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01/24/2023 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 01/24/2023 21:05

Relationship Dynamics Among Unmarried Couples: Findings from a Study of Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Programs

Relationship Dynamics Among Unmarried Couples: Findings from a Study of Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Programs

Publication Date:January 24, 2023

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  • Published: 2022

Introduction

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Research Questions

  1. What reasons did respondents report for the relationship dissolution?
  2. What proportion of respondents perceived that the end of the relationship was a positive outcome?
  3. How did the reasons for relationship dissolution, as reported by respondents, differ based on whether respondents perceived the end of the relationship as a positive outcome?
  4. How did the reasons for relationship dissolution, as reported by respondents, and respondents' perception of whether the end of the relationship was a positive outcome vary based on relationship type?
  5. How did the reasons for relationship dissolution, as reported by respondents, and respondents' perception of whether the end of the relationship was a positive outcome vary based on whether the respondent and their partner had a child together?

Understanding the relationships of unmarried adult couples is central to understanding contemporary family life in the United States. As a growing share of adults in the United States are postponing or foregoing marriage, marriage rates have declined and the percentage of adults in unmarried and cohabiting relationships has increased. Unmarried relationships can range from fragile on-again, off-again relationships to highly committed relationships that resemble marriage.

Despite the growing prevalence of unmarried adult relationships, evidence about why these relationships end is limited. In contrast to the many studies that have examined individuals' and couples' self-reported reasons for divorcing, fewer studies have looked at the reasons for relationship dissolution among unmarried couples. Evidence on the reasons adult unmarried relationships end can both (1) help address a key gap in the knowledge base on relationship dynamics and (2) help curriculum developers and program providers improve the delivery and effectiveness of healthy marriage and relationship education (HMRE) programs. Many HMRE programs funded by the federal government aim to support relationship stability among unmarried parents and strengthen couples' relationships regardless of their level of commitment or the presence of children in the relationship. At the same time, unhealthy and high-stress relationships have serious negative consequences for partners and their children and exiting these relationships can improve individuals' well-being. As a result, some HMRE programs also help participants learn the skills to recognize and safely exit unhealthy relationships.

This report examines survey data collected from a diverse sample of 356 unmarried adults about their breakups with a romantic partner. The data come from the Strengthening Relationship Education and Marriage Services (STREAMS) evaluation conducted by Mathematica and Public Strategies for the Administration for Children and Families' Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation with funding from the Office of Family Assistance (OFA). The evaluation included random assignment impact studies of five HMRE programs funded by OFA. For three of the five sites, the evaluation team collected longitudinal survey data on participants' romantic relationships and reasons for relationship dissolution among participants who reported ending a romantic relationship during the study period.

Purpose

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This report describes the findings from an analysis of relationship dissolution among unmarried adults in a variety of relationship circumstances who were part of the STREAMS evaluation. It describes how many participants in the STREAMS evaluation experienced a relationship dissolution and the characteristics of those participants. It also describes the reasons they reported for the relationship dissolution, whether respondents perceived that the end of the relationship was a positive outcome, and how the reasons for relationship dissolution and the perception of the end of the relationship as a positive outcome differed for unmarried adults in different circumstances. The report also describes the study methods and implications for HMRE programming and research.

Key Findings and Highlights

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  • Communication challenges were one of the most commonly reported reasons for relationship dissolution. A substantial proportion of respondents also reported the relationship ended because of cheating or infidelity and abuse or violence. When asked to assign fault for the end of the relationship, less than half of respondents pointed to their partner's behavior only.
  • Most respondents felt good that the relationship ended; these respondents were also more likely to report that the relationship ended for reasons that indicated an unhealthy relationship.
  • Overall, respondents in different types of unmarried relationships reported similar reasons for relationship dissolution; however, where they assigned fault for the relationship dissolution differed. Compared to respondents in other types of relationships, those in a steady relationship at baseline were more likely to report that neither the partner nor respondent was directly at fault. In addition, respondents who were in a steady relationship were less likely to fault their partner only, compared to engaged respondents.
  • Respondents who had a child with their partner were more likely to report that the relationship ended because of abuse or violence, drug or alcohol use, financial reasons, or because the respondent or their partner was not a good parent or role model.

Methods

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We conducted a descriptive analysis to understand the causes of the causes of relationship dissolution among 356 unmarried adults in a variety of relationship circumstances. First, we calculated the percentage of respondents who reported that their relationship ended for a variety of reasons. Next, we calculated the percentage of respondents who reported that the end of the relationship was a positive outcome, and conducted chi-square tests to examine whether reported reasons for relationship dissolution differed based on whether respondents perceived the end of the relationship as a positive outcome. Finally, we conducted chi-square tests to examine whether the reported reasons for relationship dissolution differed based on relationship type or whether the couple had a child together.

Recommendations

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Findings point to several ways HMRE programs could support unmarried adult couples. The finding that most respondents reported communication challenges as a reason their relationships ended points to the importance of helping participants develop positive conflict management behaviors and communication skills that can promote relationship stability. However, the finding that many participants also reported serious relationship issues such as infidelity and abuse suggests the need for additional supports beyond effective communication. For example, participants need the skills and supports to safely leave unhealthy relationships. Adults in unmarried relationships with children, in particular, may benefit from additional supports to help recognize and address the warning signs of unhealthy relationships, take steps to enhance healthy aspects of the relationship, and, in some cases, decide to end unsafe or unhealthy relationships.

The study findings also point to directions for future research. First, studies should examine the distinct challenges faced by unmarried couples with children, the types of supports they need to promote relationship stability if in a healthy relationship, and the factors that can support positive co-parenting relationships if an unhealthy relationship ends. Second, more research is needed to understand the factors that differentiate positive and negative relationship dissolutions. Most respondents in our sample reported that they were glad the relationship ended; future research should examine the association between relationship dissolution and a broader array of respondents' later outcomes, such as mental health and financial well-being, and examine whether the factors that predict positive perceptions of the breakup also predict improved later outcomes.

Third, studies of the impacts of HMRE programs should explore whether these programs are effective in helping individuals and couples identify unhealthy relationships and exit them safely. Studies should also examine the extent to which helping individuals and couples identify and exit unhealthy relationships ultimately leads to the improved participant mental health and, for couples with children, improved child outcomes. Finally, future research should examine the reasons for relationship dissolution among other samples of unmarried adults. Our sample was drawn from the participants in three federally funded HMRE programs that served adult individuals and couples in a variety of relationship circumstances. However, we cannot be certain that our findings for this sample generalize to other unmarried adults.

Citation

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Gonzalez, Katie and Brian Goesling (2022). Relationship Dynamics Among Unmarried Couples: Findings from a Study of Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Programs. OPRE Report #2022-318, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.