A research and development agenda for

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Australian Couples in
Millennium Three

February 2000

A research and development agenda for
marriage and relationship education.
W. Kim Halford, PhD. MAPsS.
Professor of Applied Psychology
Griffith University.

Prepared for the Department of Family and Community Services
as a background paper for the National Families Strategy

© Commonwealth of Australia 1999

ISBN 0 642 43248 1

This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the Commonwealth, available from AusInfo. Requests and inquiries concerning reproduction and rights should be addressed to the Manager, Legislative Services, AusInfo, GPO Box 1920, Canberra ACT 2601.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Minister for Family and Community Services or the Department of Family and Community Services.


This is a report on how to enhance the effectiveness of marriage and relationship education in strengthening marriage and relationships in Australia. The report includes two major sections. The first section is a review of the scientific evidence on the effects of marriage and relationship education. The second section is a series of action research proposals for extending the accessibility and effectiveness of marriage and relationship education. The proposals include several collaborative projects between service providers and researchers for the development and evaluation of innovative approaches to marriage and relationship education.

The Department of Family and Community Services appointed Professor Kim Halford of the School of Applied Psychology at Griffith University to undertake a consultation into research on marriage and relationship education in August 1999. The consultation brief was to conduct a major review of literature, and to consult with key stakeholders, in order to develop a series of action research proposals on marriage and relationship education. The required research proposals were to include action research that would lead to enhanced accessibility or effectiveness of marriage and relationship education. In addition, the consultation was to propose research that could be done to enhance knowledge about the medium and long-term effects of marriage and relationship education. This report on the consultation was to be delivered to the Department of Family and Community Services in October 1999.

In conducting the consultancy I undertook an extensive review of the available scientific research literature on the determinants of relationship satisfaction and stability, and the effectiveness of marriage and relationship education. In addition, I had a large number of consultations with stakeholders in the delivery of marriage and relationship education. These stakeholders included current providers of marriage and relationship education, through both religious and secular organisations, civil and religious marriage celebrants, representatives of different community and ethnic minority groups, researchers who look at marriage and family issues, senior public servants from the Department of Family and Community Services and the Attorney-General’s Department, and social policy analysts. Due to the time constraints imposed on the conduct of the consultation, much of this work was done by telephone conference. I also made extensive use of e-mail consultations. In addition, I also had a series of face-to-face individual and group meetings with many stakeholders.

I have found it a challenging and exciting opportunity to review the research and ideas of others on marriage and relationship education in close detail. The openness and generosity of educators and researchers in sharing their ideas and resources has been truly inspirational. I am most grateful to all those many people throughout Australia, and people from many other parts of the world, who sent me papers, met with me, sent me materials, and participated in telephone conferences. I have benefited greatly from the knowledge and experiences they shared, and hope I have reflected their wisdom in my report.

I am very grateful to that my employer Griffith University gave me special leave to conduct this project. In particular, my boss Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Max Standage, who recognized my passionate interest in the area of marriage and relationship education, and Acting Vice Chancellor Bill Lovegrove both supported me devoting my time to this project. My colleague Professor John O’Gorman was extremely supportive behind the scenes, and I am grateful to have him as a colleague. I also want to thank Dr. Sharon Dawe who stepped in as Acting Head of the School of Applied Psychology whilst I was undertaking this consultation. Knowing the school leadership was in good hands allowed me to concentrate on the tasks at hand.

I have a large set of acknowledgements at the end of this report. In addition, I want to extend a special thank you to Ms. Carmel Dyer, Ms. Susie Sweeper, Dr. Sue Osgarby, and Ms. Lisa Phillips who were research assistants on this project. Each of these people helped collate and summarize key aspects of the research reviewed. A very special thank you to Ms. Di Fisher, my personal assistant, who helped organize the many and varied tasks involved in getting the consultation done in eight weeks.

Finally, and most importantly, I want thank Barb, James and Chris who put up with frenetic bursts of activity from me to get this project done. Their love and support mean the world to me.

Kim Halford, PhD. MAPsS, Professor of Psychology, Griffith University.

Executive summary

1. Marriage and other committed couple relationships are extremely important influences on the health and well being of partners, children and the community. A healthy, well functioning and stable relationship is associated with greater resilience to stressful events, better physical and mental health, and greater work productivity. Relationship problems and breakdown are associated with increased domestic violence, poorer health, and loss of work productivity. Divorce and relationship problems accrue substantial economic costs to the couple, and to the community. The strengthening of marriage and family relationships, and the reduction of the prevalence of relationship problems and separations have the potential to greatly enhance the personal, social and economic well being of Australians.

2. There is a large body of research evidence showing that certain static risk indicators predict couples at high risk for relationship problems and separation. For example, parental divorce or violence in the family of origin, living together before marriage, being under 21 at the time of marriage, and a history of depression or anxiety disorders in either partner, all predict high risk of relationship breakdown. Whilst many of these risk indicators cannot be modified (e.g. family history), most risk indicators can easily be assessed. Risk assessment can guide couples and service providers as to which couples are at most risk for future relationship problems. Such information can be used to ensure high-risk couples are able to access marriage and relationship education.

3. There also is a substantial body of research evidence showing certain dynamic risk factors predict relationship problems. Risk factors potentially are changeable, and include poor communication and conflict management, unrealistic relationship expectations, inadequate partner mutual support, lack of a balance of shared and individual activities, and inequitable division of household tasks and responsibilities. Helping couples acquire the knowledge and skills to change these risk factors should be the primary targets of relationship education.

