Challenging Marriage Educators to Prove Impact
As the annual SmartMarriages conference begins in Orlando, a Psychology Today article takes aim at proponents of marriage education for focusing on selling classes instead of research. Ensuring marriage education programs have a proven track record of positive impact is vital to gaining trust and broader acceptance from the public and professionals.
Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a visiting professor at UC Santa Barbara and author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, takes issue with the “over-hyping of marriage education” in an article for Psychology Today coinciding with the beginning of the annual SmartMarriages conference this weekend in Orlando.
Describing her concern with recent Washington Post and NPR coverage of marriage education, DePaulo writes, “All we heard was how wonderful and how effective these programs supposedly are. Across the entire conversation, there was not a word of caution, nor a qualifier. No one mentioned, for example, the results of 143 studies showing that people who take the classes are no more likely to describe their spouse as communicating with them in a positive way than are people who do not take the classes.”
The research DePaulo is referring to is likely the Building Strong Families study that recently evaluated the impact of a small range of programs on unmarried couples with children. [Editor’s note: PAIRS was not part of the BSF study. Research on PAIRS is available online at evaluation.pairs.com.]
DePaulo takes aim at Diane Sollee, founder of SmartMarriages, and other proponents of marriage education, for promoting programs that are not research-based.
“Diane Sollee and many other marriage education advocates are not recruiting for research … They are selling classes … I have to admit that there is something truly smart about SmartMarriages – they got free advertising for their misleading claims and for financially lucrative programs under the banner of prestigious media outlets,” DePaulo argues in the Psychology Today article.
While DePaulo is correct that SmartMarriages is not a research organization and is supported through revenues from the annual conference, her broad criticism of marriage education is misguided. For over a decade, Sollee, a former director of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT), almost single-handedly led the campaign to promote marriage education as an alternative to therapy and counseling for couples in any stage of relationship. Her annual conference is the industry’s leading vehicle for entrepreneurs, counselors, social workers, teachers, clergy and others to promote training programs, books, and tapes promising to help couples and singles prevent, cure, or recover from marital strife.
From its earliest years, many mental health professionals have been suspect of marriage and relationship education, viewing group programs led by educators, clergy, and lay leaders as a threat to careers in which they’d invested years of their lives and contrary to traditional therapeutic approaches. Although the caution, “Buyer Beware,” is as true for marriage and relationship education as any other industry, several free and low-cost classes have shown impressive results with diverse populations.
For marriage education advocates, DePaulo offers an important challenge at a critical juncture for the field. Shifting the focus from promoting teach out of the box programs, training institutes, books, and tapes that have no evidence of impact to approaches that are research-validated is an important step to gaining trust from the public and policy-makers. With greater emphasis on evidence-based programs, marriage education is likely to gain broader acceptance from the public and skeptical professionals alike.
Cheryl Wetzstein: Let’s Not Give Up on Marriage Ed
3 thoughts on “Challenging Marriage Educators to Prove Impact”
Bella DePaulo published an accusation on her blog at belladepaulo.com that FatherhoodChannel.com recently suppressed a comment she submitted in response to an article that quoted her. While a thorough search of our site’s archives and visitor logs shows many visits by Dr. DePaulo to fatherhoodchannel.com, there is no record of any comment being submitted
The first notification received of a comment from her was the publication of an article accusing FatherhoodChannel.com of suppressing her comment under the title, “The Fatherhood Channel Suppressed This Comment.”
FatherhoodChannel.com invites and enthusiastically welcomes the sharing of diverse points of view, comments and perspective on issues relevant to fatherhood, marriage and families. Had a comment from Dr. DePaolo been received, it would have been posted.
