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ASPE Research Brief - Multisite Family Study on Incarceration, Parenting and Partnering, ASPE, DHHS, 2016

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ASPE RESEARCH BRIEF, OFFICE OF THE ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR PLANNING AND EVALUATION,
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
MARCH 2016

MULTI-SITE FAMILY STUDY ON INCARCERATION,
PARENTING AND PARTNERING
Change in Couple Relationships
Before, During, and After
Incarceration
SUMMARY OF FINDINGS
The MFS-IP study offers a unique opportunity to
examine change in couple relationships over time
among a sub-sample of 641 heterosexual couples who
were in an intimate relationship at the time the study
started. All of the male partners in this analysis were
incarcerated in state prison when the study started and
released before the study ended.
Y	 After the male partner’s release from prison, fewer
couples defined their relationships as intimate, lived
together, or were exclusive with one another than
during the period of incarceration.
Y	 Two common factors shaped whether participants
defined their relationships as intimate, lived
together, or were exclusive with one another after
release: stronger fidelity attitudes and behaviors,
and greater relationship happiness during
incarceration.
Y	 Other factors that were associated with one or more
of these three relationship outcomes after release
included: longer relationship duration, being
married, having children together, more contact
during incarceration, and satisfaction with help
received to maintain contact during incarceration.
Y	 Length of the male partner’s incarceration,
participation in relationship education, and baseline
communication skills did not appear to affect
whether participants defined their relationships as
intimate, lived together, or were exclusive with one
another after release.

About This Research Brief 
This brief presents data on 
couple relationships before, 
during, and after incarceration 
from the Multi­site Family Study 
on Incarceration, Parenting and 
Partnering (MFS­IP).  The study 
includes implementation and 
impact evaluations and qualitative 
and quantitative analyses of 
participants in programs funded 
by the U.S.  Department of Health 
and Human Services to provide 
services to incarcerated fathers 
and their families. 
This brief was prepared by 
Christine Lindquist, Justin 
Landwehr, Tasseli McKay, Rose 
Feinberg, Megan Comfort, and 
Anupa Bir of RTI International, 
under contract to the Office of the 
Assistant Secretary for Planning 
and Evaluation.  Linda Mellgren 
and Erica Meade are the federal 
project officers. 
 
Office of the Assistant Secretary 
for Planning and Evaluation/Office 
of Human Services Policy 
 

Administration for Children and 
Families/Office of Family 
Assistance 
 

U.S.  Department of Health and 
Human Services, Washington, DC 

 

