In marital relationships, maybe ignorance is bliss
By Diane Luckow
Psychology professor Rebecca Cobb has been investigating whether relationship-education programs prior to marriage are effective, and her results are surprising.
After just two years of marriage, she found that wives who participated in these programs experienced significant declines in their marital satisfaction while those who didn’t take such a program maintained their satisfaction.
Cobb, a clinical psychologist who studies how relationships evolve over time, had 191 couples report their relationship satisfaction prior to marriage and then a further eight times over two years. About 40 per cent had received some form of relationship education or premarital counseling.
“Based on this information, I was able to track how their relationship satisfaction changed after marrying,” says Cobb.
While she found that husbands’ satisfaction declined slightly regardless of whether they received relationship education, wives who participated in these programs became less happy in their marriages over the two years and wives who did not participate remained relatively happy.
To ensure that both groups were relatively comparable, Cobb created a sample in which 76 couples who participated in a relationship-education program were matched with 86 couples who did not. The couples were matched on a variety of demographic, personal and relationship risk factors for marital distress. The results didn’t vary.
“This strengthens the argument that participation in relationship-education programs is the salient factor in wives’ relationship decline,” says Cobb.
She suspects there may be several reasons for the unexpected finding.
“These programs are delivering messages about how relationships should function. If the relationship doesn’t live up to these expectations, the wives could become disappointed.”
As well, she suggests many relationship-education programs may not be of a sufficient quality to result in positive benefits.
“These community-based programs generally don’t include any skills training, so they might be raising concerns, but participants are left without any new skills to manage these concerns.
”While the incidence of divorce among the surveyed couples was extremely small, Cobb says that the first four to five years are peak years for divorce in most Western countries, with a long tapering to the 30-year mark.
“I’m quite sure that people who take these programs feel like they’re doing something right. Who would say it could be wrong to talk about what healthy relationships look like? But even good quality programs are not showing the results we’d like. It could be that couples may already have the skills they need to have a good relationship, and may simply need the motivation to use those skills regularly in their relationships.
Cobb's research was funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.