulthood. There is now a 12-15-year period between the onset of sexual capacity and the time that most young adults choose to marry. This lengthened period of the life course coincides with great sexual freedom. It is not surprising that marriage scholars are studying this changing life course period (Glenn & Marquardt, 2001; Whitehead & Popenoe, 2000). However, marriage educators could give greater attention to this period, because young adulthood is not a period of cognitive and behavioral latency regarding marriage; they are forming attitudes about marriages and engaged in behaviors that might impact their future marriages. Marriage educators could address in more concrete ways topics introduced to adolescents, such as dating patterns, sexual involvement, and cohabitation. An important need is to help young adults understand how to make good marriage partner choices and avoid partners who carry a significant risk of being abusive. Van Epp's How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk program tries to do this (see http://www.nojerks.com). Colleges and universities would be a prime setting to fill this educational gap.
Another educational possibility during young adulthood is helping some to develop clearer cognitive models of healthy marriages and greater confidence that they can succeed. Research indicates that young adults are less confident than previous generations about their chances for marital success (Glenn, 1996), in part because of childhood experience with divorce and fatherlessness. For some, especially lower income African Americans, marriage is missing from their childhood experience and is nearly absent from their communities (Fein et al., 2003). These young adults still hold aspirations for marriage (Bendheim-Thoman Center for Child Wellbeing, 2002), but they might need help to understand more clearly what the institution of marriage is and what it could hold for them personally. Clearly, there is a need for more marriage education opportunities in this period of the life course.
Premarital and early marital. Couples in these periods of the life course are obvious candidates for sound, preventative intervention. Unfortunately, too many engaged couples are blinded by romance, so they fail to see potential pitfalls; they focus on the wedding rather than the marriage. To help, religious organizations have been leading the way in turning wedding planning into marriage preparation. The best preparation programs combine religious instruction on the sacred nature of marriage with secular wisdom on building and sustaining healthy marriages. They also include couples taking a relationship inventory to help them identify strengths and challenges in their relationship, and encourage efforts to address potential problems. (See Larson, Newell, Topham, & Nichols, 2002, for a critical review of the major inventories.) Some couples are discouraged from marrying because they come to see dangerous flaws in their relationships (Center for Marriage and Family, 1995; Stanley, 2001). In addition to premarital education, some faith communities assign newlyweds a mentor couple trained to be a personalized support system (McManus, 1993). However, premarital educators in religious or other settings need to adjust or augment their efforts for many couples who come to marriage with more complications, such as childhood abuse or stepchildren.
Enrichment education in the early years of marriage could prevent little troubles from growing into long-standing problems that eventually threaten the marriage. For many couples, issues that seem insignificant before marriage, such as the division of domestic labor or in-law relations, can become major sources of conflict after wedding vows are exchanged. For some couples, even more complex problems must be addressed early on, such as dividing time between biological children from a previous union and time with stepchildren or biological children in a current union. Further, the early years might be an ideal time to encourage couples to work on foundational relationship skills, such as effective problem solving and compassionate listening. Religious organizations could capitalize on their successes with premarital education by extending their programs to include booster sessions during the first year of marriage.
Early parental years. Marriage educators are beginning to give more attention to the marital challenges associated with becoming parents (Shapiro & Gottman, in press). The challenge that this transition presents to couple relationships is one of the most well-established findings in the family sciences (Cowan & Cowan, 2000; Shapiro, Gottman, & Carrére, 2000; Twenge, Campbell, & Foster, 2003). A recent meta-analysis (Twenge et al.) suggested that recent cohorts of transitioning parents appear to experience more of a decline in their marital satisfaction compared with their parents' generation, perhaps because cultural changes make parenting feel more restrictive of personal freedom and cause more gender conflict than in the past. Even when it does not create a crisis, the transition to parenthood stresses the marital relationship for most couples, potentially setting in motion future marital breakdown, especially for couples whose relationships were already stressed (Cowan & Cowan).
Because couples are already stretched with the demands of caring for a new infant, topical, moderate-dosage educational offerings that address issues such as the division of domestic labor and added financial stress might be necessary. A natural setting for reaching couples before the birth of their child is the healthcare system (Hawkins, Gilliland, Christiaens, & Carroll, 2002). Many transitioning couples in low-income communities who are not married live together with hopes for marriage (Bendheim-Thoman Center for Child Wellbeing, 2002). We discuss these couples later.
Midparental years. It would be easy for marriage educator's to view the middle parenting years as uneventful, with minimal need for intervention. However, there are good reasons to reject this perspective. Doherty (2001) asserted that this period is becoming known for its time-starved quality, when more children and more commitments mean less couple time. He argued that the daily investments of couple time that lubricate marital functioning dry up with chauffeuring overscheduled children, increasing work demands, and so forth. Lower income families who struggle constantly to meet the economic needs of their families might be even more likely than middle-income families to be affected by this time crunch. Accordingly, marriage education that addresses ways to prioritize marital time would be valuable for couples in the midparental years. Ironically, these couples might have little time to accommodate the luxury of marriage education, so educators need to be creative in how they overcome this barrier. Embedding lower dosage topical curricula in other settings where active parents are involved is worth considering. For instance, parents might already be involved in religious groups to encourage their children's religious education. This setting might offer a temporal cloister for marriage education. Marketing lunchtime seminars in a workplace setting also might attract time-impoverished parents.