BACKGROUND

Men who are in prison in the United States often navigate relationships with intimate partners
before, during, and after their incarceration. Although rates of legal marriage are relatively low
among incarcerated persons, studies consistently find that the majority of male prisoners
consider themselves to be in an intimate relationship (Khan, Behrend, Adimora, Weir, Tisdale,
et al., 2011; Lattimore & Visher, 2009; Lindquist, McKay, Bir, & Steffey, 2015; Mumola, 2000;
Visher & Courtney, 2007). Low marriage rates obscure the reality that many justice-involved
men engage in long-term intimate relationships that may involve cohabitation when they are
not incarcerated. Indeed, one study of incarcerated persons from Ohio found that 46 percent
lived with a spouse or intimate partner prior to incarceration (Visher & Courtney, 2007), and
nationally representative data for men incarcerated in state prisons show that 44 percent were
either married or lived with a partner at the time of their arrest (Lindquist et al., 2015; Mumola,
2000; Visher & Courtney, 2007).
Strong family relationships can be sources of much-needed emotional, financial, and practical
support for men during their incarceration (Braman, 2004; Comfort, 2007; Herman-Stahl, Kan, &
McKay, 2008). However, incarceration presents specific challenges that may complicate the
maintenance of strong and healthy relationships. Marital and partner bonds can be weakened by
changes in roles associated with the male partner’s absence, psychological changes, and
economic strain (Fishman, 1990; Girshick, 1996; Lopoo & Western, 2005; Western &
McLanahan, 2000). As incarcerated men adjust to the stress, rigid routines, and deprivation of
freedom in the prison environment, they may adopt coping mechanisms that impede
relationships with intimate partners and family members (Haney, 2001; Nurse, 2002, 2004).
Furthermore, incarceration itself may aggravate existing relationship struggles or generate new
difficulties, such as issues of lost income, a sense of abandonment, or frustration with prison
visiting regulations (Christian, 2005; Hagan & Dinovitzer, 1999; Hairston, 2003). Having a loved
one go to prison can cause depression, anxiety, or other forms of psychological distress, which
in turn may affect interpersonal relationships (Wildeman, Schnittker, & Turney, 2012).
Given the known challenges and stressors associated with maintaining a relationship when one
partner is incarcerated, it follows that many intimate partner relationships change and deteriorate
over time. Although research on rates of relationship dissolution associated with a single,
discrete incarceration term is limited, rates of divorce and relationship dissolution are
substantially higher among incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons than among the
general population (Lopoo & Western, 2005; Lynch & Sabol, 2004). The one published study
that has examined relationship dissolution during a single incarceration, which focused on a
single-state sample of HIV-positive incarcerated men, found that half (52%) of the men were in
primary relationships at the beginning of the focal incarceration, and 55 percent of these
relationships had ended by the time of the in-prison follow-up survey (Khan, Behrend, Adimora,
Weir, Tisdale, et al., 2011). The men cited their current incarceration, financial concerns,
substance use by either partner, and non-monogamy by either partner as the main reasons that
their intimate relationships ended.
For relationships that survive the incarceration period, reentry can bring a new set of stressors.
Family members have been described as the “front line” of reentry, and individuals returning
from prison are highly dependent on them for material, economic, and emotional support
(Bobbitt & Nelson, 2004). This can place a heavy burden on partners who want to welcome a
loved one home but feel ill-equipped to meet the reentering person’s needs (Comfort, 2007;
Cooke, 2005). When relationship difficulties that arose during incarceration are unresolved,
partnership dynamics can be sources of tension, hindering post-release efforts to desist from
criminal activity and avoid reincarceration (Bahr, Harris, Fisher, & Harker Armstrong, 2010;
Capaldi, Kim, & Owen, 2008; Herrera, Wiersma, & Cleveland, 2010; Nurse, 2004).

ASPE RESEARCH BRIEF | 2

Specific factors found to contribute to low marriage rates and relationship dissolution among
formerly incarcerated men include barriers to becoming economic providers due to lack of
employment opportunities, the fact that men who spend portions of their lives behind bars have
less time in the community to develop relationships with potential partners, and the effects of
sustained separation from existing partners (Edin, 2000; Lane et al., 2004; Massoglia,
Remster, & King, 2011; Pager, 2007; Wilson, 1996). The role of contact through letters, phone
calls, and visits has been repeatedly identified as pivotal in maintaining family ties during (and
possibly after) an incarceration (Braman & Wood, 2003; Christian, 2005; Comfort, 2002;
Hairston, 1991). Such ties have consistently been found to play an important role in lower
recidivism, decreased substance use, and other positive outcomes when men return home
from prison, pointing to the importance of providing services and programs that can help
support them (Bales & Mears, 2008; Bobbitt & Nelson, 2004; Hagan & Coleman, 2001;
Hairston, 1988; Laub, Nagin, & Sampson, 1998; Shapiro & Schwartz, 2001).

STUDY PURPOSE AND METHODS
Understanding what supports strong relationship quality among formerly incarcerated men and
their partners could therefore have an impact on individual, interpersonal, and community
safety and wellbeing. The findings presented here, drawn from a couples-based longitudinal
study of families affected by incarceration, give insight into issues facing couples before,
during, and after incarceration and identify key factors that predict stronger couple relationships
after release.
To identify whether couple relationships changed during incarceration and reentry, and what
factors influenced those changes, we focused on three dimensions of relationship status from
the general population literature. First, we assessed rates and predictors of self-defined
relationship status, a widely used construct in relationship research. Self-defined relationship
status is particularly important for this study given prior evidence from justice-involved samples
that the majority of men are unmarried but consider themselves to be in an intimate relationship
(Day, Acock, Bahr, & Arditti, 2005; Khan, Behrend, Adimora, Weir, White, et al., 2011). This
construct was operationalized in our analysis as whether the male and female partners both
endorsed that they were “romantically involved” with one another at a given survey wave.
Second, we examined rates and predictors of couple coresidence after release. This
construct was chosen based on prior research indicating that the physical separation of the
incarcerated partner from the household is a highly salient aspect of the incarceration
experience for many couples (Massoglia et al., 2011). Whether incarceration has a transitory
(e.g., during the time of imprisonment only) or permanent (lasting beyond the incarceration
itself) influence on couple coresidence is not yet understood. Third, we assessed rates and
predictors of relationship exclusivity (i.e., monogamy) after release, based on evidence for
the central role of exclusivity in prior research on relationship status and dissolution among
justice-involved couples (Khan, Behrend, Adimora, Weir, Tisdale, et al., 2011).
The independent variables explored as predictors of post-release couple relationship status in
this brief were chosen based on literature identifying these factors as being likely to influence
intimate relationship stability or dissolution in either the general population or among couples
affected by incarceration. Baseline marital status, communication skills, and relationship
happiness were all examined on the basis of general population research that links each of
these four constructs to relationship stability over time (Bumpass & Sweet, 1995; Robinson &
Blanton, 1993; Rosenfeld, 2014). Receipt of relationship education, which has been
associated with increased communication skills and relationship happiness in some impact
studies (Lundquist, Hsueh, Lowenstein, Faucetta, Gubits, Michalopoulos, & Knox, 2014; Wood,
Moore, Clarkwest, Killewald, & Monahan, 2012), was also examined. Duration of the male
partner’s incarceration was included in the models based on literature suggesting that
prolonged separation from a partner increases likelihood of relationship dissolution (Massoglia
ASPE RESEARCH BRIEF | 3

