Nurturing Healthy Relationships Among Young Adults

Posted July 8, 2011
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog nurturingrelationships 2011

To devel­op healthy rela­tion­ships, you have to let go of unhealthy ones. Jacque­line Stew­art, 24, and Bran­don Men­jares, 18, learned that les­son from a pro­gram on healthy rela­tion­ships offered by Youth­Build in Cam­bridge, Massachusetts.

They helped teach us the dif­fer­ence between love and lust, what the dif­fer­ence is when you real­ly love some­body, and how you want to see each oth­er hap­py and achiev­ing your goals,” says Stew­art, who gath­ered the strength to let go of a rela­tion­ship that had become too aggressive.

The pro­gram also moti­vat­ed Men­jares to move on from a dead-end rela­tion­ship. It helps you with rela­tion­ships with part­ners and oth­er peo­ple in your life,” he says. I speak to peo­ple in author­i­ty dif­fer­ent­ly now, and I have learned to cope bet­ter with peo­ple I don’t like.”

When the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion was look­ing for set­tings to imple­ment a cur­ricu­lum for pro­mot­ing healthy rela­tion­ships, it reached out to Youth­Build USA, a youth and com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment pro­gram with 283 sites in com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try. Youth­Build helps low-income young peo­ple ages 16 to 24 work toward their GED or high school diplo­ma while learn­ing job skills by build­ing afford­able hous­ing. About 50 to 60 per­cent of par­tic­i­pants are sin­gle par­ents or at risk of ear­ly teen pregnancy.

With Casey sup­port, a cur­ricu­lum called Love Notes,” devel­oped by Mar­line Pear­son, was pilot­ed in 10 Youth­Build sites nation­wide. Help­ing to steer young adults away from unhealthy rela­tion­ships before they get mar­ried or become par­ents is part of a broad­er Foun­da­tion effort to improve out­comes for vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren by strength­en­ing the pos­i­tive bonds between their bio­log­i­cal parents.

When the George W. Bush admin­is­tra­tion first estab­lished the Nation­al Healthy Mar­riage resource Cen­ter in 2004, Casey was the first foun­da­tion to lend finan­cial sup­port. But under the lead­er­ship of Casey Senior Asso­ciate Car­ole Thomp­son, the Foun­da­tion sought to expand the focus beyond mar­riage to the build­ing and main­tain­ing of healthy relationships.

Rec­og­niz­ing the hero­ic” roles sin­gle par­ents play in low-income com­mu­ni­ties, the preva­lence of domes­tic vio­lence, and the need to help pre­vent teenage preg­nan­cy, we want­ed to tip the focus so it could empha­size healthy rela­tion­ships, not just healthy mar­riage,” says Thomp­son. Whether par­ents mar­ry or not, there is a bond and respon­si­bil­i­ty for the joint wel­fare of their child.”

Address­ing issues like con­flict res­o­lu­tion, de-esca­la­tion tech­niques, and good deci­sion-mak­ing gives young peo­ple tools to nav­i­gate the world bet­ter,” notes Joel Miran­da, a grad­u­ate and now assis­tant pro­gram man­ag­er of YouthBuild’s Just A Start pro­gram in Cam­bridge and Chelsea, Massachusetts.

We could get them to pass a GED, get a high school diplo­ma, or place into a col­lege course, but it was the inter­per­son­al skills when they got out” that imped­ed them, he says. We saw the num­ber of young peo­ple com­plet­ing the pro­gram improve and the num­ber mov­ing on to suc­cess­ful job place­ment improve” as they devel­oped stronger rela­tion­ship skills. Anoth­er ben­e­fit was a decrease in misog­y­nis­tic and homo­pho­bic lan­guage and a greater appre­ci­a­tion for each other.”

Health­i­er Outlook

An eval­u­a­tion of Youth­Build sites using the pro­gram showed par­tic­i­pants had improved atti­tudes, knowl­edge, skills, and behav­iors asso­ci­at­ed with healthy rela­tion­ships, such as pac­ing rela­tion­ships, man­ag­ing con­flict, set­ting appro­pri­ate bound­aries, avoid­ing vio­lence, and increas­ing their knowl­edge about sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted dis­eases and pre­vent­ing pregnancy.

The eval­u­a­tion showed that this pro­gram increased not only the knowl­edge but the behav­iors of young peo­ple about when to start sex­u­al rela­tion­ships and how to get out of one,” notes Michelle Quinn-David­son, direc­tor of the Acad­e­my for Trans­for­ma­tion at Youth­Build USA. They also devel­oped more pos­i­tive rela­tion­ships with their own par­ents and improved their par­ent­ing skills.”

The Foun­da­tion also pro­vid­ed fund­ing for a rela­tion­ship pro­gram called With­in My Reach,” pilot­ed in eight sites by the Nation­al Crit­ten­ton Foun­da­tion for two years. The Port­land, Ore­gon-based nation­al orga­ni­za­tion has 26 mem­ber agen­cies that serve young women involved in the juve­nile jus­tice and child wel­fare sys­tems, includ­ing many who are preg­nant or have chil­dren. We want­ed to embed this into a nation­al pro­gram for teen moth­ers to make it part of a two-gen­er­a­tion strat­e­gy,” notes Thompson.

