This month, the Marriage and Family Research Institute celebrates 20 years of commitment to strengthening relationships in Central Florida.


Past and present MFRI and college leaders in front of MFRI marquee letters

Past and present Marriage and Family Research Institute and college leaders attended the institute's 20th anniversary showcase. (Photo by Danielle Hendrix)

Founded in 2003 with the desire to strengthen families and couples among growing divorce-rate statistics, UCF's Marriage and Family Research Institute has been helping Central Florida couples build healthier relationships for the last 20 years.

To celebrate this milestone, the institute recently hosted its 20th Anniversary Research Showcase, which invited anyone who has played a part in its history to reflect on the institute’s impact on the community over the last two decades. That included hearing testimonials from couples who have benefited from the institute’s services and looking at how it has evolved and adapted to the community’s needs over the years.

“For example, our current program has an online relationship program, and in 2003, I don't think anyone could have envisioned that we would be utilizing technology to teach some of these relationship skills,” says Sejal Barden, professor and executive director of the institute. “We looked at where we've been and where we are going because we have lots of goals and wishes for the future, as well.”

Keynote speakers included the two founders of the institute: Andrew Daire, now a provost at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; and Mark Young, UCF Professor Emeritus.

The institute helps support and strengthen healthy relationships for individuals, couples and families through research-supported techniques focused on effective communication and conflict resolution. It also works with the participants to meet their specific needs.

"A little bit of education can go a long way,” Barden says. “We have found through our decades of research that in little as four hours of education, we can have longitudinal impacts in terms of someone's overall mental health, well-being, their relationship satisfaction and their quality of life.”

The Marriage and Family Research Institute has secured many large-scale grants to aid in its mission. With current funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, the institute is studying the impact of relationship education on 1,500 committed couples in Central Florida through Project Harmony, which provides relationship education and helps foster skills related to success in the workplace.

“The institute’s mission to support families and relationships really started when the federal government started talking about how to reduce the rates in which couples were getting divorced or dissolving their marriage,” Barden says. “They found that there were resources that were not shared equally across couples from all different backgrounds and created funding to help marginalized couples access skills and tools for their relationship, which is how the MFRI came to be.”

Barden says their current satisfaction rate is around 97 to 98%, with most couples saying they would recommend the program to a friend.

“We're really proud to share that although we do many different forms of advertising and marketing and recruitment, our No. 1 source for new participants is word of mouth, and that really comes from the participants that have come through our project,” Barden says.

The institute is also now openly recruiting new couples who are in a committed relationship and would like to learn more about healthy relationship skills and tools. The services come at no cost to the participants.

“The success of UCF’s Marriage and Family Research Institute is a testament to the dedication of our faculty members and institute leaders — both past and present — who have demonstrated significant impact in serving Central Florida couples and families through research excellence,” says Grant Hayes, dean of the College of Community Innovation and Education.