et al., 2011). Fidelity was included based on prior research indicating that non-monogamy is
an important cause of relationship dissolution among couples in which one partner is
incarcerated (Khan, Behrend, Adimora, Weir, Tisdale, et al., 2011). Finally, previous research
has identified increased family contact during incarceration in the form of visits, letters, and
phone calls as contributing to decreased recidivism upon release (Bales & Mears, 2008; Berg
& Huebner, 2010; Hairston, 1991; Mills & Codd, 2008). While its impact on post-release
partner relationship outcomes was not examined in these studies, the observed influence of
family contact on other post-release outcomes suggests that such a link is worth investigating.

Data Collection Approach
Funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant
Secretary for Planning and Evaluation and the Office of Family Assistance, the Multi-site
Family Study on Incarceration, Parenting and Partnering (MFS-IP) documents the
implementation and effectiveness of relationship and family-strengthening programming for
justice-involved couples during incarceration and after release. Data collected for the impact
study also provide a wealth of new information on the experiences of families before, during,
and after incarceration. Although this brief uses data collected for the MFS-IP evaluation, the
results presented here are not findings about the impact of MFS-IP programming. Rather, the
data are used to generate insight into salient issues for a large sample of couples before,
during, and after incarceration and identify key factors that predict stronger family relationships
post-release.
Survey data collection with incarcerated men and their partners was conducted in five impact
sites (Indiana, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota) selected from among the 12 MFS­
IP grantees. Beginning in December 2008, couples participating in MFS-IP programming1 and
a set of similar couples not participating in that programming were enrolled in the national
impact study. Interviews were conducted at baseline and at nine- and 18-month follow-up with
1,991 men and 1,482 partners in the five sites, and 34-month follow-up interviews were
conducted with over 1,000 couples in two sites. During the baseline interview, at which point
all the men were incarcerated, men identified their primary intimate or coparenting partners,
who were then recruited for baseline interviews. The longitudinal surveys collected information
about relationship quality, family stability, and reentry. In-depth qualitative interviews are also
being conducted among a subsample of couples to better understand the context of family
relationships during incarceration and reentry.

Sample Characteristics
This paper examines intimate relationship quality over time among couples in which the male
partner was released from prison prior to the 9-, 18-, or 34-month interview and in which both
partners completed the first post-release interview (n=641 couples). Baseline interview data
and data from the couples’ first post-release interview are used, with data combined across
sites and for treatment and comparison groups—meaning that some study participants
received MFS-IP programming and others received “treatment as usual.” Relationship
education programming was not received by all men in the treatment group and many
treatment and comparison group men received relationship education programming through
programs other than MFS-IP.2 (Individual reports of relationship education receipt are distinct
from receipt of the MFS-IP intervention, which was a multi-component, couples-based family

1

2

Relationship strengthening programming provided through this initiative is described in “Strategies for Building Healthy

Relationship Skills Among Couples Affected by Incarceration”: http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/08/mfs-ip/RelationshipSkills/rb.shtml

(Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, 2012)

