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How one science-backed program helps couples build strong romantic partnerships


Emily Stenhoff and Spencer Strunic sharing a meal at Sugar River Pizza in Madison, Wisconsin. Courtesy of Emily Stenhoff and Spencer Strunic

Emily Stenhoff and Spencer Strunic first met at a Sugar River Pizza in Madison, Wisconsin nearly five years ago.

Today, the couple says they’re grateful for an online program that helped them strengthen their relationship and feel more equipped to tackle the challenges of marriage and parenting.

Before they met, Emily and Spencer both said they’d been searching for a real connection on dating apps for a while. 

Spencer said that when he met Emily, he knew he’d found it. 

“I just felt like I right away knew she was genuine and not putting on some big show, and [that] just made it feel so relaxing,” Spencer said. “And then, especially as we started talking about growing up in little farm towns, and how our families are kind of crazy in different ways, it just felt like we'd known each other for so long.” 

It didn’t take long for Emily and Spencer’s relationship to progress. Only six months after their first date, they returned to Sugar River Pizza, this time on the night before their wedding.

“We just kind of kept going down our relationship roller coaster. And then here we are in our house with our 3-year-old son,” Spencer said. 

While navigating married life and raising a child, the couple said they started experiencing small problems in the relationship. Emily said there were never any major problems in the relationship, but she felt like there was room for improvement. 

“It seemed like we were having kind of like the same little spats over and over again, and not really hearing each other and listening to each other very well,” she said. 

That’s when Emily stumbled upon The Strong Couples Project online.

Allen Barton has been researching love and relationships for years, and he launched the project three years ago. Barton, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said it’s for couples who want to strengthen their relationship and prevent larger problems.

“Romantic relationships are very central to our lives — anybody that's been in one can attest to that. They can also attest that they're often a little bit harder than we thought. They are not as easy as we hoped,” Barton said. “So just knowing how to get help and how to keep things going strong is often a challenge.”

The program teaches couples how to reduce relationship stressors by learning how to navigate conflict and communicate better. Strong Couples also focuses on enhancing the positive aspects of relationships, such as enjoying more quality time together. Couples watch instructional videos and attend live coaching sessions with researchers.

Barton said couples should work on their relationship the same way people work on their physical health. 

“You can kind of think of it as: There are physical therapists that really develop this tailored treatment plan when you really need a lot of work,” Barton said. “But you can have a personal trainer that's like, ‘Okay, let's kind of do these exercises and get things going back where they didn't want to be before things get really bad.’”

 The Strong Couples project is one of the most evidence-based of its kind, Barton said. Research shows that couples who use the program report better communication, more stability, more support from their partner, and even fewer sleep problems and less problematic alcohol use.

After going through the program, Spencer and Emily said they started approaching conflict better. When they disagreed on when their son should start school, the couple said they were able to make a decision together using techniques from the program. 

“Let’s brainstorm ideas together and let’s talk through them all together… It just felt a lot more productive than trying to be right independently,” Spencer said.

The couple also said they started feeling more excited about their relationship. 

“We had date nights before. But I don't think we treated them as sacredly as we do now,” Emily said. “That's our time to really connect again and just laugh and just be light-hearted and just really love each other.” 

They said they started feeling closer. 

I think it really comes from feeling like we're much more receptive to the other person. [We have a better] understanding of each other and feel heard by each other,” Spencer said. 

More couples — even if they are already in a good place — need to work on their relationships, Barton said. 

“Relationships are probably one of the most confusing things that we do in our lives,” he said. “Sometimes you need to work out your relationships because it’s gotten weak, it's got to get strengthened some way.” 

Barton said he also notices couples who go through the program look and talk to each other with more warmth.

While there are no “cure-all” techniques that will make your relationship perfect, he said, there are some scientifically backed methods that can reduce the impact of fights and bring more excitement and hopefulness into the relationship.