According to a recent study from the University of Illinois, strengthening your couple relationship may be part of the answer for people looking to improve their health in 2021. The study looked at long-term changes in partner health after participating in a new program for two-parent African American families.
“We found that we saw collateral benefits in strengthening the couple dyad. The couple relationship grew stronger, and this in turn translates into benefits in a variety of other areas, including better sleep, fewer depressive symptoms, and better overall perceived health,” says Allen Barton, Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of I and lead author of the study.
The Program to Protect Strong African American Families (ProSAAF) uses a cognitive behavioral approach with the goal of improving and strengthening couples’ interaction patterns and mindsets. Particular attention has been paid to contextual stressors that rural African Americans experience and to help couples prevent these stressors from spreading into their relationship.
Barton and co-authors Justin Lavner and Steven Beach of the University of Georgia conducted the research with 346 African American families in rural Georgia. Half of the families were randomly selected to participate in ProSAAF while the other half were assigned to a control group.
“We challenge unhelpful behavior patterns and identify more effective ways to interact, whether it’s challenges inside or outside the relationship,” explains Barton. “The goal is to make couples feel like a team and regardless of the challenges they face, they can overcome them together. We want to unite the couple and help them, their partner as a source of support and not seen as a source of frustration. “
The program consisted of six sessions over six weeks, conducted at home with the help of a trained facilitator. Study participants also completed questionnaires on various measures to assess physical, mental, and relationship health. The researchers collected data four times, starting with a pre-test pre-test, followed by post-program surveys eight, 16 and 24 months after pre-test data collection.
As expected, program participants reported significant improvements in couple function, including effective communication, relationship trust, partner support, and relationship satisfaction. The researchers found no direct impact of program participation on health outcomes. However, they observed significant indirect effects as program-induced improvements in couple function predicted improvements in general health, fewer depressive symptoms, decreased sleep problems, and decreased substance abuse.
These results lead to “tempered optimism,” said Barton.
For some couples – especially those who are a little distressed in their relationship research – research suggests programs like this are likely to have more immediate and direct effects on improving individual health and wellbeing. For others, the improvement in health will be more pronounced after changes are noted in the relationship. It is like a cascade effect where participation in the program leads to improvements in couple function and those improvements in couple function in turn lead to better physical, mental, and behavioral health for the individual. “
Allen Barton, Assistant Professor, Human Development and Genealogy Division, U of I.
Barton and colleagues are conducting a follow-up study to gain a deeper understanding of the health benefits of participating in programs like ProSAAF. To do this, they collect biological data from participants to study the program’s impact on cytokine levels, metabolic risk, and epigenetic aging (a measure of a person’s “biological age”).
University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences (ACES)
Barton, AW, et al. (2020) Can interventions that strengthen couples’ relationships bring additional health benefits? A randomized controlled trial in African American couples. Prevention science. doi.org/10.1007/s11121-020-01175-7.