Forty percent of men in the study sample reported in their baseline interviews that they had participated in relationship education
classes at some point since being incarcerated.
ASPE RESEARCH BRIEF | 4

strengthening intervention.) All study respondents were subject to the selection criteria for the
evaluation (Lindquist et al., 2015).
Exhibit 1 summarizes the characteristics of the study couples at the baseline interview, which
took place on average about two and a half years after the male partner’s admission to prison.
Most of the couples in the study sample reported being in non-married intimate relationships
that were exclusive and long-term. The vast majority of men and women had minor children
and coparented at least one child together (with men reporting coparenting with three partners
and women reporting coparenting with two partners, on average). Finally, fathers had fairly
extensive criminal justice histories beginning around age 17. When considered in the context
the average duration of couples’ relationships, it is evident that many couples likely
experienced previous cycles of incarceration and reentry.
Comparison with National 
Data 
The study sample includes a 
large number of men in 
committed relationships and 
men who have experienced 
longer incarcerations and have 
more serious criminal histories 
(more lifetime arrests and 
incarcerations) than nationally 
representative samples of male 
prisoners. 
According to the Bureau of 
Justice Statistics, at year end 
2013, more than half of state 
prisoners had been convicted of 
violent crimes.  The median 
time served by male prisoners 
convicted of violent offenses 
was 29 months, by those 
convicted of property crimes, 12 
months; and by those convicted 
of drug offenses, 14 months 
(Carson, 2014).

Analytic Approach
Using baseline interview data
and data from these couples’
first post-release interviews,
this brief compares selfdefined relationship status,
coresidence, and exclusivity:

Exhibit 1. Baseline Characteristics
of Study Couples

n=641
Men

Women

27%

26%

73%

64%

1%

10%

87%

86%

7.9 years

7.2 years

Has children under 18

86%

82%

Study partners coparent any children
together

76%

74%

Average # of children (among
parents)

2.7

2.4

Average # of coparents (among
parents)

2.9

1.9

7.0 years

7.1 years

34.0 years

32.7 years

16.8 years

(not asked)

6.5

1.2

Relationship With Survey Partner
Relationship status
Married
In an intimate relationship
In a coparenting relationship

only3

Study couple in an exclusive
relationship
Average duration of relationship (if
married/intimate)
Parenting/Coparenting
Characteristics

Average age of focal child
Age
Average age at study enrollment
Incarceration History
Average age at first arrest
Average # of previous adult
incarcerations

•	 Across the different time
Average duration of current
2.5 years
(n/a)
periods for which data on
incarceration
each relationship measure
was available (i.e., before, during, and after incarceration) using two-sample t-tests, and
•	 Between male and female partners within each study couple using paired t-tests.

3	

The sample for this analysis consists of couples in which at least one partner indicated that they were romantically
involved at baseline. In some of these couples, the other partner characterized the relationship as coparenting only.
ASPE RESEARCH BRIEF | 5

Predictors of self-defined relationship status, coresidence, and exclusivity after release were
then identified using multivariate logistic regression models. (These analyses cannot establish
a causal role for the factors examined; rather, they identify statistically significant relationships
between those factors and couples’ relationship outcomes after the male partner’s release.)
The models used data from each sample member’s baseline interview and the first interview
following the male partner’s release—which took place on average six months post-release.
Notes on Analytic Approach to Multivariate Models 
The following independent variables were included in each logistic regression model: 
•	
•	
•	
•	
•	
•	

•	
•	
•	
•	

Male partner’s receipt of relationship education classes during baseline incarceration 
Whether the couple was married at baseline 
Duration of the relationship 
Duration of the male partner’s incarceration 
Whether the couple coparented at least one child together at baseline 
Contact between study partners during the incarceration (a four­point scale reflecting the types of 
contact the couple reported having with one another during the male partner’s incarceration: in­
person visits, telephone calls, sending mail, and receiving mail) 
Couple’s satisfaction with assistance received for staying in touch with one another during the 
incarceration 
Couple’s communication skills 
Couple’s reports of relationship happiness with one another 
Fidelity attitudes and behaviors at baseline (an 18­point scale in which a higher score indicates 
higher levels of fidelity behavior and attitudes about the importance of fidelity) 

In addition, the models controlled for the baseline measure of the outcome.  Several other variables 
explored as potential independent variables were not significantly correlated with post­release 
intimate relationship status—including whether the participants were enrolled in healthy relationship 
programming (vs. receiving treatment as usual), whether they received relationship counseling, 
whether they reported physical violence before incarceration, the support they received from 
extended family or friends, substance use, and the male partner’s peer influences. 

