Can U.S. Government Marriage Education Programs Promote Gender Equality?

By Jennifer M. Randles

Since 2002, federal and state governments in the United States have spent over $1 billion from the welfare budget on marriage and relationship education programs through the Healthy Marriage Initiative. This federal policy seeks to encourage marriage and the many social and economic benefits the government claims are associated with it—less poverty and domestic violence, better physical and mental health, higher academic achievement—by helping couples develop relationship skills focused on improving communication and resolving conflict. The federal agency in charge of overseeing healthy marriage funding recommends that curricula used in marriage education programs address how couples think about gender, specifically their beliefs about differences between men and woman and what they expect spouses to do based on gender. Many marriage education curricula address these topics because gendered expectations often influence how couples experience marriage and what they commonly argue about, namely housework, childcare, and earning money.

To understand how marriage education programs funded by the government teach about gender, communication, and power within marriage, I analyzed twenty curricula approved for use in healthy marriage programs and participated in a training session, workshop, or class for eighteen of these same curricula. I specifically wanted to know if and how the curricula reinforced or challenged stereotypes of gender responsibilities—such as the beliefs that women should be caretakers and men should be family breadwinners—and whether the programs taught couples about how social inequalities between women and men shape couples’ abilities to share power and family labor.

I found that some programs assumed men and women are fundamentally different in how they think, feel, and communicate, and recommended that couples use relationship skills to overcome these differences. For example, the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program, the most commonly used marriage education curriculum in healthy marriage programs, noted that men are more likely to pull away when couples argue, while women want to talk through disagreements. In discussing how women and men often act differently in romantic relationships, these curricula did not acknowledge how men’s greater power outside marriage often gives them more power to withdraw from conflict within marriage.

Other programs, however, taught couples to question the belief that men and women are fundamentally different and to avoid gender stereotypes in expectations of how their spouses should think and act. The African American Relationships, Marriages, and Family curricula emphasized that gender stereotypes can be harmful to relationships and that couples should learn to be flexible when dividing work and care responsibilities. Another program, The Third Option, taught couples that they should “redefine the power struggle” within marriage by prioritizing cooperation over competition, as in a doubles game of tennis where spouses are on the same team. By focusing on fairness, equality, and shared power, many of the curricula provided limited tools for challenging gender difference and power within marriage by teaching couples strategies that privilege individual abilities, inclinations, and availability regardless of gender.

Nevertheless, the strategies for verbal negotiation taught by these programs did not address how gender inequalities—such as women’s overall lower pay—often create a power imbalance between husbands and wives tilted in favor of men, even when couples share egalitarian gender views. Gendered power exists in the broader society through unequal opportunities for women and men—or what sociologists call institutionalized gender inequalities—not just between two people in a couple. Government-sponsored marriage and relationship education programs therefore have contradictory implications for promoting greater gender equality. They encourage couples to question how narrow ideas of gender “roles” shape marital conflict and unhappiness. Yet, they are funded with money diverted from welfare programs that primarily support single mothers and children, while they teach that gender is a set of individual inclinations to be discussed and negotiated rather than a relationship of power connected to larger systems of inequality and state action.

As a case of what I call interpersonal gender interventions, healthy marriage programs focus on teaching individuals that gender equality primarily lies in developing and negotiating more egalitarian gender attitudes. Yet, interventions that promote ideas about equality will have limited utility if individuals learn to develop more egalitarian beliefs in the absence of institutional changes that enable them to act on these values. Policies need to do more than help couples redefine the marital power struggle through relationship skills; they must promote equitable access to education, employment, and stable earnings that allow partners to create fair, safe, and loving relationships. Only then will partners have truly equal power to express, pursue, and achieve their interests within marriage and family relationships.

Jennifer Randles is assistant professor of sociology at California State University, Fresno. Her article, “Redefining the Marital Power Struggle Through Relationship Skills: How United States Marriage Education Programs Challenge and Reproduce Gender Inequality,” is published in the April 2016 30 (2)  issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.


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