The Agenda

Relationship Education as a Political Rorschach Test

In Tom Bartlett’s “The Great Mom & Dad Experiment,” we find two contrasting views of relationship education efforts. Matthew D. Johnson and Benjamin Karney argue that the programs ought to be scrapped:

For the last couple of decades, Karney, a professor of social psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, has studied marriages, how they either remain stable or deteriorate. He thinks the very idea of teaching relationship skills to low-income couples was probably misguided from the get-go, based on an unproved, and somewhat condescending, assumption. “The reason divorce rates are high among poor people isn’t that they don’t know things that other people know,” Karney says. “In fact, there’s a lot of evidence from my lab and from other labs that the ability to communicate effectively with your spouse is significantly associated with the stress that you’re under in your life.” Stress is toxic. We know, from multiple studies, including a much-discussed 2010 paper by the Nobel Prize-winning social scientist Daniel Kahneman, that higher levels of stress are associated with lower levels of emotional well-being. A 2009 study published in Clinical Psychology Review found that “stress may undermine otherwise adequate communication skills, lead to alienation in the couples and a higher risk for divorce.”

Karney’s point, then, is that poor couples don’t get divorced because they’re less adept at communication than couples with healthy 401(k)s and three-car garages. Poor people get divorced because they’re poor, and being poor makes you stressed, and being stressed makes it harder for you to communicate, which makes it more likely that you’ll split.

Meanwhile, Kathryn Edin, Scott Stanley, and Alan J. Hawkins suggest that Johnson and Karney are being excessively harsh in their assessment of relationship education programs.

But the best part of Bartlett’s article is at the end, when he raises the argument that even if relationship education programs don’t appear to yield significant benefits, the same is true of virtually all social programs that are carefully studied, yet we aren’t calling for, say, eliminating Head Start. Johnson is extremely skeptical of this argument, and Edin maintains that now is not the right time to pull the plug, because it’s still possible that we can make the programs more effective. What I find interesting is that many people who want to eliminate relationship education also want to preserve and expand Head Start, while at least some of those who want to shrink or abandon Head Start want to preserve relationship education.