COUPLE RELATIONSHIP STATUS
BEFORE, DURING, AND AFTER
INCARCERATION
This section summarizes couple
relationship status before, during, and after
incarceration. These findings compare
couple members’ reports of the definition of
their relationship, whether or not they were
living together, and the exclusivity of the
relationship.

Exhibit 2.	 Percentage of Men and Women
Who Reported that the Couple
Was in an Intimate Relationship
Before, During, and After
Incarceration
100%
80%
60%
40%

As discussed above, marriage and other
20%
intimate partner relationships are fragile,
and studies indicate that break-up during
0%
incarceration and after release is common
(M) (F)
(M) (F)
(M) (F)
but not inevitable. Exhibit 2 shows the
Before
During
After
percentage of couples who were in intimate
Male (M)
Female (F)
(as opposed to coparenting only) relation­
ships prior to incarceration, during incar­
ceration, and after release. (“Intimate relationship” means that the relationship was considered
romantic, whether respondents were married or not.)
Both men and women were less likely to report that the couple was in an intimate relationship
after release than during incarceration (p for both differences <0.001). In addition, withinASPE RESEARCH BRIEF | 6

couple comparisons indicate that the male partner was more likely than the female partner to
consider the couple’s relationship to be married or intimate both prior to incarceration (p<0.05)
and during incarceration (p<0.001). After release, however, men’s and women’s
characterizations of their relationship status did not differ within couples.

Exclusivity is another dimension of couple
relationship status. Exhibit 4 shows the
percentage of couples who reported that
their relationship with one another was
exclusive (i.e., they were not romantically
involved with anyone else). Men were less
likely to report that their relationship with
their study partner was exclusive after their
release than they were during
incarceration (p<.05). Differences in
women’s reports across the time periods
were not statistically significant. Within
study couples, reports of relationship
exclusivity were similar between the male
and female partners.

Exhibit 3. Study Couples Living Together

Before and After Incarceration

Hundreds

In this sample of both married and
unmarried respondents, men were less
likely to report living with their study
partners after their release than prior to
incarceration (p<0.001) as shown in
Exhibit 3. Differences in women’s reports
across the time periods were not
statistically significant. Within couples, the
male partner was more likely to report
living together prior to incarceration
(p<0.001); after release, couples’ reports
did not differ from one another.

100%
80%
60%
40%
20%
0%

(M)
(F)
Before
Male (M)

(M)
(F)
After
Female (F)

Exhibit 4.	 Relationship Exclusivity (No
Other Partners) During and After
Incarceration
100%
80%
60%
40%
20%

In addition to the observed changes in
couple relationship status from pre- to
0%
(M)
(F)
(M)
(F)
post-release, there was also an overall
During
After
decline in relationship happiness between
the two time periods. Also, within-couple
Male (M)
Female (F)
differences in men’s and women’s
relationship happiness (with men tending
to report greater happiness than their female partners, p<0.001) disappeared after release (not
shown).

What Predicts Couples Staying Together After Release?
To investigate factors that predict whether the couple remained in an intimate relationship at
post-release follow-up, multivariate logistic regression models were run for all study couples who
were in an intimate relationship at baseline.4 The analyses controlled for MFS-IP program site
and did not differentiate between treatment and control group.

4

Both members of the couple had to report that the couple was married or romantically involved at their first post-release
interview for the couple to be classified as in an intimate relationship.
ASPE RESEARCH BRIEF | 7

The findings indicate that couples
Most men (64%) and women (54%) felt that it had been
who remained in intimate
“pretty easy” or “very easy” to have a good relationship
relationships after the male
with one another since the male partner’s release. The
partner’s release from
most commonly reported challenges to having a good
incarceration had been together
relationship after release were being able to feel close to
longer, engaged in more contact
one another after the time apart (reported by 39% of
women and 34% of men) and being able to trust one
during the male partner’s
another (reported by 34% of women and 29% of men).
incarceration, had stronger
attitudinal and behavioral support
for fidelity at baseline, and reported greater relationship happiness at baseline. The strength of
those predictors is shown in Exhibit 5.
Exhibit 5.5 Predictors of Couple Remaining in an Intimate Relationship After Release

***p<0.001, **p<.01, *p<.05

No influence on post-release relationship status was detected for baseline communication skills,
male partner’s receipt of relationship education classes during his incarceration, baseline marital
or coparenting status, the duration of the male partner’s incarceration, or satisfaction with
assistance the male partner received for staying in touch with the female partner during his
incarceration.

