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How to Help Save Your Friends' Marriage, According to Research

I may believe I’m helping by offering my two cents—what if I’m actually making things worse?
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Art Credit: Madeline Joy Photography

Most of us have had a friend or family member confide in us about a relationship problem, but it’s often difficult to know what to say or how to really help. My immediate reaction when a friend shares that she is struggling in her marriage is to jump in with what I think is helpful advice, such as “Don’t put up with that!” or “Just tell him how you feel.” Often, I take my friend’s side, criticizing her husband’s behavior. My intentions are good—I truly want to help fix things. But while I may believe I’m helping by offering my two cents—what if I’m actually making things worse?

The question is important because research shows that 73 percent of adults have served as a confidante to a friend or family member about a marriage or relationship struggle, and 72 percent of divorced adults say they confided in someone (other than a professional) about a marriage problem prior to a divorce.

As it turns out, there is actually an “art” to responding when someone confides in us that involves more listening and less taking sides—and might even point our loved ones toward better marriages. The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted a program out of the University of Minnesota that aims to train individuals in this “art” of responding. Family therapist Bill Doherty, director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project, created the “Marital First Responders” boot camp, which he conducts with his daughter, also a therapist, at churches and community centers. He defines marital first responders as “natural confidantes,” and his goal is to train more men and women to become better confidantes.

When I first heard about this program, I was skeptical but fascinated at the same time. I certainly have a lot to learn about being a better confidante! But confiding in others about my marriage is a struggle for me at times, so I couldn’t help but wonder—is it really that big a deal how I respond when a friend shares a relationship problem, and why should confiding in our friends and family be something we encourage anyway?

Part of my skepticism comes from my tendency to approach marriage as a lone ranger and to view friends and family as something outside my relationship with my husband—nice to have around but not necessary to our marital health, and maybe even a threat. I was raised in a broken home, where divorce seemed to spread like disease from one family member to another, and where confiding in other people about a relationship problem typically involved picking up the pieces of a marriage gone wrong. As a result, I try to avoid confiding in my family about my marriage, and it can be hard for me to share my marriage problems with close friends. The problem with my reluctance to reach out to others is that I’m attempting the impossible task of doing marriage on my own.

What fascinates me about the idea of “marital first responders” is that it is based on a universal truth that Dr. Doherty has been teaching for decades: We are not meant to do marriage alone—we need the support of family and friends, not just when a marriage ends but to keep a marriage from ending. In an article he wrote about creating “citizens of marriage,” Dr. Doherty explained,

“We generally launch marriages with public fanfare and then we live in solitary marriages. That is, we know little about the interior of one another’s marriages. We tend to suffer alone in our distress…. We don't have 
communities to rally around us when our marriages are hurting.”

According to Dr. Doherty, it is difficult for marriages to survive without that community support. Citing research that shows that divorce can actually “spread” among friends, he told me that, “We learn what's normal and what needs tending to from our friends, both by observing their marriages and talking with friends [about marriage]. And if they divorce, we are more likely to.”

Through marital first responders, he hopes to build communities that actually strengthen marriages—where neighbors feel equipped and inspired to encourage and support each other’s relationships. Part of this involves knowing what not to do when a friend confides in us. His research has identified the top five unhelpful responses confidantes should avoid (and I’ve been guilty of several), such as:

Giving too much useless advice

Talking too much about yourself

Being too critical of the other person’s spouse

Suggesting a breakup

Being too judgmental or critical

So how should we respond when someone we care about brings a marriage problem to us? Based on Dr. Doherty’s research, the most helpful responses to have in your arsenal include:

01. Listening

02. Giving emotional support

03. Offering helpful perspective

04. Helping a friend understand her role in the problem

05. Helping a friend consider where her spouse is coming from

Importantly, Dr. Doherty emphasizes that marital first responders are not experts, but a first line of defense against marital breakdown. “The first responder is, by definition, not the last responder,” he told the WSJ, noting that when expert advice is needed, the best help we can give is to refer friends to a marriage book, marriage class, or therapist for help.

Can we really help save at least some troubled marriages in our communities by becoming better confidantes? That is Dr. Doherty’s vision. “We want every married couple in the America to have someone in their network who can be a first responder in times of trouble,” he says, “and even in times of everyday stress.”

It’s an ambitious goal but one worth pursuing. Ultimately, what every married couple needs—especially those of us who grew up in homes without healthy marriage role models—is hope, and to know we are not alone. By serving as confidantes and being open to confiding in others, we have the opportunity to give (and gain) valuable perspective and support that can help more marriages in our communities, including our own, succeed instead of fail.