Improving Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education (HMRE) Programs for Unmarried Couples with Children

Publication Date: August 5, 2020
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Healthy marriage and relationship education (HMRE) programs for couples with children aim to strengthen couples’ relationships and ultimately improve the well-being of participants’ children. Although these programs have shown some success in improving outcomes for married couples, their success with unmarried couples has been limited.


In this brief, we consider strategies for improving HMRE programs for unmarried couples with children. We proceed in three steps. First, we examine the characteristics of unmarried parents who participate in HMRE programs, how they are distinct from the married parents served by HMRE programs, and how these differences could limit the effectiveness of HMRE services. Second, we discuss what the objectives of HMRE programs could be for unmarried parents in light of their characteristics and needs. Third, we suggest adaptations and enhancements to HMRE programs that are informed by the specific needs of this population and the appropriate goals of HMRE programming designed for them.

This work is part of the Fatherhood, Relationships, and Marriage, Illuminating the Next Generation of Research (FRAMING Research) project, sponsored by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ACF has partnered with Mathematica and its subcontractor Public Strategies to conduct the FRAMING Research study.

Key Findings and Highlights

Key findings from each step include:

  1. Describe how unmarried parents are different from married parents served by HMRE programs.
  • Research suggests that unmarried parents tend to have more fragile, less committed romantic relationships than married parents do. Unmarried parents also tend to be more economically disadvantaged than married parents. Both of these factors could directly and indirectly contribute to the limited impacts of HMRE programs for unmarried parents.
  1. Specify the goals of HMRE programming for unmarried couples with children.
  • Like HMRE programs for married parents, HMRE programs for unmarried parents aim to strengthen the couple relationship. Programs can work toward this goal by improving couples’ understanding of the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships, building couples’ communication and conflict management skills, evaluating the strengths of their romantic relationship, building their level of commitment and trust, and improving their economic security. At the same time, because unmarried parents are much more likely than married parents to break up, another goal of HMRE programs for unmarried parents could be to provide supports to promote children’s well-being regardless of what happens to the couple’s relationship.
  1. Identify how HMRE programs can better serve unmarried couples with children.
  • We describe four enhancements programs can make to better fulfill the distinct needs of unmarried parents and achieve program goals: (1) adapt relationship skills content to the needs of unmarried parents; (2) integrate more content on cooperative co-parenting; (3) offer enhanced job and career advancement (JCA) services  to help unmarried parents address economic challenges; and (4) offer more intensive case management to address their other needs.


This brief uses the principles of intervention mapping to describe the issue of interest, specify the objectives of an intervention to address the issue, and identify services and strategies to achieve the objectives (Eldredge et al. 2016). The content for the brief is informed by the input of members of an HMRE technical work group for the project, which met in June 2019.


Alamillo, Julia, Daniel Friend, and Robert G. Wood. “Improving Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education (HMRE) Programs for Unmarried Couples with Children.” OPRE Report 2020-88. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020.

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