Family and friends to the rescue

Everyday relationships are the first line of support for marriages and long-term relationships in trouble


Bill Doherty was reading an article about public health, not family social science, when he had a breakthrough insight that could help marriages in trouble.

The article was about a national initiative in Australia to provide mental health first-aid training. It focused on training community members to recognize and respond helpfully when a loved one, friend, or neighbor was having a mental health crisis.

Doherty, a professor in the Department of Family Social Science, is a couples and family therapist. He knows that the first person someone turns to when they’re having trouble in a marriage or relationship is not a professional but a friend or family member.

“The big insight was focusing on natural, existing relationships,” says Doherty. “Those everyday relationships are the first line of support.

“The second thing is that those confidants can help or hinder,” he continues. “Skills can be improved.”

Doherty is a national voice on topics from family meals and birthday parties to marriage and divorce. He’s no stranger to the New York Times and has appeared twice on Oprah. He thinks big.

Inspired by the Australian initiative, Doherty set out do something similar for marriage and couples confidants in the United States—develop research-based training, including cultural variations for specific communities, and deliver it widely.

Confiders and confidants

The first step was conducting the research to back it up. Doctoral student Kirsten Lind Seal jumped at the opportunity. In the summer of 2013, she and Doherty surveyed 1,000 adults ages 25 to 70 using YouGov, an international Internet-based survey research firm. Their results showed that 73 percent of U.S. adults have been a marital confidant—more than 60 percent in the preceding year.

“It’s also really interesting what people bring to their confidants,” says Lind Seal. “Confidants reported hearing about problems like growing apart and not getting enough attention but also what we call the ‘hard problems’—abuse, addictions, and affairs.”

Bill Doherty head shot
Bill Doherty
Kirsten Lind Seal head shot
Kirsten Lind Seal

Whatever the issue, according to confiders, the most helpful thing confidants can do is listen, yet they often give too much useless advice, talk too much about their own problems, are too critical of the confider’s spouse or partner, or actually suggest breaking up, which usually backfires.

Based on the findings, Lind Seal completed her dissertation and Doherty was able to start developing the training. In order to get it to the public as fast as possible, he and his entrepreneurial daughter, Elizabeth, decided to open the Doherty Relationship Institute. They worked out an agreement with the University to avoid conflict of interest, and last year the institute launched Marital First Responders.

So far the workshop has been offered in St. Paul, Oklahoma, and New York, with an immediate response. Articles about the training have run in national media including Elle and the Wall Street Journal.

Expanding the research

Steve Harris head shot
Steve Harris

Professor Steve Harris directs the couple and family therapy program in the Department of Family Social Science. Originally from Toronto, with experience in Utah, New York, and Texas, he collaborated with Doherty before coming to Minnesota in 2009 to work on the Couples on the Brink project (see box).

Now Harris is the principal investigator on research concerning the Marital First Responders program. He is working on evaluation of the program and also finding ways to measure its impact.

“Not only how useful do participants say it is, but how does it change things?” he asks. “What’s the exact nature of its impact on people’s lives?”

Discernment counseling

Each year, more than 10,000 Minnesota marriages end in divorce. Yet a 2009 survey found that 30 percent of individual divorcing parents expressed ambivalence about whether divorce was the best option for their families. That survey led to establishing the Minnesota Couples on the Brink project, which offers discernment counseling to couples in which at least one person is reluctant to end the marriage. Doherty and Harris lead the project, which is headquartered at the University of Minnesota. Learn more at Minnesota Couples on the Brink.

Harris and Doherty are working with doctoral students Corey Yeager and Kyle Zrenchik, who are developing adaptations of Marital First Responders. Both are preparing to conduct randomized control trials, a high quality type of study in which some participants receive the training, some don’t, and all take before-and-after tests of their skills as confidants.

A conduit for change

Questions about culture and racism are important to Corey Yeager, whose broader interest is active citizens in democracy. Yeager grew up in Kansas and played football in California before moving to Minnesota. After years as a therapist, he came to the doctoral program needing a deeper connection.
“One of the best programs is right here,” he says. “Professor Doherty’s work is connected to who I’ve been my whole life.”

Kyle Zrenchik and Corey Yeager
Doctoral students Kyle Zrenchik and Corey Yeager

Doherty requested Yeager as a research assistant three years ago, so he was on the ground floor as Marital First Responders developed.

“There are nuanced differences about how this will work for the African American community,” says Yeager. “I want to look at it in the context of African American families and relationships.“

One of the factors, he notes, is that marriage rates are lower and divorce rates higher in the African American community, so relational first responders is a more effective term to use.

Those rates also translate into a higher level of gender distrust relative to other communities, he adds.

“People ask, ‘Will my partner be here for the long term? for employment?’” he explains. “Finding ways to address those issues in this training is my work.”
Yeager has observed Doherty conducting the training several times and has conducted or co-facilitated it a few times himself. He is excited to be a conduit.

“There’s all this research but it’s not getting where it needs to get,” says Yeager. “We are closing the gap between research and clinical practice.”

Harnessing energy

Therapist Kyle Zrenchik grew up in the Midwest and was drawn back in 2012 when he came to Minnesota for a degree in couples and family therapy. His particular interest areas are human sexuality and issues that affect sexual and gender minorities. After taking a class with Doherty, he was honored to review questions for the national survey on confidants.

In 2013 Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage. Doherty asked Zrenchik if he would be interested in adapting the training for the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community.

“It was a chance to blend my passion for couples work with being part of systemic change,” he says, “not only to help people attain marriage but to keep it.”

Zrenchik went to work developing what he calls the MFR-Q, or queered Marital First Responders. For example, the adaptation includes learning how to respond when someone confides, “My partner doesn’t want to live as an out gay man and that’s not okay for me.”

He’s aiming for Minnesota Pride weekend in June to conduct the training and collect his data.

“Having a group come together around these issues, harnessing that energy at a critical time is exciting,” says Zrenchik. “Without a stable, consistent couple at its base, so many of the things we want to accomplish as a community get trampled. It’s the next step we need as a queer community—and as a community as a whole.”

Read more about Bill Doherty, Steve Harris, Kirsten Lind Seal, Corey Yeager, and Kyle Zrenchik, and the Department of Family Social Science.

Story by Gayla Marty  |  Illustration by Jennifer Yelk  |  Spring/summer 2015

Bill Doherty is co-owner of Doherty Relationship Institute, which conducts the Marital First Responder workshop. This interest has been reviewed and managed by the University of Minnesota in accordance with its conflict-of-interest policies.