Impact of an Intimate Relationships Class on Unrealistic Relationship Beliefs

Article excerpt

Unrealistic relationship beliefs have been shown to be related to lower levels of relationship satisfaction. Yet, young adults often hold unrealistic or irrational beliefs about intimate relationships. The purpose of this study was to assess the effectiveness of an intimate relationships course in reducing young adults' irrational relationship beliefs. Results indicated a decrease in irrational beliefs, although levels of romanticism remained stable. Gender differences were noted. In addition, participants reported an increase in their knowledge about relationship processes. According to instructor observations and student reports, the two teaching techniques most successful in changing unrealistic relationship beliefs were observing people discuss or enact relationships through guest speakers and video clips, and writing short reaction papers that required exploring one's attitudes and beliefs on a topic.

Marriage education has long been a topic of interest, with studies dating back at least 50 years. Dunn (1965) found that "young people's unrealistic and inconsistent expectations of marriage [were] fertile ground for conflict in marriage" (cited in Duvall, 1965, p. 177). This statement remains congruent with the findings of more current research on relationship beliefs among college-age women and men (Larson, 1988; Murray & Holmes, 1997). It is important that family life educators help young people become more knowledgeable about the reality of relationships so that they can develop and maintain healthy intimate relationships. Interpersonal relationships courses in high school or college settings represent one potential avenue for this education. Here adolescents and young adults can be exposed to empirical and theoretical knowledge about intimate relationships and at the same time reflect upon and apply that knowledge to their own personal relationships.

Both early and more recent studies have shown that this approach may have positive effects on levels of unrealistic relationship beliefs. In early studies, for example, married college students who participated in a preparation for marriage course reported more happiness in marriage than students who did not take the course (Dyer, 1959), and students in marriage courses had more realistic views of marriage and were in favor of such courses (Duvall, 1965). Sharp and Ganong (2000) suggested that inaccurate expectations are an important source of college students' unrealistic relationship beliefs. Unrealistic beliefs include a variety of ideas that may leave people more vulnerable to relationship dissatisfaction and lower relationship functioning (Sharp & Ganong, 2000).

Unrealistic relationship beliefs can be conceptualized in different ways. Eidelson and Epstein (1982) argued that five core beliefs can undermine relationships: (a) disagreement is destructive, (b) mindreading is expected, (c) partners cannot change, (d) sexual perfectionism is expected, and (e) the sexes are different. Sprecher and Metts (1999) focused on extreme romantic beliefs, or the "romantic ideal," as the foundation for unrealistic views. Extreme romanticism consists of thoughts that love can conquer any obstacle, belief in a soulmate, adulation for one's partner to the point of idealization, and love at first sight. Individuals often find this romantic ideal does not prevail and later encounter disillusionment and dissatisfaction in their relationships (Sharp & Ganong, 2000). Experts suggest that situations in which one or both partners have unrealistic or irrational relationship beliefs probably will lead to marital distress and lower satisfaction because the relationship does not meet the partners' expectations (Stackert & Bursik, 2003; Sullivan & Schwebel, 1995). Disappointment also occurs in relationships when partners assess each other's actions in accordance with extreme standards (DeBord, Romans, & Krieshok, 1996). In summary, unrealistic relationship beliefs have been linked to relationship dissatisfaction that potentially can be avoided through preventive educational programs. …