When President Bush announced plans in 2001 to direct $1 billion over five years into the welfare-to-work budget to promote marriage among low-income people, a predictable partisan battle ensued. Liberals argue that the agenda stigmatizes poor, single mothers and sets the stage for domestic violence. Conservatives contend the move would stem the rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock birth and bolster a society heading toward moral decay.

The main legislative vehicle to reauthorize the welfare-to-work or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, H.R. 4, passed the House but is stalled in the Senate, in part because Democrats have been fighting to raise the minimum wage before agreeing to pass the bill.

As this political potato heats up, government contractors have asked some psychologists who conduct marriage and relationship research to consult on two "healthy-marriage" demonstration projects that already have been funded by the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF). Two of the country's top poverty and welfare think tanks--Mathematica and Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, or MDRC--won large grants to conduct these projects. Along with a number of state-run projects that also involve psychologists, the federal government is likely to draw on or extend these demonstration projects if the H.R. 4 monies are approved.

Psychologists' involvement in these efforts represents new territory in several ways. Not only are they entering a volatile political arena, but they are being asked to tailor their interventions for a new and understudied population. In addition, they are turning their gaze toward marriage, though their theoretical orientation tends toward helping to build better relationships regardless of marital outcome.

As a consequence, it's important to ensure that good science and practice inform these interventions, says University of California, Berkeley (UCB) psychologist Carolyn Pape Cowan, PhD, a longtime relationship researcher, who, along with her husband, UCB psychologist Philip Cowan, PhD, is consulting on the MDRC project and evaluating a five-site project in California to encourage young fathers' involvement in childrearing.

"Along with many other consultants, we're working to make sure that these services, programs and interventions are realistic to the people we're serving," says Cowan. "We feel it's very important to do a lot of talking with the people these services are targeted for, to explore what would draw them, what they would want and need, and what they would find helpful."

That said, those involved say the demonstration projects appear less partisan than they would have thought. Government representatives, policy experts and academicians, for the most part, are holding sophisticated discussions on building sound, research-based programs that serve people's real needs, Cowan and others say.

Psychologist Wade Horn, PhD, assistant secretary for the ACF and a main proponent and designer of federal proposals on marriage promotion, says that given many parties' criticism of the administration's plan (see page 42), he has made a point of clarifying his own position, which he says is based on a range of research findings and is intended to help all of those involved.

"This initiative is not about the government coercing anyone to get married or stigmatizing single parents," Horn says. "It is to help couples who choose marriage for themselves develop the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain healthy marriages."

Underlying this agenda, he adds, is the impetus to create a better climate for children, "the ultimate beneficiaries of this initiative," he says. Indeed, researchers of all stripes increasingly agree that children do better emotionally and academically when they're raised with two happily married biological parents, he and others note.

A model demonstration

The Mathematica project is the furthest along of the demonstration projects and shows how psychologists are getting involved. Called Building Strong Families (BSF), it was awarded $19 million two years ago and centers on low-income, unmarried couples who are expecting a baby--a population researchers believe is important to target, says the project's principal investigator, social psychologist M. Robin Dion. (By contrast, the MDRC project, Supporting Healthy Marriages, targets low-income couples in their childbearing years who are already married or planning to marry. It was awarded $40 million and was launched in the fall.)

BSF will develop and evaluate six large programs around the country aimed at fostering marriage and relationship skills in these young, unwed, expecting couples and helping them connect with practical services. It makes sense to focus on this population for two reasons, Dion believes. For one, research shows that 82 percent of these couples are romantically involved and many say they expect to marry. Yet within a year of their child's birth, less than 10 percent do marry and most break up, leaving the children to be raised most often by a single mother. For another, research finds that couples are at their closest following the birth of a baby, but are vulnerable to relationship decline soon after.

As part of BSF's development phase, Dion asked one of the country's foremost marital researchers, psychologist John Gottman, PhD, of the University of Washington, to redesign for low-income unwed couples a successful intervention he had previously used with middle-income married families around the time of their child's birth. The program adaptation is one of three being pilot-tested with low-income unwed parents in Florida, the first test site for the project.

Gottman's earlier research showed that the relationship dive that often occurs after an infant's birth can be mitigated with a relationship intervention that helps couples improve relationship skills, build affection and deepen mutual commitment. In the Journal of Family Psychology (Vol. 14, No. 1), his team reported that, at a one-year follow up, couples randomly assigned to the intervention were less hostile toward one other and happier in their relationship than those in the control group. Moreover, women in the program group were much less likely to develop postpartum depression, and at three months their babies were calmer and better connected to their parents, the team found.