Shani­qua Smith, a par­tic­i­pant in a Crit­ten­ton site in Man­hat­tan who recent­ly had a baby boy, thinks she wouldn’t still be in a rela­tion­ship with the baby’s father with­out the pro­gram. We were on the rocks bad. We were going through a lot of argu­ing, and it taught me how to lis­ten more and not cut him off every time to get my point across,” says Smith. We are get­ting along a lot bet­ter as result.”

Jessie Domin­go Salu, direc­tor of pro­grams and com­mu­ni­ca­tions of the Nation­al Crit­ten­ton Foun­da­tion, says par­tic­i­pants have learned how to make bet­ter deci­sions for them­selves and their kids and be aware of rela­tion­ships they are in and whether they are poten­tial­ly wav­ing red flags.”

Although Casey’s fund­ing has end­ed, most of the agen­cies are going to con­tin­ue to imple­ment it, and we’ll keep work­ing with them to fine-tune it and update it,” says Jean­nette Pai-Espinosa, Crittenton’s president.

When Pres­i­dent Clin­ton signed into law the Per­son­al Respon­si­bil­i­ty and Work Oppor­tu­ni­ty Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Act of 1996 (bet­ter known as wel­fare reform), it includ­ed pro­vi­sions for mar­riage strength­en­ing and incen­tives for states to reduce teenage preg­nan­cy. Under the lead­er­ship of Wade Horn, assis­tant sec­re­tary for chil­dren and fam­i­lies under the Bush admin­is­tra­tion, the gov­ern­ment launched a Nation­al Healthy Mar­riage Ini­tia­tive in 2002 and lat­er award­ed grants to 226 orga­ni­za­tions to pro­mote healthy mar­riage and respon­si­ble father­hood under the Deficit Reduc­tion Act of 2005.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment also pro­vid­ed fund­ing for eight sites to par­tic­i­pate in Build­ing Strong Fam­i­lies, an effort to study the effec­tive­ness of pro­vid­ing rela­tion­ship skills edu­ca­tion and oth­er sup­port ser­vices to unwed cou­ples who are expect­ing a child or have just had a baby. The Casey Foun­da­tion pro­vid­ed addi­tion­al assis­tance to the Cen­ter for Urban Fam­i­lies from 2005 to 2010 to help it recruit fam­i­lies and pro­vide ser­vices for the Bal­ti­more site.

The first phase of an eval­u­a­tion by Math­e­mat­i­ca Pol­i­cy Research showed that the pro­gram did not achieve its pri­ma­ry objec­tive of improv­ing the sta­bil­i­ty and qual­i­ty of the cou­ples’ relationships.”

Pro­grams in six sites gen­er­al­ly had lit­tle or no effect on rela­tion­ships as com­pared to a con­trol group. But a pro­gram in Okla­homa City had a con­sis­tent pat­tern of pos­i­tive effects on rela­tion­ship out­comes, while the one in Bal­ti­more had a num­ber of neg­a­tive effects. Bal­ti­more par­tic­i­pants were sig­nif­i­cant­ly more eco­nom­i­cal­ly dis­ad­van­taged than those in oth­er sites.

For me, a gap in the ear­ly strat­e­gy was that it didn’t rec­og­nize the chal­lenges of urban low-income cou­ples,” says Joseph Jones, pres­i­dent and chief exec­u­tive offi­cer of the Cen­ter for Urban Fam­i­lies. The lessons we learned helped us to redou­ble our efforts to pro­vide a blend of ser­vices that deal with rela­tion­ship skill-build­ing and eco­nom­ic circumstances.”

As a result, the Cen­ter for Urban Fam­i­lies received fed­er­al fund­ing for Cou­ples Advanc­ing Togeth­er, which infus­es top­ics like finan­cial edu­ca­tion, bud­get­ing, child care man­age­ment, and fam­i­ly plan­ning into rela­tion­ship build­ing. If you don’t address all of these things togeth­er, you are lim­it­ed,” notes Jones. Stress relat­ed to finances can kill almost any relationship.”

Cou­ples Advanc­ing Togeth­er par­tic­i­pants Ravon Davis, 24, and Denise Andrews, 21, say they are work­ing on their work­force goals and wait­ing until they are more secure finan­cial­ly to mar­ry. But thanks to the rela­tion­ship skills they’ve learned, they are plan­ning a future togeth­er with their infant son.

With­out this sup­port, the cou­ple says they wouldn’t have last­ed five years and be liv­ing together.

Both of us grew up with­out fathers,” notes Davis. We already know what it’s like first­hand to not have your par­ents togeth­er.” Adds Andrews: Our par­ents hat­ed each oth­er, and we want­ed our child to have a total­ly dif­fer­ent experience.”

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