Public Square Magazine Primary White, Gold & Black Logo | PublicSquareMag | What is Public Square | Politics, Faith & Family | Home | Public Square Magazine
A family working together on a community project, depicting the importance of shared goals in fostering family stability.

The Cultural Divide: Reconciling Relationship Education with Contemporary Society

Do relationship programs work? Evidence points to modest benefits while couples face other cultural hurdles.

In the previous article in this series, I spent time reviewing two innovative programs in Denver and Oklahoma City that research finds are making an impact on families and their communities. I have also visited other impressive relationship education programs in Texas and Alabama and talked with many more program administrators in other locations, such as the Bronx, Louisville, Chicago, California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, and Missouri. And I am now working for one of the premier relationship education operations in the United States, the Utah Marriage Commission. I have also reviewed, summarized, and meta-analyzed all the studies focused on these government-funded programs. The body of research is impressive. 

I confess, however, that even after having observed these programs in Utah and other states and reading reports about dozens of other programs elsewhere, my optimism and pessimism neurons are fighting with each other. Part of me delights in the solid education these needy individuals and couples are getting to help them work on their relationships, not just let relationship fate have its way. These kinds of relationship-strengthening programs have a long, replicated track record of helping couples, privileged and less so. It seems my optimistic side should be winning this battle. However, the other part of me frets that we are expecting and hoping for too much. How can a set of weekly classes, most with an average dosage of only about 8 hours, overpower the cultural forces—not to mention the personal challenges—that laugh heartlessly at these stressed and distressed couples’ bold aspirations of strong and stable relationships? And even if these programs are more potent than my skeptical scientific self allows, how can we reach these aspiring couples and co-parents in the kinds of numbers that could really move the needle on healthy, stable families in our society? 

For now, my working answer to the first conundrum is this: I think there are meta-messages that sink in and stick with participants in all these relationship classes offered through these various programs, including Healthy Relationships Utah and the Utah Marriage Commission. Sure, a few person-specific golden nuggets of content can hit home, stick with a participant, and make a positive difference in their relationship. Even with this possibility, however, I can not help but think that the secret ingredient to helping participants with their relationships is a crucial meta-message they get. Regardless of the educational content and method, relationships are not particularly natural. They are hard, they take work, and people can learn how to do them better because there are good resources to help them learn. These educators are passionate, idealistic hope-mongers for healthy relationships. That hope seeps in and motivates imperfect efforts to work on imperfect relationships, not just passively accept the status quo.

Relationship-strengthening programs have a long, replicated track record.

My evolving response to the second conundrum (program reach) is this: I think these government-supported relationship-strengthening efforts expand their impact by stimulating culture-level change needed to help many more people form and sustain healthy relationships, enduring marriages, or healthy co-parenting skills. We are cultural creatures and flow with the cultural currents. We need those currents to move in the right direction.

I’m not sure what other cultural levers there are to pull. I’m not optimistic that the media will take up the cause of strong marriages and stable families in the same way they have helped, say, to promote the cultural value of diversity, equity, and inclusion. In fact, it seems the media questions whether promoting strong marriages is consistent with that agenda. Similarly, I doubt higher education will adopt a pro-marriage agenda despite reams of research showing its salutary effects on children and adults. Progressive ideologies that have been baked into academia tend to frame marriage, at best, as just a lifestyle choice or an elite institution out of reach of too many people these days and, at worst, as an intransigent force of patriarchy and injustice. Institutional religion generally preaches the value of strong marriages, of course. However, the data are pretty clear that contemporary young adults in their family formation years are not drawn to the pews in the numbers of past cohorts. Even if young adults were drawn to religious organizations, according to John Van Epp, a prominent relationship education program developer, most religious congregations have been fumbling the ball on effective support of marriage, anyway.

Despite these cultural complications, under both Republican and Democratic stewardship, the government has been experimenting on a small scale with what can be done directly to help individuals and couples gain the knowledge and skills needed for healthy relationships. This is in addition to all the other indirect policy efforts to improve the social and economic soils in which committed love can take root and grow. Access to good jobs, education, career opportunities, affordable housing, and improved healthcare are things that can indirectly impact relationships and are the target for many changing public policies. And let’s be clear-eyed about why: every day government picks up the bill for the considerable societal costs of family instability. One now-dated study (2008) conservatively estimated these societal costs in Utah alone at $276 million a year (about $400 million in 2024 dollars) and more than $100 billion nationwide (about $160 billion in 2024 dollars). I hold out hope that all these government-funded efforts can reach beyond actual class participants and digital consumers to nudge the broader culture towards smarter relationship formation strategies and fighting relationship entropy, saving taxpayers’ money.  