5	

The odds ratios depicted in Exhibits 5-7 show how strongly each factor influenced the study outcomes, if at all. The farther
an odds ratio (blue dot) is from one, the stronger the observed positive or negative influence. The smaller the confidence
interval for that odds ratio (length of black line), the more confidently we can pinpoint it given our statistical power. If a
factor is statistically significant (asterisks), the observed influence is unlikely to be due to chance alone. The specific p
values indicate that the chance of obtaining the observed result if there in fact were no relationship between the
independent and dependent variables is less than.05 (*), less than .01 (**), or less than .001 (***).
ASPE RESEARCH BRIEF | 8

As shown in Exhibit 6, two of the same four factors that predicted remaining in a self-defined
intimate relationship after release also predicted whether couple members lived together after
the male partner’s release: stronger attitudinal and behavioral support for fidelity at baseline
(p<.05), and greater relationship happiness at baseline (p<.001).6 In addition, being married
(p<.001) and being satisfied with assistance received for staying in touch during the
incarceration (p<.05) also made coresidence after release more likely.
Exhibit 6. Predictors of Couple Living Together After Release

***p<0.001, **p<.01, *p<.05
Note: When controlling for whether participants were enrolled in healthy relationship programming (vs. receiving
“treatment as usual”), the influence of the couple’s contact during incarceration became statistically significant (p<.05).

Exhibit 7 shows factors that predicted whether couple members were exclusive with one
another after the male partner’s release. All four factors that exerted a significant influence on
relationship status also shaped relationship exclusivity after release: stronger attitudinal and
behavioral support for fidelity at baseline (p<.001), baseline relationship happiness (p<.01),
longer relationship history (p<.01), and more contact during the incarceration (p<.001). In
addition, coparenting a child together (p<.05) also made couples more likely to be exclusive
after release.

6

These models controlled for baseline versions of the respective dependent variables (coresidence and relationship
exclusivity).
ASPE RESEARCH BRIEF | 9

Exhibit 7. Predictors of Couple Being Exclusive After Release


***p<0.001, **p<.01, *p<.05

IMPLICATIONS FOR RESEARCH AND POLICY
The analyses presented here illuminate the experiences of a sample of committed intimate
partners who tended to be in long-term, mostly exclusive intimate relationships; were raising
children together; and had likely been through prior cycles of the male partner’s arrest,
incarceration in jail or prison, and release. The predictors of couple relationship quality that
emerged in these analyses cannot be considered to be causal factors; however, the
associations that emerged around couples’ experiences as they navigated an incarceration in
state prison and the male partner’s subsequent reentry into the community have implications
for future research and policy.
Justice-involved couples need support to avoid widespread deterioration in their
intimate relationships during incarceration and reentry. Overall, men and women in this
study faced deterioration in their intimate relationships from the time of study enrollment (when
all male partners were in state prison) to the first post-release interview. Relationship
happiness generally declined, fewer participants reported being in intimate relationships with
one another, and fewer lived together after release than before the incarceration. Development
and testing of policy and program options to ameliorate these potential collateral consequences
of incarceration for families should be considered.
Changes in couple relationship dynamics from incarceration to reentry may signal a
need for couples’ programming to be provided during incarceration and in the postrelease period. Some of the differences in men’s and women’s relationship perceptions at
baseline—including men reporting higher relationship happiness, being more likely to report
being in an intimate relationship, and being more likely to report that the couple cohabited—
disappeared once men reentered the community. In addition, analyses of the male sample
indicated that men were less likely to consider the relationship exclusive after their release
compared to during their incarceration. The fact that some relationship dynamics observed
ASPE RESEARCH BRIEF | 10

