There is a growing need to develop an understanding of the positive pathways that strengthen the relationships of Australian couples and families. This need is highlighted by the Australian Research Council (ARC) flagging “Strengthening Australia’s social and economic fabric” as a national research priority area. The couples and families in contemporary Australian society are faced with many challenges and pressures that can mitigate against maintaining satisfying and enduring couple and family relationships. For example, increases in the need for dual income families, the working of longer hours, demographic shifts that see older people living longer and children staying at home until they are older means that couples are required to provide familial care across two generations – frail aging parents and children. These examples provide just some of the pressures faced by modern day Australian couples which ultimately mean that people are not engaging in time to cultivate their relationships. This argument is substantiated by recent figures that suggest over two-thirds of couples are keen to learn more about maintaining positive relationships but also report dissatisfaction in the amount of time devoted to fostering their relationships. These pressures seem to be having a negative effect on the longevity of couple relations that threaten the stability and sustainability of family relationships. Recent surveys suggest that steady increases over the last twenty years in divorce rates, extramarital affairs and family conflict are a result of a number of these modern demands.

The pressures arising from marital conflict and breakdown have far reaching consequences for families, the state and community, with governments struggling to provide the appropriate legal and social security entitlements to divorcees and affected families. The whole process of marital dissolution comes at great social and economic cost to the Australian community. The current changes to the Family Law Act and the recent rollout of Family Relationship Centres reflect the increasing demand on the Federal Government to meet the needs of families and an attempt to reduce the economic and time-intensive costs placed on the legal system. Nevertheless, it is only through understanding the pathways that result in satisfying and unsatisfying couple and family relationships that effective government and community educational and counselling services can be implemented.

Unfortunately there exists a substantial disconnect between research, policy and practice. While research has identified a number of factors that shape couple and family relationship outcomes, many of the policy initiatives, the educational services and counselling provided to couples and families lack a sound theoretical basis. By the same token, the homogeneity of samples upon which relationship research is conducted means that some of the more complex cases of family dysfunction are missed, yet these cases can significantly inform and refine theory and research in the area. Therefore, a key aim of the workshop is to engage in synergistic dialogue that results in enriched understandings about how theory and research can influence policy and practice, as well as how policy and practice can inform and guide research.

This workshop will deal with many of these issues and challenges facing couples and families. Specifically, topics such as maintaining positive emotional bonds, the precursors and consequences of family and couple conflict, the role of negative and positive attributions in relationships, the need for forgiveness, compassion and empathy in couples and families, sexual dysfunction, the efficacy of marital education and couple counselling, and the challenges in optimising government and community service provision will be tackled. It will bring together leading and emerging Australian and international relationship researchers with practitioners, educators, policy makers and service-delivery organisations with the aim of bridging the gap between research, policy and practice. The workshop will address key developments in the areas of policy, practice, cutting-edge theory and research design and methodology in studying couple and family relationships. The workshop will provide a platform for discussion in how research, practice and policy can inform one another about how to meet the current and emerging challenges for families while discussing positive pathways for enhancing and strengthening couple and family relationships. The proposed workshop directly addresses the Federal Government’s concern regarding the enabling factors that lead to pathways of positive “supportive [marital] and family structures [and thereby identifying and] strengthening key elements of Australia’s social fabric to help [couples], families and individuals live healthy, productive, and fulfilling lives” (Australian Research Council, 2005, p.85).