Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades’ review of the state of the field of relationship education and of the latest advances in research into relationship formation is a must-read for relationship educators.
Headed by Stanley and colleague Howard Markman, the research group at the University of Denver has long been at the forefront of relationship research and its application into marriage and relationship programmes and wider family policy. Their relationship education programme PREP has undoubtedly been studied more than any other, is probably the most widely used programme in the US, and has now been developed into several different variants for use in prison, in the military, amongst unmarried new parents and amongst singles.
As a response to family fragmentation, relationship education has shown considerable promise. The most robust findings from the best studies show that couples can improve relationship quality and reduce conflict over a sustained period following a relationship course.
Although programmes and research have tended to focus on white middle-class engaged couples, recent years have seen expansions of relationship education across a broad range of access points and socio-economic groups.
Expanded delivery and the emergence of several new large-scale trials offer new opportunities to increase understanding of relationship dynamics and strategies for preventive education. However, Stanley & Rhoades also argue that the greatest potential for early intervention may lie in improved understanding of, and education about, risk and transition in relationship formation. Much of this derives from their development of a theory of commitment, a topic given surprisingly little attention in relationship research considering its perceived importance to the average couple.
Commitment theory, as framed here, involves two main factors: “dedication”, the internal force that causes couples to think of themselves more as “us” than “you” and “me”; and “constraints”, the external forces that view individuals as a couple and thereby raise the costs of leaving the relationship. This compelling model encompasses the ideas of “inertia” and “sliding/ deciding” as partial explanations for why non-marital cohabitation and pre-engagement cohabitation raise the risk of subsequent separation. Inertia makes it harder for cohabiting couples to leave a relationship that might otherwise have dissolved had they not cohabited. Couples who slide into marriage – through cohabitation before engagement – thus tend to be less dedicated and stable than couples who decide to commit – through engagement before cohabitation.
These theories hold considerable promise as a basis for future early intervention programmes aimed at individuals before they form couple relationships. Rhoades & Stanley outline some of the possibilities in a later chapter. However all relationship educators will benefit greatly from the full description in this chapter of the development of commitment theory and its associated ideas of inertia and sliding/deciding, as pertains to the risks associated with various pathways of how romantic relationships now form.