Los Angeles Marriage Project
|History of funding
For several decades, the federal government has had a strong interest in promoting stable, healthy marriages for the wellbeing of adults and children. Bipartisan efforts to fund marriage initiatives began in 1996 with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which authorized states to pay for marriage and relationship skills programs – including premarital education and marriage mentoring. Funding increased under President George W. Bush’s Healthy Marriage Initiative and continued under President Obama. Currently, the Department of Health and Human Services supports these kinds of efforts through the National Resource Center for Healthy Marriage and Families. All told, hundreds of millions of dollars have been set aside for states to administer marriage programs.
|The importance of research
Despite all the time and money that has been spent on these programs, so far there is not a lot of evidence that they have improved the lives of American families. A big part of the problem has been a lack of research on what really matters for successful relationships and marriages. Although there have been many studies examining marriages, most have gathered information from a pretty narrow range of couples (typically, middle-class Caucasian couples). Unfortunately, this may not reveal the variety of issues that couples of different backgrounds may face. Furthermore, many of those studies were conducted in research rooms on college campuses, which may not tell us much about how couples behave in their own homes.
|What is special about this project
Supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, this project does several things that no other research on families has done before.
|Some of the things we have learned from this project so far
Over the past decade, data from this project has been analyzed in over 50 published papers and presentations at professional conferences. Many of these papers can be found under the ‘Publications’ tab of this website. Below are some of the questions we have been writing about.
What are the challenges that get in the way of successful relationships?
You’ve probably heard people say that “a good marriage takes work”, but what makes that work easier or harder for couples? If you pay attention to self-help books, you would get the idea that the biggest challenge in most couples’ lives is resolving disagreements and communicating successfully. When the Los Angeles Marriage Project showed couples lists of possible problems, we also found that these problems were rated as pretty severe when they came up. But we also asked the question in a different way: we asked couples to list the three biggest problems they faced in their marriages. When couples thought about their own lives, instead of being given a list of problems chosen by researchers, they came up with different answers. Couples five most challenging marital problems were:
In other words, the biggest problems in couples’ lives come from challenges OUTSIDE of the relationship itself. In other studies, our researchers have found that these challenges don’t change much over the first years of marriage. Instead, they represent stable situations that couples have to try to adjust to. That means that programs to help couples and families need to spend less time on teaching communication and more time on doing things to improve the quality of couples’ lives.
How do we keep our relationships healthy and strong?
Many couples wonder how they can keep their marriage healthy and strong. Our researchers have been at the forefront of evaluating educational and therapeutic programs designed to help couples – and our findings have surprised us. For example, we have discovered that being taught communication skills does not always help couples! Couples often have a set way of communicating, and this study’s data show that your communication is not going to change much year to year. So what does help? As best as we can tell, the most effective educational programs encourage partners to stay connected to each other in positive ways, in whatever way feels most comfortable to them. What does this mean for you? You don’t need to learn any special skills. Instead, try to find ways to do the things that you already know are good for your relationship: sharing a warm greeting in the morning, listening closely to your partner when he or she is upset, and finding some time together each week to connect. We get pulled away from the people we love in all kinds of ways, but small investments like these go far to keep our bonds strong and vital.
What happens if we start to struggle in our relationship?
As time passes in our relationships, some couples argue more than they once did, or they feel like they might be growing apart. That may not surprise you, but what’s interesting is that many unhappy couples never seek out any kind of counseling or therapy for their difficulties. This is unfortunate because marital therapy helps many couples each year. So why don’t couples seek help when they need it? Our findings show that a simple lack of information keeps many couples from getting help for their relationship. If you and your partner are struggling a bit, help is close at hand. To find a counselor, check in with a respected family member, a trusted work colleague, a leader in your church or temple, or perhaps a person who provided you with premarital counseling. You will want to find a counselor that both partners like, of course, but excellent therapists can be found in every community.
How can our relationship be a springboard to a healthier life?
Health is a topic on everyone’s minds these days. Usually, we think about our health as a personal matter. After all, each of us decides what food we put into our mouths and how much we are going to exercise. But people who are married know different: our partners can make it hard to stay healthy (“Honey, I brought home a dozen fresh doughnuts!”) or they can help us to develop healthier habits (“Honey, let’s go for a walk around the block!”). Based directly on the conversations we observed this project’s participants have when we recorded videos, we discovered several specific tricks and tips that healthier couples use all the time to eat right and exercise more. A book we wrote about these conversations, titled Love Me Slender, summarizes this practical advice. (Used copies can be easily found on Amazon.com.) We also posted a few clips on YouTube.com that show how partners in real couples create healthy lifestyles.