Couple and relationship education: Does curriculum matter for men?

Kim Gregson
Auburn University

Francesca Adler-Baeder
Human Development/Family Studies,
Auburn University

Rachel Parham
Auburn University

Scott Ketring
Human Development/Family Studies
Auburn University

Tommy Smith
Human Development/Family Studies
Auburn University


Differences in change patterns based on three specific couple and relationship education (CRE) curricula (Mastering the Mysteries of Love [MML], Together We Can [TWC], and Black Marriage Education [BME]) are examined among male participants. Each curriculum addresses distinct populations and needs, while also including core research-based relationship topics/skills. The sample consisted of 554 male participants, diverse in ethnicity, who completed both pre- and post-program questionnaires. As a whole, men who participated in CRE demonstrated increases in targeted relational, individual, and parenting outcomes. Nevertheless, male participants in specific curricula showed differential change patterns. Those who received TWC improved in individual and parenting outcomes, participants in MML improved in individual and relational areas, while men who received BME demonstrated gains in all three targeted areas (relational, individual, and parenting). The authors present implications for Extension educators and other family life educators related to choices of curricula, depending on anticipated populations and outcome areas of interest.


While couple and relationship education (CRE) has been increasingly used with diverse populations of couples and individuals (Hawkins, Carroll, Doherty, and Willoughby 2004; Hawkins and Fackrell 2010), men are underrepresented in CRE research due to low participation rates and limited attention to men’s experience when couples participate in CRE. Thus, focused research and intervention targeting the male population fills a critical gap (Addis and Cohane 2005). In addition, CRE research generally focuses on only one curriculum at a time (Hawkins and Fackrell 2010). There are virtually no examinations of differences in outcomes based on curriculum. Current Extension educators have many curriculum choices for CRE from both Extension and other family service sources. Understanding differential outcomes can be valuable for program planning.

This exploratory study examines potential differences in change patterns in targeted outcome areas (i.e., individual, couple, and co-parenting functioning) for male participants based on curriculum. Three selected curricula each address distinct populations and needs; however, all three include some element of the seven core research-based relationship topics/skills identified by the National Extension Relationship and Marriage Education Network as critical to CRE content (Adler-Baeder and Futris, in press). We therefore hypothesize that the benefits will be similar regardless of curriculum. The curricula are:

Mastering the Mysteries of Love (MML)

  • Author: Mary Ortwein
  • Specific audience: Couples in general
  • Example topics: cooperation, communication, conflict resolution, commitment-building, using positive strokes

Together We Can (TWC)

  • Author: Dr. Karen Shirer
  • Specific audience: Co-parenting couples
  • Example topics: self-care, father involvement, communication, cooperation

Black Marriage Education (BME)

  • Author: Dr. Rozario Slack and Nisa Muhammad
  • Specific audience: African-American couples (also particularly aimed at increasing husband/father involvement)
  • Example topics: commitment-building, communication, cooperation, intimacy and sexuality, using positive strokes


Male participants were recruited over four years (2006 – 2010) of CRE implementation in eight Alabama communities. Relationship educators were Extension agents and community partners at family resource centers, who facilitated classes in their communities. Facilitators were trained in program delivery (by program developers) and data collection (by Extension faculty) and were supervised for program fidelity. Adult participants completed a pre-program questionnaire before beginning the six- to eight-session CRE course and a post-program questionnaire immediately following the course. The analytic sample consists of 554 male adult CRE participants diverse in ethnicity (56 percent African-American, 44 percent Euro-American). The ethnic breakdown by curriculum is as follows:

  • MML: n = 115 (61 percent Euro-American, 39 percent African-American)
  • TWC: n = 260 (52 percent African-American, 48 percent Euro-American)
  • BME: n = 179 (73 percent African- American, 27 percent Euro-American)

The mean age was 36.8 (median age = 35). Participants were primarily of lower socio-economic status as indicated by income level: 22 percent indicated a gross household income of less than $7,000 per year; 12 percent reported $7,000 – $13,999; 16 percent reported $14,000 – $24,999; 16 percent reported $25,000 – $39,000; 21 percent reported $40,000 – $74,999; 8 percent reported $75,000 – $100,000; and 5 percent reported income of more than $100,000.

