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

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