MILTON — David and Caroline Garber had dated for three years and were set to be married in a matter of weeks.

So, signing up for the University of Florida IFAS Smart Couples program would probably be just tweaking an already perfect union.

“The class was called ‘Before You Tie the Knot,’ and we went in thinking that we already knew each other pretty well,” David Garber, 33, said. “But, we came to realize that we have different communication styles, and that we need to acknowledge and address that to make our relationship better. We learned that I need to give her time to think and process information, so I can’t expect her to give me an answer or solution on the spot. And she learned why it’s important for me to tackle an issue quickly and not let it fester.”

UF-IFAS Extension faculty member Victor Harris created the Smart Couples program after receiving a $5 million grant to help couples, families and teens create and maintain healthy relationships.

Under grant guidelines, Harris, a UF-IFAS assistant professor in family, youth and community sciences, and Extension faculty and staff for the SMART Couples Florida project teach people how to strengthen their relationships over the next five years.

This UF-IFAS Extension program is geared toward married, remarried, at-risk youths, those getting ready for marriage, parents and active military and veteran couples. It includes those who are low-income, low-resource, those with substance abuse problems, mental health issues, and histories of domestic violence and child-abuse issues.

The program, which Harris started in July, will spend five years in Citrus, Duval, Manatee, Palm Beach and Santa Rosa counties. These counties were chosen because they represent a rural and urban cross-section of Florida’s demographics, Harris said. The team plans to help strengthen relationships across income groups and ethnicities, and they hope to expand beyond those counties after five years.

Participants take a federal online survey and a UF-IFAS survey to contribute to ongoing relationship research. An additional assessment will be offered to determine whether other community resources are needed. 

Extension faculty and other staffers use this curriculum to teach the four relationship education programs:

Relationship Smarts PLUS 3.0: A fun program designed to help teens learn how to set goals and make wise choices about relationships, dating, partners and more.

Before You Tie the Knot: A premarital program for couples striving to start their marriages on the right foot.

ELEVATE: A program for couples — married or not — who want to improve their communication skills and strengthen their relationships.

Smart Steps: A stepfamily program designed to strengthen relationships between remarried or re-partnered couples and their children.

“We’ve covered the spectrum of the kinds of relationships you can have,” said Harris. “That’s what we’re offering in these five counties, face-to-face.”

Visit www.smartcouples.org for more information on the program.