Marital Education Programs Help Keep Couples Together

In the United States, couples marrying for the first time have approximately a fifty percent chance of divorcing. Psychologists are helping couples' "I do" last a lifetime through development and application of scientifically tested relationship education programs.


The divorce rate in the United States has declined in recent years, but about half of people marrying for the first time still end up divorced. And for those that stayed married, many are in unhappy marriages, which research shows is a risk factor for poorer mental and physical health and is associated with an increased risk for relationship aggression. While altering the course of marriage is not an easy task, psychological research shows that researched-based marital education programs are effective in helping couples stay together and making unhappy marriages more satisfying.

Research begun in the 1970's by psychologists Howard Markman, PhD, John Gottman, PhD, and others found that the quality of interaction between husbands and wives was highly predictive of marital distress or divorce. The studies indicated that couples who interacted more negatively than other couples had marriages that that were in trouble or predicted future marital distress. Negative interaction is considered a dynamic behavior factor that couples can change to improve their odds of staying together. That contrasts with relatively static factors that are hard to change once married, including having divorced parents, marrying at a very young age and having a personality tendency to react strongly or defensively to problems and disappointments-all risk factors for marital distress.

Marital education programs that focus on the dynamic factors have been proven to strengthen marriages. One such program is the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), created by Dr. Markman and his associates at the University of Denver's Center for Marital and Family Studies. PREP teaches couples communication and problem solving skills found to be linked to effective marital functioning, such as ground rules for handling conflict, forgiveness, speaker/listener techniques, and how to preserve and enhance fun, friendship and sensuality. Studies on the effectiveness of PREP find that couples that have participated in PREP are less likely to get divorced and have significantly higher levels of marital satisfaction. One long-term study on PREP found that couples who took the program before marriage had less negative interaction, more positive interaction, lower rates of relationship aggression, lower combined rates of breakup or divorce and higher levels of relationship satisfaction up to five years following the training (Markman, Floyd, Stanley, & Storaasli, 1988, Markman, Renick, Floyd, Stanley, & Clements, 1993). Studies on a German adaptation of PREP show that couples taking PREP had consistently more positive and less negative interaction at every assessment point after the training and at the five year point, couples taking PREP before marriage had a divorce rate of three percent compared to 16 percent for couples in the control group.


Serious marital conflict is a generic risk factor for a number of mental health problems for both children (e.g., conduct disorders) and adults (e.g., depression) and can also lead to physical health problems. Research on the prevention of marital distress had lead to the development of empirically based and tested programs that can help alter the course of marriage and prevent divorce.

Practical Application

The PREP program is successfully being used around the world with married and soon-to-be married couples. Dr. Markman and Scott Stanley, PhD, the other co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, have created three corporations to provide vehicles for the dissemination of training and products based on PREP and empirical marital research. Since 1989, the corporations have been actively training clergy, mental health professionals and lay leaders around the world. To date they have trained 6,876 individuals to become PREP Instructors in 28 countries. PREP has both secular and religious programs so it has the capacity to reach individuals in every segment of society.

Other research-based marital therapy programs that are strengthening marriages include Couples Communication and PAIRS. The Couples Communication Program was developed by psychologist Sherod Miller, PhD and colleagues at the University of Minnesota Family Study Center and is another program that focuses on how couples interact. The program involves use of an "awareness wheel" and "listening wheel" which allows couples to map out issues and help them become active listeners. More than 70 published studies demonstrate the positive effects of the program. To date over 600,000 couples worldwide have used the program since its development.

The PAIRS program - Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills created by Lori Gordon, PhD, focuses on emotional issues from couple's past, which shaped the way they act and react in relationships. The program teaches speaking, listening and problem solving skills. Research shows PAIRS is effective in all populations for which it has been adapted. PAIRS has relationship skills training programs for children and youth that are taught in schools, churches and agencies. PAIRS has program for the military for use by chaplains and family service workers. PAIRS also has a program taught by healthcare workers to populations needing the restorative power of a healthy and healing relationship. PAIRS is currently developing programs and program delivery systems for disadvantaged youth, unmarried families, single parents, domestic violence, prison parolees, and related groups who can benefit from relationship skills training.

Cited Research

Hahlweg, K., Markman, H.J., Thurmaier, F., Engle, J. & Eckert, V. (1998). Prevention of marital distress: Results of a German prospective longitudinal study. Journal of Family Psychology, Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 543-556.

Markman, H.J., Floyd, F.J., Stanley, S.M. & Storaasli, R.D. (1988). The prevention of marital distress: A longitudinal investigation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 56, No. 2, pp. 210-217.

Markman, H.J., Renick, M.J., Floyd, F.J., Stanley, S.M., & Clements, M. (1993). Preventing marital distress through communication and conflict management training: A four and five year follow-up. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 62, No. 1, pp. 70-77.

Research in Action

American Psychological Association Press Release (2004): Negative interactions in marriage can lead to more health problems in older couples. 

Baucom, D., & Epstein, N. (1990). Cognitive Behavioral Marital Therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Gottman, J. (2000). Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Random House Inc.

Jacobson, N.S., & Christensen, A. (1998). Acceptance and change in couple therapy : A therapist's guide to transforming relationships. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Markman, H.J., Stanley, S.M., Blumberg, S.L., Jenkins, N. H., & Whitely, C. (2004). 12 Hours to a Great Marriage. New York: Wiley and Sons.

Notarius, C., & Markman, H.J. (1993). We can work it out: Making sense of marital conflict. New York: Putnam.

U.S. Senate testimony of Scott M. Stanley, PhD (2004). The benefits of a healthy marriage (PDF, 80.2 KB)

American Psychological Association, October 8, 2004