Do the Effects of a Relationship Education Program Vary for Different Types of Couples?

Exploratory Subgroup Analysis in the Supporting Healthy Marriage Evaluation

By Daniel Gubits, Amy Lowenstein, Jorgen Harris, JoAnn Hsueh

The Supporting Healthy Marriage (SHM) evaluation was launched in 2003 to test the effectiveness of a skills-based relationship education program designed to help low- and modest-income married couples strengthen their relationships and to support more stable and more nurturing home environments and more positive outcomes for parents and their children. The evaluation was led by MDRC with Abt Associates and other partners, and it was sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This paper presents the results of an exploratory analysis that examines whether SHM program impacts vary by six subgroup-defining characteristics.

SHM was a voluntary, yearlong, marriage education program for lower-income, married couples who had children or were expecting a child. The program provided group workshops based on structured curricula; supplemental activities to build on workshop themes; and family support services to address participation barriers, connect families with other services, and reinforce curricular themes. The study’s random assignment design compared outcomes for families who were offered SHM’s services with outcomes for a similar group of families who were not offered SHM’s services but could access other services in the community.

The study’s main impact reports limited subgroup analysis to three potential moderators of impacts 12 months and 30 months after couples entered the study: couples’ level of marital distress, family income-to-poverty level, and race/ethnicity. This paper explores whether the impacts of the SHM program on marital quality and stability outcomes differ according to six additional subgroup-defining characteristics at the 12- and 30-month follow-up points: (1) length of marriage at study entry, (2) experience of abuse or neglect in the family of origin, (3) psychological distress at study entry, (4) whether the extended family respects and values the couple’s marriage, (5) presence of a stepchild in the household, and (6) presence of a young child (under 3) in the household.

Key Findings

  • No consistent pattern of differences in impacts was found for any of the six subgroup characteristics examined in this paper.
  • Some variation in SHM’s early impacts was found for two of the six subgroup characteristics, but these differences tended to fade over time and were no longer statistically significant by the 30-month follow-up point.

The general consistency of impacts observed across subgroups may not be surprising, since SHM was designed to meet the needs of low-income couples with diverse backgrounds and was not tailored to any particular group of couples within this broad population. However, across the subgroup analyses presented here and in the 12- and 30-month impact reports, there is some evidence that couples at higher risk for poor marital outcomes and marital instability may be more likely to benefit from SHM. While these findings should be viewed with caution because they could have occurred by chance, the results point to potential areas for further investigation in terms of effectively targeting services.


Document Details

Publication Type
March 2014
Gubits, Daniel, Amy Lowenstein, Jorgen Harris, and JoAnn Hsueh. 2014. Do the Effects of a Relationship Education Program Vary for Different Types of Couples?. New York: MDRC.