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Relationship and Marriage Education: Core Teaching Concepts

by Ted G. Futris, Ph.d., CFLE, and Francesca Adler-Baeder, Ph.D., CFLE
CFLE Network

Note: This article was adapted from: Futris, T.G., & Adler-Baeder, F. (2013). National Extension Relationship and Marriage Education Model: Linking Research to Relationship and Marriage Education. P. In T.G. Futris & F. Adler-Baeder (Eds), The National Extension Relationship and Marriage Education Model: Core Teaching Concepts for Relationship and Marriage Enrichment Programming. (Publication No. HDFS-E-157). Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.

What skills can I teach individuals and couples that will help them form and sustain healthy romantic relationships?

Family life educators understand the value of using research-informed materials when engaging youth and adults in educational programming. However, it is not always feasible to independently conduct one's own scan of the research on their program topic, and many curricula do not clearly describe to educators how the content is based on research. Being able to understand and convey to stakeholders (e.g., partners, clients, funders) what your program, and specifically the skills you are teaching, is based upon helps establish trust and credibility. This is especially true when conducting relationship and marriage education (RME).

With both the demand and the need for broader offerings of RME, a large number of programs have been developed, presenting somewhat of a dilemma for practitioners who are interested in providing effective programming that is research-informed. To support efforts to either select or develop RME programming, a team of Extension colleagues across 10 land-grant universities – the National Extension Relationship and Marriage Education Network – developed the National Extension Relationship and Marriage Education Model (NERMEM). Over the course of several years, members of the working group methodically reviewed and organized the extant literature on the predictors of marital and relationship quality and participated in several working conferences in which the information was reviewed and thematically organized. Efforts were made to conceptually distinguish key patterns of thinking and behaviors associated with healthy, stable couple relationships that can be taught in an educational setting.

Working group members then developed papers on each of these seven core healthy relationship principles that summarized the research. Efforts were made to present the information clearly and succinctly in order to appeal to practitioners. A peer-review process was utilized to refine the final framework, or NERMEM, which consists of seven core qualities or concepts considered essential to forming and maintaining healthy couple relationships. These core concepts are summarized in Figure 1 with more information available in the final publication, National Extension Relationship and Marriage Education Model: Core Teaching Concepts for Relationship and Marriage Enrichment Programming. This publication is available for free at http://www.nermen.org.

The NERMEM was developed with several core principles of family life education in mind:

  • It is research-informed. Research on the patterns of thinking and behaviors associated with healthy couple relationships and marriages exists. As well, a growing body of literature has emerged that reinforces the efficacy of RME programs for youth and adults. The chapters describing each concept summarize this research and build on best practices for RME implementation.
  • It is theoretically-grounded. The NERMEM is also grounded in appropriate theoretical frameworks and perspectives. The understanding and application of theory to RME (and all family life) programming is critical to program design and implementation. Theory helps educators frame assumptions related to understanding their audience (e.g., "Why do couples adopt and engage in practices that help versus hurt relationship quality and stability?"), how to engage the target audience (e.g., working with couples together, males and females separate, couples and children), and what teaching strategies will stimulate positive program impact (e.g., knowledge-based versus skills-practice approach).
  • It is strengths-based. All individuals and couples exhibit unique strengths, capabilities, and potential to form and maintain healthy relationships. This model reinforces the importance of identifying, acknowledging, and working with the strengths of individuals and couples as a starting point. The principles and skills presented in this model are intended to build upon the individual learner's personal resources and motivation for change, and empower him/her to take responsibility in the care and quality of the couple relationship.
  • It is process-oriented. The development and maintenance of healthy couple relationships is a life long journey. The practices that support healthy couple functioning are dynamic, not static, and evolve as the relationship adapts to the changing needs of the individual partners, couple, and growing family over time. As such, the model reinforces skills that couples can use to manage and adapt to their evolving relationship needs.
  • It is sensitive to diversity. The model respects the various types of relationships individuals develop and emphasizes process (i.e., how couples interact) over structure (i.e., marital status). Also, relationships are formed at various stages across the life course; thus implications on how the concepts apply to both youth and adults are shared. Last, recognizing the diversity in how couples from various socio-economic, racial, and ethnic groups interact within relationships and marriages, this publication includes cultural considerations to help practitioners be mindful of the application of each concept with diverse audiences.

The NERMEM was developed as a guide to help educators make informed decisions about content in RME. There are a wide range of curricula available that vary in content (and cost). And, while a growing number of these curricula have been evaluated and shown to have a positive impact on participants, few have been designated as "evidence-based." At a minimum, family life educators are encouraged to use resources that are research-based. This model can be used to assess the content covered in the curriculum to determine if the essential principles and skills needed to foster healthy relationships are addressed. As well, to meet the specific relationship needs of diverse audiences, educators often find themselves creating new and/or supplemental resources that they can share with clients. This model can help inform the focus of those materials and offer direction in communicating developmentally and culturally appropriate messages.

In close, there is clear evidence that reinforces the strong influence of healthy relationships on adult health, family stability, parenting practices, and positive child outcomes. More so, research has demonstrated clear attributes and behaviors associated with healthy and stable couple relationships. The National Extension Relationship and Marriage Education Model was developed to share this empirical knowledge base in a clear and practical way. We encourage readers and practitioners to utilize the seven core concepts presented in this publication as a whole – and as the necessary foundation for research-informed RME practice.

NERMEM was used as the core foundation of a new couple's education curriculum, ELEVATE: Taking Your Relationship to the Next Level. This eight-hour curriculum teaches couples the practical skills that reinforce the seven core principles of NERMEM. As well, and unique to this program, couples develop an understanding of the physiology of human interactions, the heart-brain-behavior connection, and practice strategies such as mindfulness that can help them regulate their heart-brain response to stressful triggers and better ensure their ability to implement the seven core principles of NERMEM. To learn more about ELEVATE and download your free copy, visit www.nermen.org.

Ted G. Futris, Ph.D., CFLE is an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Georgia. Dr. Futris provides statewide, as well as national, leadership for Extension programs in family life, with a particular focus on relationship and marital enrichment across the lifespan (see www.gamarriages.org). As co-director of the National Extension Relationship and Marriage Education Network (www.nermen.org) he provides leadership in creating resources to inform best-practices in relationship education program development and implementation. Dr. Futris was the co-author of the Healthy Relationship and Marriage Education Training (HRMET), a research-based curriculum based on NERMEM designed to facilitate the integration of relationship education into child welfare and related services (www.hrmet.org). To learn more about Dr. Futris, visit http://www.fcs.uga.edu/people/bio/tfutris.

Francesca Adler-Baeder, Ph.D., CFLE is a Professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Auburn University. Her outreach and research focus on the promotion of interpersonal competence, relational health, and family resilience and includes work with youth and adults in low-resource families, structurally complex families, and military families. She has worked for over 2 decades in the active bridging of research and practice through program design, curriculum and resource development, and both basic and applied action research. She serves as the co-director of the National Extension Relationship and Marriage Education Network (www.nermen.org) and as the Director of the National Stepfamily Resource Center (www.stepfamilies.info). She developed the Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Initiative in Alabama (www.alabamamarriage.org) with state and community partners over the past 12 years, recognized early on as a "Promising Practices" model for successful healthy relationships programs by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. To learn more about Dr. Adler-Baeder visit http://www.humsci.auburn.edu/hdfs/F_Adler-Baeder.html

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