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Diverse classroom discussion with Utah's nature in view, highlighting the state's pioneering efforts in relationship education.

Healthy Relationships Utah: Pioneering the Future of Relationship Education

Can education improve relationships? Utah's programs prove teaching relationship skills can enhance lives.

In the last article in this series, I addressed the Utah Marriage Commission (UMC) and outlined the program and the impact it is having on the community. Healthy Relationships Utah (HRU) is another program enacting change and opportunity for Utah. HRU is the brand placed on a set of in-person and online relationship-strengthening educational classes offered to the public through the Utah State University (USU) Extension Service. While UMC moves in the direction of providing easily accessible, brief educational services for couples delivered via their digital platform, HRU prioritizes live, facilitator-led educational programs to youth, young adults, couples, co-parents, and fathers. Most of these classes include 6-12 hours of formal curricula. Last year, they offered about 400 classes. Over the last 17 years, these educational programs have been funded by a series of federal and state grants. Dr. Brian Higginbotham has provided the leadership for HRU since 2006 and, additionally, has provided the strategic vision, grant-writing labor, and tactical oversight to bring evidence-based curriculum to Utah youth, couples, parents, co-parents, and fathers. Though trained as a marriage and family therapist, he has focused his professional career on increasing access to high-quality, preventative educational programs for Utah residents. 

Popular Programs Available Through HRU

The most popular Healthy Relationships Utah program has been How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk or Jerkette (“No Jerks” for short, developed by Dr. John VanEpp), a 6-hour course taken by more than 50,000 Utah youth and young adults. The title is the best marketing tool of the program and classes often fill quickly. Sometimes, couples will take the class together, but the curriculum is targeted at single adolescents and young adults who want to learn principles and skills for healthy dating. It’s based on a relationship attachment model that stresses smart sequencing and pacing for dating relationships. In essence, it teaches individuals to know deeply their partner and themself and how to build trust before making commitments and engaging in physical intimacy.

Love Notes can reduce the odds of teen pregnancy.

I sat in on a class that was held in a Utah County high school with about 30 sophomore boys and girls attending their required health class. Despite the 7:50 am start time, they were engaged during the class even though a lot of information was tossed their way. I worried how much of it they would retain, even when they paused to write their answers to some thoughtful questions in their personal workbooks. However, I think the concept of relationship red flags, which they had discussed in a previous lesson, was sticking and increasing their relational IQ. This would help them understand that there are healthy and unhealthy relationships and further, empower them to see the warning signs of dangerous relationships.

Class Facilitators

HRU has nearly 40 class instructors, or “facilitators,” most of whom work ¾-time or full-time. They are located throughout Utah. Salaries are modest, typical of human service professionals, but as one facilitator phrased it to me, their real paychecks come when students report how a class helped them change a relationship. The facilitators for No Jerks and the other curricula taught by HRU typically have a background and degree in family studies, human development, psychology, or social work. Additionally, they also go through about 200 hours of professional training before they leave the nest to facilitate classes. They learn the curricula, practice it with other trainees, and observe experienced facilitators in classroom settings and online before they begin teaching on their own. And more-seasoned educators periodically observe and provide feedback to new facilitators. Dr. David Schramm at USU provides monthly professional development webinars for the facilitators. 

Facilitators also get a lot of administrative support from HRU staff, including old-fashioned cheerleading. I witnessed that when I attended the annual HRU conference for facilitators last September on the USU campus in Logan. Most of HRU’s facilitators and 10 leaders and staff were at the 2-day gathering. The bonding with other team members was palpable, and so was the passion they brought to this endeavor. I suspect that their passion is the most essential ingredient in the secret sauce behind the positive change these classes can produce. More than a few times, a speaker or facilitator at this conference would choke back emotions about the work they were doing, which demonstrated to me their dedication and personal investment in the program and their students. Additional evidence of their dedication to the program can be found in the low turnover of facilitators. 

Love Notes, Couple LINKS, and Smart Steps For Stepfamilies

I stood in on a small-group activity during the annual conference. The facilitators in this activity were all teaching a newer curriculum offering from HRU called Love Notes, a popular program developed by the Dibble Institute. It is funded with a federal Sexual Risk Avoidance grant but fits comfortably in the category of healthy relationships curricula for youth. Love Notes differs from many sex education curricula because it takes a less direct approach. For example, physiology and sexual behavior are presented in the context of building healthy romantic relationships rather than in isolation. Further, the curriculum concentrates less on biology and more on psychology and relationship science. It includes lessons on proper pacing of relationships, tips to identify healthy relationships, deciding rather than sliding through relationship transitions, poor communication relationship ‘wreckers,’ hidden issues that disrupt relationships, what being a good father means, giving babies a brighter future, and much more. Research has shown how Love Notes can reduce the odds of teen pregnancy, something that most sex education programs struggle to achieve.

A couple with a heart-shaped balloon walking on a path backlit by Utah's mountains symbolizing the state's efforts in supporting healthy relationships.
A couple walking on a path through Utah’s wilderness symbolizes the efforts of the state to enhance relationships and family stability.

For committed partners, HRU offers the popular Couple LINKS program. This 5-session, 10-hour program applies the same relationship attachment model used in the No Jerks program developed by Dr. John VanEpp to committed couple relationships. The program is designed to help couples know each other more deeply, enhance their communication skills, build greater trust, enrich sexual intimacy, and increase resilience to inevitable change. I observed a 2-hour class via Zoom last summer with an enthusiastic facilitator and about eight couples who appeared to range in age from late 20s to early 60s. Building partner trust was the focus of the class that night. Through lectures, discussion questions, and private conversations, couples explored managing resentments and understanding their conflict styles. The challenges of online teaching were apparent; many video screens were blanked, and it was harder to get group participation in response to questions. However, time for private couple conversations worked well in this format and seemed especially important to the curriculum. Although the curriculum and exercises were valuable, I came away with the impression that simply participating in the class together was a strong signal that these people valued their relationships, were open to improving them, and wanted to work on them together. Regardless of the program content, that signal alone could be an important way to strengthen their relationships.