Four outcome areas targeted by the curricula were examined (individual, relational, and parenting domains):

1. Individual Empowerment (individual outcome)

  • 6-item Individual Functioning scale (scale was created for this project)
  • Sample item: “I have the power to manage the challenges in my life.”
  • 1 = I have not thought about this; 5 = I do this on a regular basis
  • Composite measure reliabilities: Pre (α=0.97), Post (α=0.98)

2. Couple Quality (relational outcome)

  • 5-item Couple/Marital Quality scale (Norton 1983)
  • Sample item: “We have a good marriage/relationship.”
  • 1 = Very Strongly Disagree; 7 = Very Strongly Agree
  • Composite measure reliabilities: Pre (α=0.72), Post (α=0.76)

3. Trust (relational outcome)

  • 3-item Trust in Close Relationships scale (Rempel, Holmes, and Zanna 1985)
  • Sample item: “I can rely on my partner to keep the promises he/she makes.”
  • 1 = Strongly Disagree; 5 = Strongly Agree
  • Composite measure reliabilities: Pre (α=0.86), Post (α=0.88)

4. Co-Parenting Quality (parenting outcome)

  • 6-item Co-Parenting Quality scale (Ahrons and Wallisch 1987)
  • Sample item: “My co-parent and I agree on childrearing.”
  • 1 = Never; 5 = Always
  • Composite measure reliabilities: Pre (α=0.69), Post (α=0.74)


Analyses were conducted using Multivariate ANOVAs with repeated measures, where time served as the within-subjects factor, and curriculum served as the between-subjects factor. Paired sample t-tests were conducted within subgroups post hoc to further explore significant time by curriculum interactions.

No significant time by curriculum effects were found for either Individual Empowerment (see Figure 1) or Co-Parenting Quality (see Figure 2). Significant between-groups effects for time by curriculum were found for (a) Couple Quality [F(2, 493) = 8.93, p < .001, η= .035] (see Figure 3), such that those receiving MML and BME showed significant increases in Couple Quality over time, while those receiving TWC did not and for (b) Trust [F(2, 487) = 5.53, p < .01, η= .022] (see Figure 4), such that those receiving MML and BME showed significant increases in Trust over time, while those receiving TWC did not.

Significant differences in pre-CRE means were found for Couple Quality and Co-Parenting, such that the BME group was significantly higher than TWC group at pre-test. In addition, significant differences in pre-CRE means were found for Trust, such that the MML group and BME group were significantly higher than TWC Group at pre-test.

Significant differences in post-CRE means were found for Co-Parenting, such that the BME group was significantly higher than the TWC group at post-test. In addition, significant differences in post-CRE means were found for Couple Quality and Trust, such that the MML group and BME group were significantly higher than the TWC group at post-test.

Individual repeated-measures analyses found significant increases over time (from pre-test to post-test) for Couple Quality and Trust among the MML and BME groups of participants. The TWC group and BME group demonstrated significant increases in Co-Parenting Quality from pre-test to post-test. In addition, all three groups (MML, TWC, and BME) reported significant increases in Individual Empowerment after program participation.

Table 1. Changes in targeted outcomes among male CRE participants.

[Table 1 Summary: Means, standard deviations, and paired-sample t-scores for target outcomes among male CRE participants (N = 554)]

Target Outcome by Curricula Pre-CRE Mean (SD) Post-CRE Mean (SD) t-score
MML (n = 115)
   1. Individual Empowerment 3.56 (0.82) 3.80 (0.87) -3.16**
   2. Couple Quality 4.96 (1.37) 5.39 (1.24) -4.22***
   3. Trust 3.86 (0.95) 4.14 (0.85) -3.34**
   4. Co-Parenting Quality 3.72 (0.84) 3.77 (0.83) -0.69
TWC (n = 260)
   1. Individual Empowerment 3.53 (1.01) 3.66 (0.92) -2.35*
   2. Couple Quality 4.84 (1.63) 4.87 (1.68) -0.32
   3. Trust 3.48 (1.14) 3.54 (1.18) -1.09
  4. Co-Parenting Quality 3.47 (0.89) 3.55 (0.85) -1.66~
BME (n = 179)
   1. Individual Empowerment 3.52 (0.85) 3.75 (0.74) -3.67***
   2. Couple Quality 5.14 (1.31) 5.70 (1.06) -6.18***
   3. Trust 3.97 (0.90) 4.30 (0.73) -5.55***
  4. Co-Parenting Quality 3.68 (0.75) 3.91 (0.67) -3.78***

~p < .10, *p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001


Figure 1. Individual Empowerment by curricula.

