“They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for,” said Tom Bodett, an American author, voice actor, and radio host. In a forthcoming study, School of Family Life professor Alan Hawkins demonstrates that love and hope are inexorably connected. The study focused on how hope plays an integral role in the ability of couples to fix their relationships.
“Relationship hope is what it sounds like: hope for the future of the relationship,” says Dr. Hawkins, “hope that you have the knowledge and skills to make the relationship strong in the future, even if you are experiencing challenging problems now.” One-hundred eight-two married and unmarried, low-income couples took part in Family Expectations, a psycho-educational intervention in Oklahoma City that lasted 30 hours. They completed a pretest and an exit interview; the researchers used these assessments to study how relationship hope had affected what they got out of their sessions and whether hope increased as a result of their participation.
Dr. Hawkins found that those with the lowest amount of hope at their pretest were the ones who benefited the most from the intervention. “Those who are lowest have the most room to grow,” he said. “But also, these are the ones who possibly come to these programs with the most ‘pain’ and the most motivation to change. They sense that without help and change their relationship will fall apart.” Interestingly, he found that women’s relationship hope increased the most when their partner exhibited growth in positive relationship skills. “Previous research has shown that women are more sensitive to the overall quality of the relationship and monitor the ‘health’ of the relationship more than men. I think they are more attuned to changes in their partners than are men. And when they see positive change, it really means a lot to them. Women are just more relationship-oriented.”
What was the impetus behind the study? Dr. Hawkins serves as a member of the Research Advisory Group for Project Relate, an Oklahoma-based organization supporting relationship education services in the U.S. It is one of two state-government-supported organizations providing relationship education services. “I was excited to evaluate their flagship program, ‘Family Expectations,’ said Hawkins. “[It] serves hundreds of low-income married and unmarried couples every year. Moreover, I wanted to test explicitly the role of relationship hope in relationship education.”
What are the implications of these findings? Hawkins believes that a possible implication is that, if counseling program developers ensure that their processes are aligned well with men’s interests and learning styles, they will be more successful. As to where his research will go next, he says: “I hope to spur more researchers in the relationship education field to focus on…relationship hope. Also, I think the construct of relationship hope in a particular relationship is important, but I think it is also important for youth/young adults to have a general hope that they can achieve a healthy, stable relationship and marriage. So I may play with broadening the concept to general relationship hope (not hope about a specific relationship).”
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all,” wrote the poet Emily Dickinson. In a relationship, such hope is crucial. Through his research, Dr. Hawkins expertly reinforced this truth.