For 18 years, UCF has been helping families stay together by teaching couples research-supported techniques focused on effective communication and listening.

More than 7,000 couples have benefited from the Marriage and Family Research Institute (MFRI), led by Sejal Barden and Dalena Dillman Taylor, professor and associate professor of counselor education, respectively. According to Barden, 99% of couples indicated being highly satisfied with the services they received.

“Our main focus is on communication,” Barden says, the executive director of MFRI. “But what’s really at the heart of communication is learning how to listen. What does it mean to listen? How do you respond to your partner in a way that shows that you listened? Teaching active listening skills is a key component of both of our programs. Conflict is inevitable, but how we listen and what we share through conflict is important to learn.”

The work of the institute, funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Administration for Children and Families division, has become even more critical in the past two years.

Day-to-day worries, inflation, supply chain issues and global uncertainty compounded with the strain of the pandemic are significant stressors burdening families across the U.S., according to the American Psychological Association.

“Individuals and couples from economically disadvantaged households face additional barriers,” Barden says. “Not only do they have economic hardships, but they also have less access to resources focused on building healthy relationships and finding ways to communicate daily stressors and resolve conflict. These factors can lead to prolonged chronic stress.”

To support couples from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in the greater Orlando metro area, counselor education researchers at UCF established MFRI in 2003. Since then, they have secured federal funding to strengthen relationships and families through relationship education workshops at no cost to the Central Florida community.

“Federal funding to study relationship education started in response to the high divorce rate,” says Barden. “Can relationship education make a difference in reducing marriage dissolution, strengthening relationships and, ultimately, providing a stable household for children? Our research says yes.”

Project Harmony 2.0

Since 2015, Barden and Taylor, who is MFRI’s senior implementation director, have received more than $17 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to study the impact of relationship education on individuals and couples.

“Relationship education is grounded in the idea that we can experience positive outcomes in many areas of our lives if we can learn how to develop and maintain healthy, safe and stable relationships,” Barden says. “The research supports that individuals, couples and families can learn specific strategies and skills to engage in happy, healthy relationships relatively quickly.”

The institute’s current five-year research project, Project Harmony 2.0, will support 1,500 married and committed couples through 2025. Couples from economically disadvantaged backgrounds will participate in a relationship education program in English or Spanish utilizing two delivery options.

The institute transitioned to an online platform during the onset of COVID-19 in 2019 as it was the only viable and safe delivery mode. Now, it will implement an online relationship education program using a specific curriculum designed for virtual learning as well as its traditional face-to-face program. The researchers compare the efficacy of both programs on the couples.

Project Harmony’s relationship education programs utilize evidence-based curriculums that teach couples how to communicate better, relieve stress and fight less often. Project Harmony’s relationship education program is considered a preventative framework and also includes financial literacy and career education.

The institute offers face-to-face participants free childcare on-site, catered meals, bus vouchers and gift cards to mitigate financial obstacles. The online participants will receive gift cards and relationship coaching.

MFRI uses a robust recruiting process and collaborates with community partners to increase accessibility and expand the reach of the people served.

“We’ve established ourselves in the community; we are known for providing these services,” Dillman Taylor says. “Relationship education is not as stigmatizing as marital or couples counseling. Our workshops don’t feel as intimidating; couples learn and practice new skills in a group setting. They learn new ways to communicate with their partners.”

Barden received her Ph.D. in counseling and education development from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has served as MFRI’s executive director and the principal investigator of Project Harmony since 2015.

Dillman Taylor received her Ph.D. in counseling with a minor in play therapy from the University of North Texas. She has served as MFRI’s senior implementation director and co-principal investigator of Project Harmony since 2015. Dillman Taylor is also the director of the UCF Play Lab.