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April 2005Vol. 6, No. 3A Focus on Marriage Strengthening Programs

Marriage and relationship programs can strengthen marriages by improving participants' satisfaction and communication, according to a recent study released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families (ACF). While the study's researchers were not able to address the impact of marriage programs on the children of participants, they noted that other research has linked greater well-being for children to growing up in a family with two married parents.

The review study was carried out as part of a larger effort by the Federal Government to focus on programs that strengthen marriages and, ultimately, improve child well-being. Thus, the government has placed increasing emphasis on funding healthy marriage initiatives, especially for low-income couples, with the goal of improving the lives of children. This emphasis is reflected in the large-scale research agenda of the ACF and in the ACF's recent release of this review of studies of marriage strengthening programs.

Systematic Review of the Impact of Marriage and Relationship Programs looked at 39 studies that involved a variety of marriage programs, including premarital preparation programs, enrichment programs, therapy programs, programs designed to enhance communications skills, and counseling programs. Some of the studies included couples in distress, and all included assessments before and after the program. The findings support evidence from previous reviews and meta-analyses about the positive effects of marriage programs on couples' communication skills and relationship satisfaction.

Another study released by ACF, Service Delivery and Evaluation Design Options for Strengthening and Promoting Healthy Marriages, examined the key components of existing marriage strengthening programs and evaluation issues for these programs, with a focus on marriage services for low-income families. The authors note that most marriage programs serve middle- and upper-income families, so future efforts to serve low-income populations would have to involve (1) the integration of marriage services into current community services for low-income families, or (2) the expansion of existing marriage programs to include low-income families. A few examples of programs that have managed to accomplish this integration are described.

One product of the ACF research agenda is the Building Strong Families project, which is designed to foster programs that help new, unmarried parents build stronger relationships and achieve healthy marriages, if they choose. Building Strong Families was recently the subject of a research brief that examined the characteristics and relationships of unmarried new parents in 20 urban areas in the United States. This brief, What We Know About Unmarried Parents: Implications for Building Strong Families Programs, highlights potential challenges for the Building Strong Families programs, including:

  • Limited economic opportunities of most parents
  • Frequent lack of trust in the relationships
  • Children by other partners
  • A history of incarceration among a high proportion of fathers
  • Self-imposed economic and relationship criteria for marriage

The implications of these findings for the design of programs that will help unmarried parents achieve strong and healthy relationships, including marriage, are discussed.

The studies released by the ACF were carried out by the Urban Institute and are available on the ACF website. To read Systematic Review of the Impact of Marriage and Relationship Programs by J. Reardon-Anderson, M. Stagner, J. Ehrle Macomber, and J. Murray, go to To read Service Delivery and Evaluation Design Options for Strengthening and Promoting Healthy Marriages by J. Ehrle Macomber, J. Murray, and M. Stagner, go to

What We Know About Unmarried Parents by M. Carlson, S. McLanahan, P. England, and B. Devaney was published by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. and is available at (PDF - 100 KB).