Usually, culture trickles down from the advantaged to the disadvantaged. But while the advantaged personally invest in marriage and receive its dividends, many recoil at promoting this stock to others less fortunate. If government efforts to enhance family stability and marriage among those who are least able to access its benefits can yield some modest success—and they are—maybe all this good education will defy social gravity and trickle up into the broader cultural conversation to change attitudes and behaviors. A solid indicator that the culture is changing in the right direction would be greater numbers of people seeking help for their relationships. In one study I conducted with some colleagues, we found in a nationally representative sample of married people who had some recent thoughts about divorce that only about a third had sought help from a marriage counselor, and only about 15% had invested in a marriage enhancement class like the ones offered by Healthy Relationships Utah. Less than 10% sought out help from religious leaders. Rates of informal, private help-seeking (e.g., reading a book, browsing a website) were considerably higher, however. Therefore, we should not scrimp on efforts to get reliable information out on easily accessible platforms. The Utah Marriage Commission fits this bill well. 

I think Utah could be a model for how public policy efforts can create more healthy, stable families. This model includes establishing an in-statute Commission formally directing efforts hosted by a land-grant university skilled at delivering high-quality information and classes to a broad swath of the population and doing so with state and federal grants, marriage license fees, private revenue streams, and philanthropic donations. Utah’s new Office of Families, too, may add a crucial element to this model. 

Still, with all my years of experience and expertise, I’m keenly aware of how our do-gooder policy aspirations often fall short of solving the problems they are intended to fix and sometimes even exacerbate them. The distance between design and performance is often wide and discouraging. It’s as if some of our social problems have become resistant to our best policy antibiotics. To name just one underwhelming success, the well-known Head Start program was supposed to eliminate the school-readiness gap between disadvantaged and advantaged children. But 50 years and a generation of research has shown how we have struggled to achieve this worthy goal. Head Start has provided only small gains for disadvantaged children, and those gains tend to dissipate over time. Yet the program remains popular and well-funded. Even with disappointing results, we keep trying. What would it say if we collectively threw our hands up in the air and said that we can’t fix this school-readiness problem, especially when good education is so central to opportunity and fairness in our society?

A flower sprouting on a city sidewalk symbolizing the notion that hope and change can be introduced to an established societal culture.
Change and hope can occur even with difficult barriers.

These are profound complexities to address as I debate in my own head the effectiveness of this new social policy initiative to fight family instability. Stable families do make essential contributions to opportunity and fairness. What does it say if our elected representatives shrug off this major social problem that impacts millions of children’s chances in life, derails many adult lives, and costs taxpayers billions of dollars a year? What other major contemporary social problem is outside the bounds of public policy concern? Government funds are fighting rising rates of childhood obesity and skyrocketing levels of teen depression and anxiety. On an even more personal level, fertility rates have fallen well below population replacement levels, and national legislators are wringing their hands about what appropriate measures can be taken to supply the next generation of needed workers and citizens. And, of course, government is already heavily involved in trying to ameliorate problems caused when healthy relationships fail to form or fall apart. It may be trite, but inexpensive fences at the top of the cliff are better than costly ambulances at the bottom. It seems to me that we need to engage and try to address the problem of family instability, even with all its complexity and uncertainty of how to fix it, delicately balancing potential collective gains with individual freedoms and diverse values. There are smart people who disagree with me on these important topics. Despite these divergent voices, I think we need to keep trying. Disengagement seems like sticking our heads in the sand.

The distance between design and performance is often wide and discouraging.

We can make a difference in couples’ lives with good relationship education in all its different forms. Relationships are hard, but we know a lot about how healthy relationships are formed, and we know what knowledge, skills, and virtues sustain them. We probably overestimate, however, how much of this knowledge people really understand at a behavioral level in a way that they can apply in their day-to-day, stressful lives. This knowledge is certainly not as well known as it should be, nor a part of larger cultural norms in our modern contemporary society. This is the big picture I try to see when I am observing these relationship education efforts in Utah and elsewhere. I see a gradual infusion of the culture with the idea that forever takes work and that we can learn how to do relationships better. That idea creates hope, and hope is powerful.

About the author

Alan J. Hawkins

Alan J. Hawkins is manager of the Utah Marriage Commission and an emeritus professor in the Brigham Young University School of Family Life. His work focuses on educational interventions and public policies to help couples form and sustain healthy relationships and stronger relationships, and prevent unnecessary divorce.
On Key

You Might Also Like

Mapping Public Disagreements about Election Challenges

Disagreements over the integrity of our recent presidential election don’t appear to be going away anytime soon. In such a heated atmosphere, there is remarkably little comprehension (on either side) as to the nuances of their opponents’ actual beliefs. That’s where a map like this might just come in handy.

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

Stay up to date on the intersection of faith in the public square.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This