Supporting Healthy Marriage


The Supporting Healthy Marriage project is the first large-scale, multisite, multiyear, rigorous test of marriage education programs for low-income married couples. Supported by the Administration for Children and Families within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the project is motivated by research that indicates that married adults and children raised by both parents in stable, low-conflict households do better on a host of outcomes. Low-income couples face greater challenges to building and maintaining healthy marriages, however, and their families are consequently less likely to experience their benefits. While an extensive body of evidence on strengthening couple relationships exists, this research consists primarily of small-scale studies of typically short-term programs for middle-class couples.

Supporting Healthy Marriage is part of a larger HHS research agenda to study the effectiveness of efforts to strengthen family relationships. Other research projects include the Building Strong Families evaluation of programs targeted to low-income unwed couples beginning around the time of their child’s birth, and the Community Healthy Marriage Initiative Evaluation, which is evaluating community saturation approaches for strengthening healthy marriage.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Supporting Healthy Marriage is led by MDRC in collaboration with Abt Associates, Child Trends, Optimal Solutions Group, and Public Strategies Inc., along with leading experts on marriage, marital education programs, and services for low-income families. The project is designed to inform program operators and policymakers of the most effective ways to help couples strengthen and maintain healthy marital relationships. In particular, the project will measure the effectiveness of programs that provide instruction and support to improve relationship skills. Programs also include links to services that may help low-income couples address strains on their relationships, such as problems with employment, health, or housing insecurity. In addition, they include extended marriage education activities that reinforce the relationship skills taught in the program. All programs provide for safe disclosure of domestic violence and access to the appropriate services in the community for families in which domestic violence is disclosed.

With its target group of low-income married couples, the Supporting Healthy Marriage evaluation is expected to contribute unique lessons about the effectiveness of marriage and relationship skills interventions for this population:

  • Since the program focuses on married rather than unmarried couples, the participants are particularly likely to be committed to each other and to the success of the relationship.

  • Perhaps reflecting this commitment, local SHM programs have had high participation rates.

  • Research (mostly with middle-class couples) has shown that that relationship skills education can have a positive effect on married couples’ satisfaction with their relationships. The relationship skills curricula used in SHM were adapted from existing curricula for married couples to use appropriate teaching approaches and content for lower-income married couples.

Supporting Healthy Marriage is a ten-year project. Its primary goal is to provide reliable information about the implementation and impacts of marriage education programs for low-income couples through a rigorous research design. To accomplish this, the project is evaluating marriage education models that were modified to meet the needs of a diverse and economically disadvantaged population. Each local program is serving large numbers of participants, providing greater statistical power and the ability to examine the effects of these programs for different types of families. Another important goal of the project is to build a firm knowledge base for practitioners about how these programs can be effectively implemented at a relatively large scale.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The Supporting Healthy Marriage project has several stages. In the study design and program development stage, research team members and consultants, in conjunction with the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), decided upon the type of intervention to be tested and the specific target groups for the project. The goal was to place priority on program models that will help build knowledge about what works for low-income couples and that local program operators expressed an interest in implementing at a large scale.

After the initial planning stage, the SHM research team provided technical assistance to eight Supporting Healthy Marriage local programs. These programs completed the pilot phase and were selected by ACF to move into the full-scale evaluation phase of the demonstration. This technical assistance included working with program managers to train staff, providing Web-based guidance on program implementation, and developing management information systems to help track services. The lead agencies of the eight Supporting Healthy Marriage local programs were:

  • University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida
  • Catholic Charities, Wichita, Kansas
  • University Behavioral Associates, Bronx, New York
  • Public Strategies, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
  • Community Prevention Partnership, Reading, Pennsylvania
  • Health and Human Services Commission, Austin, Texas
  • Becoming Parents Program, Seattle, Washington
  • Center for Human Services, Shoreline, Washington

After being selected into the evaluation, Supporting Healthy Marriage local programs randomly assigned interested couples to program and control groups. Since this process started, the research team has been collecting data on both the implementation and the impacts of the program. The team is currently in the process of analyzing the data and writing reports and other publications presenting the findings from the first wave of follow-up data (collected about 12 months after couples entered the programs). A second wave of follow-up data is being collected roughly 30 months after couples entered the programs. The major data sources for the research include data on families’ characteristics when they enter the study, follow-up surveys and direct assessment of outcomes for couples and their children, program records documenting couples’ participation in program activities, observation of program activities, and interviews with program staff.