[Alt tag content for Figure 1: Changes in Individual Empowerment pre- to post-CRE by curricula.]


Figure 2. Co-Parenting Quality by curricula.

[Alt tag content for Figure 2: Changes in Co-Parenting Quality pre- to post-CRE by curricula.]


Figure 3. Couple Quality by curricula.

[Alt tag content for Figure 3: Changes in Couple Quality pre- to post-CRE by curricula.]

Figure 4. Trust by curricula.

[Alt tag content for Figure 4: Changes in Trust Pre- to Post-CRE by curricula.]


Although it may be initially difficult to get male program participation in CRE (Hawkins et al. 2004), it appears that, as a whole, men who do attend show changes on most targeted outcomes, regardless of curriculum. While TWC emphasizes co-parenting moreso than the other curricula, we expected that couple quality and trust also would be enhanced through core relational skills learned. This does not appear to be the case for the men in our sample (i.e., there were no significant changes in Couple Quality or Trust outcomes). However, there were significant changes in Individual Empowerment and Co-Parenting Quality (key areas of focus for TWC in addition to general relational skills). It is also noteworthy that TWC male participants, on average, began the program at a lower level on three of the four outcomes (Couple Quality, Trust, and Co-Parenting Quality) than men in the other programs. This could indicate a higher level of couple relationship dysfunction that may require additional or more focused attention. Although TWC is successful in effecting change in co-parenting and individual functioning, these results may indicate that TWC would benefit from adding more explicit information on couple dynamics if used as CRE. Results also suggest that men participating in TWC may begin programs with comparatively higher needs for couple relationship skill development.

MML, aimed at improving couple/relationship skills, is associated with significant changes in Couple Quality, Trust, and Individual Empowerment (an individual outcome) but not Co-parenting Quality. It appears that MML could likewise benefit from more explicit information on the use of core relational skills in both couple and co-parenting relationships. BME appears to be the more comprehensive curriculum, effective on all four targeted outcomes for male participants. Because this curriculum focuses primarily on couple functioning but includes information on father involvement and co-parenting with previous partners, our male sample consequently appears responsive to the curriculum, demonstrating significant change on all individual, relational, and co-parenting outcomes.

The results serve to inform Extension educators and other professionals offering CRE about choices of curricula, depending on anticipated populations and outcome areas of interest in which positive changes are desired. Limitations of the study, however, are acknowledged and some cautions in interpretations of the findings are suggested. Although pre- and post-CRE assessments were collected among a diverse group of male participants, follow-up data were not available and thus information on change is limited to immediate effects. Participants’ retention, increase, or decline of individual, relational, and parenting improvements can only be speculated without further testing. As the field of CRE moves toward the development of models of best practices, it is useful to continue to employ more complex evaluation designs. Investigations of growth trajectories and long-term application of CRE principles will be critically enhanced by the collection of follow-up data. As indicated by this study, examining variations in change patterns for subsamples of participants and the factors related to variations moves us toward a better understanding of how best to serve the diverse population of participants currently engaged in CRE.




Addis, M., and G. Cohane. 2005. “Social scientific paradigms of masculinity and their implications for research and practice in men’s mental health.” Journal of Clinical Psychology61: 633-47.

Adler-Baeder, F., and T. Futris, eds. The National Extension Relational and Marriage Education Model: Empirically-derived core concepts for programs. USDA/CSREES (forthcoming).

Ahrons, C., and L. Wallisch. 1987. “The relationship between former spouses.” In Intimate relationships: Development, dynamics, and deterioration, by D. Perlman and S. Duck.

Hawkins, A., J. Carroll, B. Doherty, and B. Willoughby. 2004. “A comprehensive framework for marriage education.” Family Relations 53: 547-58.

Hawkins, A., and Fackrell, T. 2010. “Does relationship and marriage education for lower-income couples work? A meta-analytic study of emerging research.” Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy 9(2): 181-191.

Norton, R. 1983. “Measuring marital quality: A critical look at the dependent variable.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 45: 141-51.

Rempel, J., J. Holmes, and M. Zanna. 1985. “Trust in close relationships.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 49: 95-112.



Back to table of contents ->

Read Next Issue
Read Previous Issue