Besides building couples' communication, Gottman wants to reach out more fully to young fathers in the Florida project, he says. Caseworkers and young mothers' own mothers often ignore these young men as potential allies, he notes. "Yet we've observed that the fathers want to be involved with the babies, and the mothers want them to be involved," he says.

In another move intended to reach low-income couples, Dion paired Gottman--known for his naturalistic videotaped research of couples--with Joe Jones, director of a "responsible fatherhood" program in inner-city Baltimore that his colleagues see as innovative. Jones, himself from a poor, inner-city background, instructed Gottman on what might work with this population. "You want to reach these people?" he said. "Do a multi-media show, like a talk show. Then they'll come."

To this end, Gottman and his team--including his wife, psychologist Julie Gottman, PhD, and a video production crew--are creating and filming 68 videotapes on topics such as emotional intimacy, constructive conflict resolution and postpartum depression. They include both talk-show segments, where "hosts" such as Jones moderate conversations with couples and experts on specific topics, and shorter clips of real couples engaged in dialogue on such topics. Both will be used to begin workshops and serve as springboards for discussion.

The format has been a hit with couples helping to test it, says Gottman.

"The couples have taken charge of the show and spoken honestly about the topics," he says. "Their exchanges have been riveting." The format seems to work, he adds, because participants use the people in the videos as vehicles to discuss their feelings, without necessarily having to bring up personal material.

Oklahoma: the divorce state

Running on a parallel and sometime overlapping track with the demonstration projects are a number of state marriage initiatives funded by discretionary TANF monies.

Some of these involve psychologists as well, including a newly funded $1.5 million healthy marriage and fatherhood project in Minnesota to be headed by University of Minnesota psychologist William Doherty, PhD. The details of these and other state projects are outlined in an April 2004 report by senior analyst Theodora Ooms and colleagues at the Center for Law and Social Policy called "Beyond Marriage Licenses: Efforts in States to Strengthen Marriage and Two-Parent Families."

Oklahoma, with one of the nation's highest divorce rates, is home to one of the biggest of these projects, the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI). Three years ago OMI leaders asked University of Denver psychologists Howard Markman, PhD, and Scott Stanley, PhD, to adapt their long-standing Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program, or PREP, for low-income couples and implement it statewide. Before it was chosen for this purpose, PREP had been funded for 24 years by the National Institute of Mental Health and implemented with middle-income couples in Oklahoma, other states and internationally.

A PREP hallmark has been to revise its form and content as data and contexts change, and the Oklahoma project is an accelerated version of that process, says Stanley, author with Markman and colleagues of "12 Hours to a Great Marriage" (Wiley, 2004).

By the beginning of June, the team had trained 1,430 workshop leaders in 77 of Oklahoma's 78 counties to deliver revised forms of the curriculum, which uses work by Gottman, Markman and Stanley, and others to teach participants what can make or break a relationship by using skills such as "time out" and problem-solving, and how to examine deeper relationship issues such as expectations, commitment and core values. Adapting PREP for low-income populations has been a huge undertaking, Stanley says. The team has been learning on the ground about the needs and cultures of a wide range of low-income people, and has delivered workshops to such diverse groups as women in domestic violence shelters, prisoners about to return home and high school students. Eventually the program will undergo federal evaluations, he notes.

The state and demonstration projects are breaking ground in another way, too, Stanley comments. OMI, for example, was originally launched by then-governor Frank Keating, a Republican, and is now supported by the current governor, Democrat Brad Henry. On a more personal level, Stanley--a self-professed conservative--and Markman, a liberal, have worked together for 30 years. They've had many spirited exchanges, but usually manage to build consensus, in particular by sticking to good science and practice and "avoiding things with a political edge," as Stanley puts it. Indeed, if the various players can stick to an agenda that's just about helping couples and their kids, the initiative may end up going the route of teen-pregnancy prevention programs, says Ooms, a senior adviser to OMI.

"Believe it or not, that once was a new and controversial field and nobody really knew what to do with it," Ooms says. "But slowly, over time, people began to work out good programs."

As Gottman has worked on the project in Florida, he's come to think everyone could benefit from such interventions.

"To me, this is really a nonpartisan problem," he says. "At how many conventions have we heard the Democrats and Republicans talk about how important families are? I really think this is a good idea. I wish everyone could take advantage of it."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.