during incarceration (such as men’s tendency to focus exclusively on one partner, or their
greater relationship optimism relative to their female partners) tended to alter upon reentry
suggests that even relationship issues that are successfully identified and addressed during an
incarceration may require revisiting when male partners are back in the community.
Intervention strategies that follow couples through the reentry transition, or that specifically
address issues and skills that are salient for the reentry period, could help to address this need.
The observed strengths of couples who maintained intimate relationships at reentry
may be helpful for designing future interventions. Four common factors predicted
relationship outcomes in two separate multivariate models focused on (1) whether couples
remained in a self-defined intimate relationship, and (2) whether they were exclusive with one
another after the male partner’s release. These strengths were stronger fidelity attitudes and
behaviors at baseline, greater relationship happiness at baseline, length of the relationship at
baseline, and frequency of contact during the male partner’s incarceration. Coparenting a child
together at baseline also made it more likely that couples would be exclusive with one another
after release. Whether couples lived together after release was similarly influenced by baseline
relationship happiness and fidelity attitudes and behaviors, as well as by whether couples were
married at baseline and how happy men were with the assistance they had received for staying
in touch during the incarceration.
While two of these observed influences (length of a couple’s relationship with one another and
whether they coparented a child) are not amenable to intervention, each of the factors has
implications for thoughtful intervention design. The importance of the length of the relationship,
marital status, and whether couples coparented a child together suggests that human services
programs designed for couples who are invested in remaining together should consider taking
these factors into account. Justice policies and programs that address obstacles to contact
between partners during an incarceration (such as free buses to bring family members of
incarcerated persons to correctional facility visiting hours, or policy initiatives to reduce
exorbitant telephone rates for calls from correctional institutions) could increase the likelihood
that couples will maintain contact during an incarceration, and experience more stable
relationships after release.
Coparenting seems to have a positive effect on couples’ stability; future research
should examine how stability in couple relationships affects the children of incarcerated
and reentering parents. Findings that coparenting a child together at baseline was predictive
of intimate relationship exclusivity after release suggest that the presence of children could
have a stabilizing effect on parents’ relationships with one another. While most research has
tended to assume that children of incarcerated parents will likewise benefit from stable
relationships between their parents, this has not been established empirically and could be
expected to vary—particularly for families in which intimate partner violence, child abuse, or
substance abuse are present.

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About the MFS-IP Study
Funded by the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) and the
Office of Family Assistance (OFA), the Multi-site Family Study of Incarceration, Parenting and
Partnering (MSF-IP) is focused on exploring the effectiveness of relationship and familystrengthening programming in correctional settings.
Implementation Study: Annual site visits entailing in-depth interviews and program observations
were conducted with all 12 grantee programs through fall 2010. The implementation evaluation
comprehensively documented program context, program design, target population and participants
served, key challenges and strategies, and program sustainability.
Impact Study: From December 2008 through August 2011, couples participating in MFS-IP
programming and a set of similar couples not participating in programming were enrolled in the
national impact study conducted in five of the grantee program sites. Study couples completed up
to four longitudinal, in-person interviews that collected information about relationship quality, family
stability, and reentry outcomes.
Qualitative Study: A small qualitative study was added in 2014, in which in-depth interviews were
conducted with about 60 impact study couples to capture detailed information about the families’
experiences during the male partner’s reentry.
Predictive Analytic Models: Using the impact study sample of more than 1,482 couples (from the
1,991 men who did baseline interviews), a series of analyses is being conducted to examine the
trajectories of individual and family relationships and behaviors before, during, and after release
from incarceration. A public use dataset will be released for further analysis at the completion of this
project.
This brief and other publications related to the MFS-IP evaluation are available from the HHS ASPE
website: http://aspe.hhs.gov/basic-report/evaluation-marriage-and-family-strengthening-grants­
incarcerated-and-reentering-fathers-and-their-partners.
For additional information about the MFS-IP evaluation, contact Anupa Bir: (781) 434-1708,
abir@rti.org; Christine Lindquist: (919) 485-5706, lindquist@rti.org; or Tasseli McKay: (919) 485­
5747, tmckay@rti.org.
Suggested citation: Lindquist, C., Landwehr, J., Feinberg, R., McKay, T., Comfort, M., & Bir, A.
(2015). Change in Intimate Relationships Before, During and After Incarceration. ASPE Research
Brief. Washington, DC: Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services.
This report was prepared by RTI International under Contract Number HHSP2332006290YC,
September 2006. The views, opinions, and findings expressed in this document are those of the
report authors and do not necessarily represent the official positions and policies of the United
States Department of Health and Human Services.

ASPE RESEARCH BRIEF | 15

DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
& HUMAN SERVICES
Office of the Secretary
Washington, DC

OFFICIAL BUSINESS
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