FSU Family Institute wins federal grant to help students build better relationships

Frank Fincham

Armed with a new grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services worth $2.6 million over five years, the Florida State University Family Institute will help undergraduates strengthen and sustain safe, healthy romantic relationships and reject negative, unhealthy ones now and in the future through a unique skills-based relationship education program.

"This grant has the potential to change a significant feature of the student environment and place our university at the vanguard in optimizing the quality of life and safety in its undergraduate community," said FSU Family Institute Director and Eminent Scholar Frank Fincham, who proposed and will oversee the new initiative.

"Ultimately, in addition to making our own university better, we will be evaluating our program’s impact on students’ individual and relational well-being in order to develop an empirically informed and empirically tested program for college students that can be disseminated across the state and nation," he said.

Part of FSU’s College of Human Sciences—and focused on interdisciplinary research that informs public policy—the Family Institute is one of the 13 public and faith-based organizations across the state awarded a 2006 Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood grant, part of nearly $33 million in support from Health and Human Services to strengthen Florida families over the next five years.

"The college years bring the need to negotiate new life roles and relationships, so they are particularly important ones in which to provide skill-based education that may positively influence both future relationships and future offspring," Fincham said.

"We know that young people involved in committed and supportive intimate relationships experience better psychological and physical well-being and notably, engage in fewer high-risk behaviors," he said. An internationally recognized psychologist whose research has focused on relationship development and conflict in marriage and partnerships, Fincham characterizes "intimate" relationships in part as those in which partners have frequent, strong impacts on one another and exhibit a high level of interdependence.

Clearly, some relationships need help. Fincham cites troubling national statistics:

About a third of sexually active college students report having multiple sex partners during the preceding 11 weeks and of those students, 75 percent report erratic or no condom use and failure to disclose to their current sex partner their risky sexual behavior. Even among students who say that they are "in an exclusive relationship," nearly 40 percent report sexual relations with someone other than their partner.

Physical aggression in college romantic relationships is prevalent as well, with approximately a third reporting acts such as slapping and shoving, initiated by both men and women. Though not uncommon among college-age youth, research shows that co-habitation, absent a clear commitment (engagement), does not improve outcomes of marriages that may eventually result—and about 30 percent of dating couples in college find themselves married within five years.

"In fact," Fincham said, "a lot of young people in relationships don’t really make decisions, they simply go along for the ride, or as one of my colleagues puts it, ‘sliding instead of deciding’ into situations that may not be in their best interest."

According to Kay Pasley, FSU family and child sciences department chair, Fincham’s skill-based relationship education program will become a component of an existing universitywide course called "Family Relations: A Lifespan Developmental Approach," which is based on a nationally recognized relationship development course for single adults.

She and Fincham expect that a quarter of FSU students will participate (about 11,000 over five years), gaining knowledge and understanding through the lecture component, then applying that knowledge and developing vital practical skills in small breakout sessions.

"We intend to build a national model of relationship and marriage education for young adults," Fincham said. "As with all Family Institute research, we mean to inform family policymakers across the nation and provide an empirical foundation for their outreach efforts."

The FSU Family Institute is dedicated to promoting the well-being of children and families through research. It brings together a variety of disciplines, experts and students with government and community resources to provide a centralized source of research expertise, information and critical thinking related to families. To learn more, visit the FSU Family Institute Web site at: http://www.chs.fsu.edu/family_institute/.