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I Complain About the Over-Hyping of Marriage Education, and the NPR Ombudsman Listens

You can say the program works – if it really does

Recently here at Living Single, we've been discussing the outburst of cheerleading for marriage education classes, ignited by the feature story in the Washington Post magazine. In my first post (of two), I described what I discovered when I looked closely at the results of scientific research on the effectiveness of these marriage education programs. You can read the whole thing here, but the bottom line is that the evidence for their effectiveness is underwhelming. In fact, in a version of a program that was offered in eight different places, alongside the one version that did produce positive effects was another that resulted in effects opposite to those intended, including a lesser likelihood of staying together or marrying among program participants compared to non-participants, and even greater reports of severe abuse among the women who participated.

I described my concerns in the comments section of the Post and also emailed the reporter, but to no effect. Meanwhile, the promotion of marriage-promotion programs continued. NPR, to my deep disappointment, aired a segment in which the Post reporter and the person quoted most often in that piece, Smartmarriages' Diane Sollee, were interviewed at length. Again, all we heard was how wonderful and how effective these programs supposedly are. Across the entire conversation, there was not a word of caution, nor a qualifier. (No one mentioned, for example, the results of 143 studies showing that people who take the classes are no more likely to describe their spouse as communicating with them in a positive way than are people who do not take the classes.)

Instead, we heard claims like the following, offered by Diane Sollee in response to the question of how to figure out which classes to take:

"You know, I get asked that all the time. And what I say is, you know, try a couple of them. It's not going to hurt you...Go in and see. It's fun. It's romantic. You walk in hand in hand and you walk out, you know, arm in arm... You're going to sit and learn the way that this class teaches the skills. They're all based on the same research body of knowledge."

If Diane Sollee had made this sort of claim just this once, during this unscripted conversation, I'd overlook it. But she says things like this over and over again. For example, soon after the Post story appeared, the newspaper hosted an online Q & A. One reader asked how to persuade couples to take the courses when they are in that crazy-in-love engagement period. Here's the answer from Sollee, the person who runs Smartmarriages:

"You explain that taking a course is the MOST ROMANTIC THING THEY CAN DO." In response to another question she says that "The classes are a huge help in helping couples reconnect." Asked about differences in effectiveness for couples who differ in characteristics such as education and social class, she claims, "Marriage education classes can help across the board."

Asked directly whether there is any hard evidence that the programs are effective, Sollee points to one study showing positive effects, without acknowledging the one that resulted in worse outcomes for the participants, or the many studies that found no differences whatsoever between the people who did and did not take the classes.

Now to the good news. I described my complaints to the NPR ombudsman. She replied right away. Within a few days, the "Tell Me More" blog acknowledged my concerns (toward the bottom of the post) and linked to one of my Living Single posts.

Personally, I'm not against the offering of marriage education classes, as long as I don't have to fund them with my tax dollars, and as long as they are described accurately to prospective students. I served for years on a university's Internal Review Board (previously called a Human Subjects Committee). We had high standards for what researchers could say to potential participants in trying to recruit them. I don't think we would have signed off on claims that the programs "can't hurt" when some women (even a small minority) actually were hurt. Saying that the programs work "across the board" would not pass ethical muster when one review of 8 studies showed that relationship quality improved only for couples in which both members were African Americans; other couples were more likely to break up if they participated in the program than if they did not.

Diane Sollee and many other marriage education advocates are not recruiting for research studies. They are selling classes (and an ideology). Although some classes are offered for free, the vast majority of them are money-making ventures. In closing, then, I have to admit that there is something truly smart about Smartmarriages - they got free advertising for their misleading claims and for financially lucrative programs under the banner of prestigious media outlets such as the Washington Post and NPR.