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Family and friends, not counselors or clergy, more likely to advise Americans on serious relationships issues, U of M research finds

Monday, February 3, 2014

Nearly three-fourths of American adults (73 percent) have been a confidant to someone with problems in a marriage/long-term committed relationship, and these confidants advise on many serious issues, new University of Minnesota research finds.

Led by Family Social Science Professor William Doherty, Ph.D., this is the first study to ever determine how many American adults serve as confidants and advisers when it comes to relationship issues.

“While many people are turning to family and friends to discuss these sensitive topics, we know these confidants are often not equipped with necessary tools to be supportive,” said Doherty, a nationally known expert on marriage. “We found only half of confidants feel confident in their ability to help and about 40 percent feel stressed by these conversations.”

The study identified more than 20 relationship problems that are brought to confidants.  Among the top issues were:

  • Growing apart (68%)
  • Not enough attention (63%)
  • Money (60%)
  • Considering divorce (58%)
  • Infidelity (51%)

Doherty noted that ”it’s interesting to see the wide range of problems people are willing to talk about with someone else they trust.  Some are everyday issues and some are really serious and life changing."

The study also showed that confidants who listened, gave emotional support and a helpful perspective, helped the person understand their own contributions to the problem and where their partner is coming from were seen as the most effective.

However, the least effective confidants were those who gave too much or not useful advice, talked too much about their own problems, were too critical of the partner, suggested a break up, or came across too judgmental or critical.

Additionally, the study found that 72 percent of people who have been divorced reported confiding about their problems before they got divorced.   They were much more likely to confide in friends and family members than in professional counselors or clergy. 

Lastly, according to the study, most Americans have a small number of people they feel comfortable confiding in about a problem in their marriage/long term committed relationship. Two-thirds (67 percent) have 0-2 potential confidants; stated differently, the average person has 1-2 potential confidants. 

For interviews with Doherty about this first-of-its-kind research, contact Steve Henneberry or Steve Baker.

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