Pathways-to-Outcomes: How Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Program Activities May Lead to Intended Outcomes

Publication Date: November 3, 2020


Many Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education (HMRE) programs for low-income participants are funded by the Office of Family Assistance (OFA) within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF). Trained facilitators deliver curriculum, typically in weekly interactive classes, using lectures and in-class practice with partners or small groups. The prevailing theory behind HMRE programs is that participation improves couples’ communication, conflict management, and other relationship skills, which leads to improvements in long-term outcomes such as relationship satisfaction or stability and, it is hoped, positive outcomes for the participants’ children. However, this sequencing of short-to-long-term outcomes has not been rigorously tested.

The webinar presents three Pathways-to-Outcomes models for HMRE programs serving adult couples that use research evidence to depict how program activities may influence intended outcomes. Each model reflects an aspect of program design and implementation: (1) curriculum and delivery, (2) maximizing participation, and (3) addressing couple and individual characteristics.


The models presented during the webinar are intended to advance the field of HMRE programming and research by depicting evidence-informed hypotheses that could be used by practitioners and program developers as they design and implement programs. These models do not provide causal evidence to link specific program activities to specific outcomes. However, the models can be used to test the connections between specific program activities and their impact on participants, and findings from these tests would inform practitioners about the HMRE program activities responsible for observed outcomes. Although we present the models separately, users should consider the set of models together and complementarily.

Key Findings and Highlights

Hypotheses for each HMRE Pathways-to-Outcomes model are as follows:

  1. Couple functioning outcomes may improve through programs’ selection and implementation of HMRE curriculum. By selecting HMRE curriculum that (1) is evidence-informed, (2) is intended for a clearly specified target population, and (3) includes at least 18 hours of content delivered in a group format, programs may improve outcomes related to couple functioning. Additionally, the implementation of the curriculum by program facilitators may influence outcomes; specifically, curriculum delivered by qualified, well-trained facilitators, who are supervised to ensure the curriculum is delivered with fidelity, may improve outcomes related to couple functioning.
  2. Increased participation in HMRE curriculum workshops may improve couple functioning outcomes. By selecting and implementing retention and barrier reduction plans that include (1) case management services, (2) participation supports (such as incentives, child care, and transportation), and (3) flexible workshop scheduling, programs may increase participation, which leads to better couple functioning outcomes. Building staff—participant relationships/rapport and relationships between other participants may also increase participation.
  3. HMRE programs that account for or address potential couple-level and individual factors such as relationship distress, commitment, race/ethnicity and/or economic disadvantage may be more likely to improve couple functioning outcomes. Programs that consider how couple and individual characteristics affect all aspects of their program activities—from recruitment to curriculum to partnerships—may be more likely to engage their target populations and have services more relevant to their lives, which may lead to improved participation and better couple functioning outcomes.


To inform the development of the Pathways-to-Outcomes models presented during the webinar, we reviewed literature on three HMRE programs (The HOME Program, Supporting Healthy Relationships, and Family Expectations) that participated in two of three federal evaluations (Building Strong Families, Supporting Healthy Marriage, and Parents and Children Together). These programs were chosen because they had the most evidence associated with their program from participating in multiple, rigorous federal evaluations.

We drew upon three sources to develop the models: (1) the federal evaluation findings, (2) discussions with researchers and practitioners, and (3) a targeted literature search.  From these sources, we identified features that were likely to be associated with their intended outcomes. We also relied on inductive reasoning to develop the models—that is, we generalized based on the specific examples of the three programs. We looked at the intended and measured outcomes among the three HMRE programs, and based on our knowledge of the programs’ key features and their implementation, we generated evidence-informed hypotheses.


Friend, Daniel. “Pathways-to-Outcomes: How Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Program Activities May Lead to Intended Outcomes.” Webinar. July 27, 2020. OPRE Report 2020-147. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, 2020.

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