Helping stepfamilies has been a long-time passion of HRU.

While working on helping couples strengthen their relationships is important work, nearly half of U.S. marriages, and nearly a third of Utah marriages, involve a spouse who has been married before. One of HRU’s premier program offerings is Smart Steps for Stepfamilies, a 7-session curriculum for remarrying (or repartnering) couples who have children from a previous relationship. This curriculum, developed by Dr. Francesca Adler-Baeder at Auburn University, has helped more than 7,000 Utah adults learn how to build a thriving stepfamily as they tackle the tough issues of stepparenting, co-parenting across households, and nurturing the couple relationship under unique stresses. Helping stepfamilies has been a long-time passion of HRU, and participants are motivated by their desire to improve both their marital and parenting relationship skills.

I observed a Smart Steps class in person last July at a foundation in Orem, Utah, which provides education and support to victims of domestic abuse. The class that evening was focused on managing stress. The 2-hour class was held in a pinkish, cinderblock room, which housed the 20 participants, most of whom have experienced abuse in their past. They were lively and engaged in group discussions. The participants’ passionate comments and personal stories often wandered off task, but the facilitator was skilled at connecting their comments back to the lesson point. The facilitator had clearly bonded with the group and cared about each of the participants. 

Meeting Diverse Needs

*While preventing relationship breakdown is HRU’s wheelhouse, they also are helping families facing a potential divorce. They provide a 1-hour online (recorded) divorce orientation course that is mandated for parents who have filed for divorce in Utah. This brief curriculum explores options and resources for trying to repair marital relationships, as well as the known effects of divorce on children (and adults). Also reviewed are the various legal options for getting a divorce. About 10,000 adults a year take the course. HRU also provides the accompanying mandated online divorcing parents course. This recorded, 1.5-hour online curriculum focuses on effective co-parenting after divorce, with a special emphasis on avoiding putting children in the middle of ongoing conflict. Despite mandated participation, HRU’s research finds a high level of satisfaction with the courses among participants, increased knowledge about healthy co-parenting, and stronger intentions to use positive co-parenting practices. 

Many who attend relationship enhancement classes also have pressing parenting questions. For those who want to improve their skills in this arena, HRU offers a couple of options, including the popular “Love & Logic” ™ course. However, I was especially drawn to HRU’s parenting programming, specifically for incarcerated fathers operating in about 20 Utah jails. The facilitators who teach these classes talk about them with almost Pentecostal fervor. They spoke animatedly about their inspiring experiences with these men and expressed confidence that they are making a difference in their students’ lives. Both men and women facilitators teach these fathers, and I asked a few of the women if it was a little scary for them to teach a group of male convicts in jails. If there were fears, they quickly got over them. One middle-aged female facilitator who would barely stretch past 5’ tall and 100 pounds remarked how her students quickly became her physical protectors in that setting and helped her feel completely safe. She invites them to teach her what it means to be a man as she is helping them understand how to be a good, responsible father. The macho men in these classes can get pretty emotional about their children and how they want to be better fathers for them now—and when they are released. 

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic was an unanticipated stimulus for transforming many in-person classes to web-based platforms, and many of HRU’s program offerings continue to be available online. While in-person classes were possible and preferred by many people towards the end of the pandemic, HRU noted the barriers to attending an in-person class for some who still wanted the education. Therefore, participants who prefer the logistical convenience of “attending” these educational programs in front of a screen can now do so from their own homes. However popular online classes may be for participants, program facilitators generally prefer in-person instruction. With these considerations, HRU is busy conducting research now to determine how participant outcomes compare between in-person and online offerings. An early study of one program suggests that, while both formats produce positive effects, in-person participants show somewhat greater gains.  

Behind the Scenes: Partnerships and Research

Most HRU classes are offered within other organizations, such as human service agencies, public and private schools, jails, businesses, and churches. HRU builds partnerships with many different organizations that see how helping their clients and members have healthy relationships will further their specific organizational goals. HRU also advertises its educational programs more broadly, with traditional and digital marketing strategies executed by a team of USU marketing staff and student interns. Overall, HRU has doubled its participation targets. Federal program officers overseeing the grants are studying HRU’s marketing and recruitment methods so that other program administrators across the country can benefit.

In-person participants show somewhat greater gains.

Behind the scenes of all the HRU instruction is a team of researchers collecting data and crunching numbers to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs. Dr. Kay Bradford at USU heads up HRU evaluation research efforts and Higginbotham’s and Bradford’s names appear on dozens of peer-reviewed journal articles reporting the effects of these relationship education programs. A dedicated data manager keeps the research operation flowing, and several post-Ph.D. researchers are the workhorses analyzing the data and helping to write up the results. Phillip Estes, the HRU Project Coordinator of Operations and Human Resources, also gets involved in program evaluation work. The program facilitators are involved in collecting data from the participants and are well aware of the research efforts documenting program effectiveness. Several cheers went up at the recent HRU conference with facilitators that I attended as the research team shared the results of recent analyses. While HRU prioritizes and promotes its classes and programs, research on these offerings is important to help facilitate change and improvement to create better outcomes across Utah.

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.
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