4. Relationship problems often develop during times of transition for couples. In particular, the initial transition to marriage or cohabitation, the transition to parenthood, times of crisis, major illness, and retirement are times when couples need to adapt to changing circumstances. The time after separation and when re-partnering, particularly when forming a stepfamily, also constitute high-risk times for the development of relationship problems. Couples with known risk factors often find these transitions difficult, and this is associated with increased risk for relationship problems. However, couples are particularly open to education to cope at these times of transition, and marriage and relationship education should be targeted at couples who are undergoing such transitions.

5. Relationship education as delivered in Australia, and in most western countries, varies widely in the content, mode of delivery and skills of the educators delivering the programs. Three general approaches to relationship education can be identified: information and awareness, assessment and feedback via standardized inventories, and skills training. Information and awareness usually involves provision of didactic or written materials, and discussion of expectations and relationship processes. There may be demonstrations of key relationship skills, but there is little or no active skills training. Assessment and feedback involves the completion of standardized inventories by the partners, and the provision of feedback and sometimes relationship goal setting with couples. Recently some demonstration of skills has been added to some of these assessment and feedback programs. Skills training involves structured training of key relationship skills such as communication and conflict management. Most relationship education offered in Australia is of the information and awareness approach, with increasing use of assessment and feedback. The use of skills training programs is limited in the field at the moment.

6. The vast majority of research on the effects of relationship education is focused on the short-term effects of programs for couples getting married or entering a cohabiting relationship. The research shows that well-run information and awareness, assessment and feedback, and skills training premarital relationship education programs all consistently are evaluated positively by participants. Moreover, participants report they learn ideas they value. Skills training programs have been shown to produce reliable improvements in communication and conflict management. The effects of information and awareness, and assessment and feedback, programs have not been evaluated within controlled trials, and their effects on couples’ relationship skills are unknown.

7. There is very little research on the medium and long-term effects of relationship education in enhancing relationship satisfaction or reducing rates of separation in couples in committed relationships. There are no studies on the medium or long-term effects of information and awareness, or assessment and feedback approaches to relationship education. A small number of studies have been published on the long-term effects of skills training approaches to relationship education. Skills training is associated with enhanced relationship satisfaction, and may decrease risk of divorce, across the first four to five years of marriage. The effects of skills based premarital education programs appear to attenuate over a 5 to 10 year period.

8. Relationship education to assist the transition to parenthood, adjustment after separation, formation of stepfamilies, and coping with major stresses have all been described in the literature, but there is a dearth of systematic research on these programs. The few available controlled trials suggest that skills training programs that focus on particular knowledge and skills associated with the transition concerned have the best effects.

9. The content of many marriage and relationship education programs have developed relatively independently of available knowledge on the determinants of relationship satisfaction and the effects of different approaches to relationship education. Given that skills based marriage and relationship education has the strongest scientific support for its effectiveness, this approach is under-represented in the practice of marriage and relationship education in Australia.

10. Most marriage and relationship education currently is targeted at couples entering committed relationships or getting married. This is an important transition at which to encourage couples to relationship education, and should continue to be a major focus of marriage and relationship education efforts. However, it is unlikely that relationship education offered only at the transition into committed relationships will attract all couples likely to benefit from relationship education. Nor is it likely that relationship education offered only at the transition to marriage or cohabitation will prevent relationship problems in couples 10 or more years after marriage. There is a need to broaden the transition points at which marriage and relationship education is offered.

11. Approximately one third of couples marrying in Australian attend some form of relationship education. The two-thirds of couples who do not access relationship education tend to be: ethnic minority couples, particularly indigenous Australians and people from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds, couples with fewer years of formal education, couples living in rural and remote areas, couples married in civil rather than religious ceremonies, couples cohabiting with their partner before marriage, and young couples.

Recommendation 1: A project should be undertaken to develop and disseminate resource materials to assist educators to provide skills based relationship education. The provision of resource materials should be complemented by the provision of affordable training opportunities to develop educator skills in skills based relationship education. The skills based relationship education resource materials should be designed to prepare couples for a variety of life transitions including the entry to committed relationships, the transition to parenthood, formation of step families, and providing mutual support during time of severe illness, relocation, and retirement. The resource materials should be developed collaboratively with multiple relationship education agencies and be evaluated for their participant satisfaction and effect on dynamic relationship risk factors.

Resource materials development should also be targeted at enhancing access to skills based relationship education by indigenous Australians and ethnic groups from non-English speaking backgrounds. An emphasis should be on the development of culturally appropriate resource materials that support skills based relationship education. Development of materials needs to be a collaborative effort between the communities to be assisted to access programs, and relationship educators. Training should be available to culturally appropriate leaders for delivery of programs. These initiatives should be evaluated for their success in engaging low access couples, the satisfaction of those couples with the services they receive, and the extent to which couples change on key risk factors believed to predict subsequent risk of relationship problems.

12. Low attendance at premarital education also is associated with reported attitudes that marriage “should occur naturally”, “is private”, and that marriage education “is only for people with problems”, “is irrelevant to me”, “would try to force certain values on me”, or “would not be useful”. There is a widespread opinion within the field of relationship educators that marketing to promote a view of pre-marriage education as normal would enhance attendance of relationship education programs. However, to date there is little evidence that mass media marketing programs have been successful.

13. Almost all relationship education programs in Australia are offered in a face-to-face format. Flexible delivery relationship education programs offered through printed material, audiovisual materials, or web sites have the potential to enhance accessibility of programs for couples.
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