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Abstract

Since the mid-1990s, the federal government has funded numerous relationship skills programs, including some specifically targeting low-income, unmarried parents, in an effort to strengthen couples’ relationships and increase family stability. The previous research on the effectiveness of these interventions has revealed mixed results about whether such programs can improve the relationships of lower income couples who tend to experience lower relationship quality, lower marriage rates, and higher rates of relationship dissolution. This article draws on in-depth qualitative data collected during an 18-month ethnographic study of one federally funded relationship skills program for unmarried, low-income couples expecting a new baby. Overall, though parents found the financial management lessons included in the classes only minimally useful, if at all, they found other aspects of the program particularly useful for three main reasons: (1) classes allowed parents to focus exclusively on their couple relationships in ways they rarely did otherwise; (2) program incentives helped parents make financial ends meet that month; and (3) parents learned that the challenges they personally experienced were often endemic to the romantic and co-parenting relationships of unmarried parents who have few resources and experience more challenges that tend to undermine relationship quality, such as financial stress and relational ambiguity. Engaging with other couples around shared challenges normalized couples’ relationship problems and lessened the resentment and animosity that typically characterized their partner interactions. These findings have important implications for healthy marriage and relationship policy. Program developers should avoid lessons that imply low-income, unmarried parents’ spending habits and family-formation decisions are deficient. Interventions should instead encourage couples to discuss their shared challenges and minimize their tendency to individualize relational and financial strain.