Iowa State University Helps Couples Improve Their Relationships

August 10, 2016, 2:08 pm | Shannon Stump

AMES, Iowa -- Iowa State University will soon offer a new program that applies a national research-based training model to help couples have healthy relationships.

Elevate, a new curriculum offered by Human Sciences Extension and Outreach, is aimed at helping couples learn skills to improve their relationships.

Couples Improve RelationshipsThe program is designed for couples in all types of relationships: dating, premarital, cohabiting, married or married with blended families. It’s based on the national Healthy Relationship and Marriage Education Training model.

“When couples come to therapy, we’re intervening at that point. Usually, they’re in some sort of a crisis when they come to see us,” said Anthony Santiago, a marital and family therapist who’s also a specialist with Human Sciences Extension and Outreach.

“Elevate, though, is for all couples,” Santiago said. “Couples don’t have to be in crisis in order for them to benefit. This is more of a preventative, educational program for all couples. The bottom line is we have learned a lot about what works, and what doesn’t work over the last 30 years. We’ve seen tons of research on why relationships work or why they don’t work.”

Launching Elevate this fall

Santiago is working with David Brown and Kristi Cooper, who are both field specialists with Human Sciences Extension and Outreach, to launch Elevate in Iowa. They hope to launch pilot programs around the state in the fall.

Before Iowa couples can benefit from this training, experts will train extension staff on how to offer it. The first Elevate facilitator training for extension staff will be held Aug. 30 and 31 at the ISU Extension and Outreach Polk County Office.

“For extension staff wanting to offer training directly to couples and families, Elevate is perfect,” Santiago said. “They don’t have to modify it. It’s designed for couples. It’s a very practical, skills-based training.”

Ted Futris, an associate professor and extension family life specialist at the University of Georgia, and co-director of National Extension Relationship and Marriage Education Network, will facilitate this first Elevate training for Iowa extension specialists.

The program will complement two other Human Sciences Extension and Outreach programs aimed at strengthening Iowa families: Together We Can: Creating a Healthy Future for our Family and Strengthening Families Program: For Parents and Youth 10-14.

A national model

Elevate’s curriculum follows the National Extension Relationship and Marriage Education Model, a model based on literature covering healthy marriage predictors.

The model was a result of collaborative efforts by the National Extension Relationship and Marriage Education Network, a network of extension specialists and educators from land-grant institutions across the country. Santiago is an executive member of the network and helped develop the model and the programs for which it is the basis.

Thanks to a $1.2 million federal grant in 2008 from the Healthy Marriage Initiative, the network used the model to develop the Healthy Relationship and Marriage Education Training program for professionals whose work revolves around promoting family well-being such as clergy, licensed mental health professionals, child welfare professionals and family support staff.

“We basically created the training program from scratch,” Santiago said. “It was designed for professionals who as part of their daily jobs work with couples. We can offer Healthy Relationship and Marriage Education Training for them and provide them another set of tools in their toolbox.”

Collectively, Elevate’s modules cover the seven core qualities of the model: care for self, choose, know, care, share, manage and connect. These qualities each delve into critical mental, physical and emotional skill sets that have been shown to bring the best out of couple relationships. For example, “know” focuses on truly getting to know one’s significant other, while “manage” refers to healthy conflict resolution.

The eight-hour curriculum can be adapted based on the instructors’ or couples’ schedules. The program can take place over one day, eight weekly sessions or anywhere in between. It covers eight 60-minute modules: introduction, empower yourself, lay the foundation, enlighten, value, attach, tame and engage. The curriculum is intended to be interactive and encompasses worksheets, discussion time, icebreakers, and skills practice.

Not a replacement for therapy

Santiago and Brown previously facilitated Healthy Relationship and Marriage Education Training sessions in September 2015. That curriculum was designed to “train the trainers,” who could then use the model to help their clients achieve healthy relationships.

“There was a strong interest in working with couples,” Brown said. “We were trying to use the Healthy Relationship and Marriage Education Training program for couples, but then we just started thinking, ‘Let’s clarify our audiences and make it very clear which audiences are for which program, and have a training specifically for that audience.’”

The curriculum is not designed to serve as a replacement for marriage and family therapy, as couples are still encouraged to use these tools if their particular situations are best suited for sessions with a licensed therapist. It is designed to provide practical skills to give couples a better understanding of the tools to ensure healthy relationships.

Reaching new audiences

Santiago and Brown will also launch a new session of Healthy Relationship and Marriage Education Training for Iowa Army National Guard chaplains and other family support professionals, Aug. 13 at Camp Dodge in Johnston.

“These professionals are out there supporting military families,” Brown said. “We’re really excited about this training.”

In addition, the extension specialists see another potential audience expansion for Elevate: married Iowa State graduate students.

“It’s not easy to manage a relationship while going through school,” Santiago said.

Both facilitators realize graduate student schedules are full, but are interested in breaking the program down into small components over multiple weeks to help them fit it into their lives.

“The research is clear,” the curriculum description states. “There is simply this amazing connection between relationship quality, positive parenting practices and healthy child outcomes. This truly reinforces the notion that a strong adult couple relationship is the foundation for a healthy family.”

Photo: Diane and Bill Jamison talk about the benefits of the Elevate couples education curriculum to enhance healthy relationship knowledge and skills — such as improving communication and reducing stress. Contributed photo.


Anthony Santiago, college projects specialist, Human Sciences Extension and Outreach, Iowa State University, 515-294-7042,

David Brown, field specialist, Human Sciences Extension and Outreach, Iowa State University, 515-298-1505,

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