The Alabama Healthy Marriage & Relationship Education Initiative, or “AHMREI,” (former name, Alabama Community Healthy Marriage Initiative, or “ACHMI”) has been funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Family Assistance for 18 years. The AHMREI consists of two related projects: the Alabama Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education (AHMRE) Project focused on serving adult couples in the community and the Alabama Youth Relationship Education (AYRE) Project focused on serving youth in high schools.
The Alabama Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Initiative (AHMREI) is a large-scale partnership among Auburn University and 10 additional implementation partners at Family Resource Centers and community agencies. Additionally, referral partners include domestic violence prevention organizations, school systems, and Head Start centers.
Our needs in Alabama are wide-spread. Our citizens continue to face considerable challenges related to high rates of relationship and family instability and to economic strain. As citizens and professionals in a limited-resource state that has maintained one of the highest divorce rates (top 5 or 10 for 6 decades up through 2010) and one of the lowest composite rankings for children’s well-being in the country, we are highly motivated to continue to play a role in improving the quality of life in our state.
Bad relationships literally make us sick – mentally and physically. People know this – and now research has validated it. Basic research also provides us information on what sorts of things people do and think about that best predicts a healthy, long-lasting couple relationship – and a lot of this is teachable information. Our research focuses on bridging this research with practice and testing community-based relationship education for teens and adults and documenting whether this experience leads to better relationship skills, relationship quality, and health.
After 10 years of this work, with more than 61,000 people participating in classes, we have published evidence that the average teen and adult participant in a diverse group of Alabama citizens experiences benefits in their abilities to make healthy relationship decisions and to form and sustain healthy couple relationships. We have also documented that pre-school children have better social skills up to one year after their parents’ participation in a relationship education program. There also was a dramatic and uncharacteristic drop in the divorce rate in Alabama 3 years ago and we have remained below the top ten ranking each year since then. The long-term, multi-county initiative may have something to do with this.
For both the AHMRE and AYRE projects, in the next 5 years, we will test the comparative effectiveness of different program implementation models to understand how programs work best. We expect that different people may experience different levels of benefit, depending on how the information is taught. We also expect that different aspects of the program experience may affect program outcomes. The results of this phase of our research will better inform practitioners – in Alabama and around the country – about how to design programs for more diverse audiences and how to match program design to participant. We are on a path that is fine-tuning “prescriptions” for offering relationship education in our communities that will empower individuals of all ages and backgrounds with knowledge and skills for improving their “relational health.” This will in turn benefit their physical and mental health and contribute to strengthening communities.
Our Goal and Principal Objectives
- Raising public awareness of the importance of healthy, stable relationships and marriages for children, family and community well-being.
- Increasing access to healthy relationship/marriage resources for all Alabama citizens.
- Promoting access to marriage and relationship education and relevant complementary programs and services through widespread outreach in key high-need areas of Alabama;
- Enhancing citizens’ capacity for ensuring their marital and family stability, high quality coparenting and parenting relationships, management of toxic stress, and economic stability/mobility; and
- Enhance children’s chances for positive developmental trajectories.
Our Target Populations
Education is powerful! Take time to learn about healthy relationship skills – it will be one of the best investments you can make for your family and community. We’re delighted to offer these relationship and marriage education programs through community partners. Each program is based on research with families and couples. Learn information and skills that will help strengthen your relationship/marriage.
- Relationship Smarts Plus– For youth we offer the evidence-informed and evidence-based Relationship Smarts Plus (RS+) curriculum (Marline Pearson, 2013; ACF Curriculum Resource Guide), a developmentally appropriate Relationship Education curriculum specifically designed for youth. Over the years, we assisted the program developers in refining the content based on feedback sessions we held annually with participants. Based on this feedback, the current edition of the program contains more information on skills for identifying unhealthy and abusive relationships and information on the use of social media in dating relationships. Current topics also include: self-esteem building and assertiveness, understanding healthy relationship development; communication skills; conflict/anger/stress management skills; empathy and emotional understanding; affection and intimacy.
- Smart Steps for Stepfamilies– (Adler-Baeder, 2007; HMRF Guide, Child Trends, 2015) This evidence-informed and evidence-based educational curriculum consists of six 2-hour modules and is designed for couples in structurally complex families (i.e., one or both have a child from a previous relationship). It focuses on building couple and family strengths while addressing the unique needs and issues that face couples in stepfamilies. In addition to learning core relational skills (i.e., communication, conflict/stress/anger management, developing empathy) participants expand their knowledge about the value/benefit of marriage, the myths about stepfamilies, realistic expectations for stepfamily members, realistic expectations for stepfamily development, strategies for developing healthy stepparent-stepchild relationships, and effective strategies for communicating with a child’s other parent.
- Together We Can: Caring for My Family– (Shirer, et al., 2009; ACF Curriculum Resource Guide) is an evidence-informed Relationship Education program for use with co-parents. The purpose of the program is to equip coparenting mothers and fathers with skills for cooperative coparenting and for making healthy decisions about their relationship. Topics covered include: the value/benefit of healthy marriages, self-efficacy and assertiveness, developing plans for self, child, and family, self-care skills, communication skills, negotiation skills, conflict/anger/stress management, emotion regulation, empathy and emotional understanding, affection and intimacy, identifying unhealthy/abusive relationships and child maltreatment, cooperative coparenting strategies and the value/benefit of 2-parent involvement, managing complex, blended family relationships, and money management values and skills.
- ELEVATE: Taking Your Relationship to the Next Level– (Futris & Adler-Baeder, 2014) is a couples education curriculum that blends practical skills with an understanding of the physiology of human interaction to enhance healthy relationship knowledge and skills. Grounded in best-practices of family life education, two distinct characteristics of ELEVATE are (1) the practical strategies and tools taught and (2) the inclusion of mindfulness practice activities that help couples regulate their heart-brain response to stressful triggers.
- Couples Connecting Mindfully– (McGill, Ketring, & Adler-Baeder, 2015) is an evidence-informed Relationship Education curriculum that primarily emphasizes physiology, emotion, and the use of mindfulness-based stress reduction skills to address personal stress and to facilitate emotion regulation and healthy interactional patterns in couple relationships. Informational sessions are provided and the curriculum is highly interactive, focusing mainly on skills practice and “homework” practices. Topics include: effects of stress on intimacy and relationships and how mindful practices can be helpful for mental health, physical health, and relational health; the physiology of emotions and stress; mindful stress management and conflict resolution skills; and strategies for developing compassion and empathy in communication.