Following up to a request for clarification after the publication of her article, Dr. DePaulo wrote:
“Thanks for getting in touch and for your kind words about my website … As I mentioned in the post, I did try to post my comment – twice. As I also mentioned, when I tried resubmitting my comment, I got a message saying that the system recognized my post as having already been submitted. My name shows up when I log in again, so that’s not the problem, and I’ve seen other people’s comments posted, so I know the site is being attended to. All those visits you noticed were me checking back myself to see whether my comment had shown up … You are welcome to take to comment that is in the post on my new blog and post it to the comments section where I tried to post it originally, twice … If my comment ever shows up on that page (I also signed up for Alerts for comments on my comment), I’ll amend my post.”
Dr. DePaulo’s full post is available at:
The comment she claimed to have submitted, in its entirety, is included below:
Reprinted with permission from belladepaulo.com:
Thanks for posting about the article I wrote for Living Single at Psychology Today. I invite readers to take a look at the article in its entirety, as well as my two previous articles on the same topic:
1. Marriage and relationship education programs: Do they work?
2. Couples just don’t know how to be married?
3. I complain about the overhyping of marriage education and the NPR ombudsman listens
The review of the 143 studies was published in the Journal of Family Psychology (the link to it is in article #1). I also referred to the BSF studies conducted with more than 5,000 couples in 8 locations. The author of the post to which I am responding (no name seems to be attached to it) believes my broad criticism is “misguided” because Diane Sollee has been working so hard to create her marriage-promoting industry. (Hard work does not make Sollee’s claims accurate.) The author also continues to perpetrate misleading impressions of the effectiveness of these programs with this selective statement: “several free and low-cost classes have shown impressive results with diverse populations.”
My objections are about scientific accuracy and ethics. It is neither accurate nor, in my opinion, ethical, to mention only the studies that did work without mentioning that many others did not. It is not accurate nor – in my opinion – ethical to mention one study that did work (as Sollee did on NPR) without mentioning one study (from the 8 BSF variations with unmarried couples with children) in which the couples who participated were LESS likely to be living together or married than the couples who did not participate, they reported lower quality co-parenting, and the mothers were more likely to report severe physical abuse. It is, in my opinion, inappropriate for Diane Sollee to say (as she did in the Washington Post’s Q & A) that “Marriage education classes can help across the board” or that “the classes are a huge help” when the cumulative results of the 8 BSF studies showed that relationship quality improved only if both members of the couple were African American.
My objection to Smartmarriages isn’t so much that it does not produce research but that it misrepresents the results of the research that has been conducted. Suppose a woman signs up for one of these courses and gets pummeled to within an inch of her life. Will Diane Sollee then admit she knew that in one of the 8 BSF programs, women who participated were more likely to be severely abused than women who did not participate, and yet she (Sollee) still claimed that the courses can’t hurt?
I’m not a therapist. I’m a social scientist. My career is not threatened by these courses. It is fine with me if the courses are offered IF participants are not misled about what the research shows. On the NPR show and in the Washington Post Q & A, listeners and readers heard misleading claims. That’s my objection.
I have great respect for Dr. DePaulo’s research and publications on America’s growing community of singles. Her articles regularly contribute to conversations that matter.
The research referred to in the FatherhoodChannel.com post referred to by Dr. DePaulo is evaluation specifically on the impact of PAIRS Essentials and PAIRS for Life classes taught in English and Spanish. Follow-up research conducted on these evidence-based curricula, including diverse couples and singles, has consistently shown statistically significant, enduring, positive benefits for the far majority of participants. It would be disappointing if Dr. DePaulo’s comments were seen as blanket discouragement for couples or singles to participate in marriage and relationship education courses that have contributed much to many.
Personally, I agree with Dr. DePaulo and others that not all marriage and relationship education programs are effective. Recent research showing that several programs have not been effective [PAIRS was not among them] is as important to consumers as the research that has shown that in many cases, marital therapy and counseling is frequently not helpful and sometimes harmful to marriages.
Since the quality and resiliency of our intimate relationships impacts the foundation of millions of lives, continuing the conversation about what contributes to greater health and happiness for couples and singles alike is incredibly meaningful and important.
Your skills are practical and realistic to many marriages in the world. You are doing a great job in helping relationships all round from home to work place. Thanx to pairs foundations.
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