Late- and postparental years. Launching children can be disorienting for couples, especially if parenthood has become the primary bond between spouses, and the marital bolts have become rusty through neglect. There is evidence that marital quality declines somewhat with the duration of the marriage (Glenn, 1998; VanLaningham, Johnson, & Amato, 2001). Yet, diminishing parenting demands hold possibilities for reprioritizing and reinvigorating long-term marriages. Marriage curricula that revisit the fundamentals of marital communication and problem solving is an intriguing possibility for curriculum in this time (Arp, Arp, Stanley, Markman, & Blumberg, 2000). Over time, couple interaction patterns become entrenched but still produce chronic conflict. Marriage educators could help couples unlearn less functional, ingrained interaction patterns and replace them with healthier ones. Further, retirement might be as disorienting to familiar marital patterns as children leaving the home (Kulik, 2001). In addition, health issues increase in importance for later-life couples (Goldin & Mohr, 2000) and challenge relationship skills. Clearly, marriage curricula on these and other topics could be helpful. Programs like MATE (Olson & Adams, 1996), specially modified from the PREPARE/ENRICH program to help couples in the later years, have an educational niche. Because of their knowledge, gerontology educators would be good recruits to develop and deliver marriage education.
Life Course Changes
Contemporary unions often follow more diverse temporal and developmental paths than in the past. Cohabitation, divorce, and remarriage introduce greater complexities that marriage educators must accommodate in their efforts to help all couples.
Cohabitation. More than 5 million couples are currently cohabiting (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). About half of cohabiting couples are likely assessing their relationship with a view to marriage (Bumpass, Sweet, & Cherlin, 1991), and nearly two thirds of high school seniors believe that living together before marriage improves the odds of marital success (Popenoe & Whitehead, 2002). However, research shows that cohabitation before marriage, unless one eventually marries his or her first partner, puts individuals at more, not less, risk for divorce (Teachman, 2003). In fact, Dush, Cohan, and Amato (2003) concluded that the experience of cohabitation is responsible for the greater risk of divorce, more so than selection effects of higher risk individuals into cohabitation. Apparently, cohabitation by itself is unlikely to prepare people effectively for a lasting marriage. For this reason, marriage educators serving cohabiting adults need to emphasize reality versus myth and provide empirically based principles for good marriage preparation.
Recent research from the Fragile Families Study (Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, 2002) documents that most urban single mothers are intimately involved with their baby's father at the time of the birth. About half are cohabiting; 30% of fathers are frequently visiting and romantically linked to the mother; and almost 75% believe that there is a good chance that they will eventually marry. Unfortunately, only about 15% ever do so (Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, 2003a), but only about one third of them have serious problems that make them poor prospects for marriage (Bendheim-Thoman Center for Child Wellbeing, 2003b). Some policymakers find these statistics encouraging and are anxious to experiment with ways to help low-income unmarried parents form and sustain healthy marriages (see Horn, 2003). Clearly, there are large barriers to marriage with this population, and marriage education alone cannot overcome them all. However, a large, long-term federal research project is under way to explore the kinds of educational efforts that can be successful with these couples (see Ooms & Wilson, 2004). Marriage education programs will require helping many of them figure out how to manage obligations to other children from previous relationships. In addition, recent research suggests that there is a higher level of distrust, in particular about sexual fidelity, among lower income families, especially among African Americans (Cazenave & Smith, 1990; Edin, England, & Linenberg, 2003). Further, a disproportionate number of these poor unmarried mothers have experienced childhood abuse (Cherlin, Burton, Hurt, & Purvin, 2003). As such, existing curricula will need to be modified substantially or new curricula developed, to help these individuals and couples. Marriage educators will need to think more ecologically than is their norm, supplementing their educational offerings with links to support services for these couples, such as job training or substance abuse treatment (Bendheim-Thoman Center for Child Wellbeing, 2003b).
Divorce. In our experience, marriage educators see their roles primarily as preventing divorce. However, there might be untapped educational opportunities for them among individuals who have recently experienced a divorce. Some research suggests that one third of divorced individuals say they had some regrets about their decision to divorce, and many marriages do go from bad to good (Waite et al., 2002). Individuals who have recently divorced might value the assistance of educators to help them maintain a functional coparenting relationship with a former spouse and understand what went wrong in their marriage and how to avoid such problems in the future. In addition, we encourage educators to try harder to reach couples thinking about divorce by enlisting the cooperation of legal practitioners who are as wearied by the sadness of their day-to-day work as they are profited by it.
Remarriage. Remarriage might be the triumph of hope over experience (Visher & Visher, 1979), but hope is hardly in short supply. Because nearly half of marriages today are remarriages for one or both spouses (U.S. Census Bureau, 1999), there is a growing need for tailored marriage education to serve this large population. The complexities of remarriage call for enhanced communication and problem-solving skills (Pasley, Dollahite, & Ihinger-Tallman, 1993), we believe, which are a staple of numerous marriage education programs. Programs will be more attractive if they integrate these skills with topical content that addresses the added challenges of remarriage, such as dealing with former spouses, obligations to children from a previous marriage, stepparenting, and blending finances.
Dimension V: Setting-Where Does It Take Place?
For at least three reasons, it behooves marriage educators to think more concretely about the location of their activities. First, there are settings that lend themselves well to particular educational topics (e.g., workplace seminars on balancing work and marriage, religious sermons on sexual fidelity). Second, it is easy to overlook fruitful venues for marriage education, such as the military or healthcare settings. Finally, the more settings in which effective marriage education occurs, the more individuals will be reached. Marriage education needs intervention