New Research on Marital Confidants

We have first-of-a-kind national research on confidants for American marriages and long term committed relationships. As part of his role as a faculty member at the University of Minnesota‚Äôs Department of Family Social Science, Bill Doherty initiated a study of American adults to get baseline data upon which to build the Marital First Responders training. 

Since that research study, two Ph.D. research dissertations have demonstrated effectiveness in LGBT populations (Zrenchik & Doherty, 2019) as well as African American populations (Yeager & Doherty, 2021).

The study involved a survey completed by Internet panel of 1,000 U.S. adults ages 25-70, conducted by YouGov.com, an academically respected Internet survey company. The sample was representative of the U.S. population on age, gender, race, and education. 

Here are the highlights, followed by detailed findings:

  • The great majority of American adults have had someone confide in them about a problem in a marriage.
  • Female friends and a variety of family members are most likely to confide in someone about a marriage problem.
  • Many confidants lack confidence in how to be helpful, and some of them are stressed by the role.
  • Listening, being supportive, and offering perspective were the most helpful things confidants do.
  • 73% of American adults have been a confidant about problems in someone's marriage/long term committed relationship
  • 69% of men have been a confidant
  • 78% of women have been a confidant

The most common relationships in which confiding occurs are:

  • Female friend - 36%
  • Family member - 29%- top two: siblings & adult children)
  • Male friend - 18%
  • Coworker - 9%

Only half of confidants (49%) feel confident in their ability to help. Forty percent have felt stressed by these conversations.

Leading stresses:

  • Feeling frustrated with the person
  • Worrying a lot about the situation
  • Feeling helpless
  • Feeling anxious about what to say
  • Not knowing what to say

What did confidants do that was most helpful for confiders?

Top five:

  • Listened to me
  • Gave me emotional support
  • Gave me a helpful perspective
  • Helped understand my own contributors to the problem
  • Helped me understand where my partner was coming from

What did confidants do that was not helpful for confiders?

Top five:

  • Gave too much useless advice
  • Talked too much about themselves
  • Was too critical of my spouse/partner
  • Suggested I break up with my spouse/partner
  • Was judgmental or critical

The great majority (72%) of people who have been divorced said they confided in someone (other than a professional) about the problem that was leading to the divorce.

The most common confidants they talked with were:

  • Female friend - 55%
  • Parent - 45%
  • Male friend - 39%
  • Sibling - 31%
  • Coworker - 14%

Confiding in professionals before divorcing:

29% of divorced people confided in a professional counselor

15% in a clergy person

People bring a wide range of problems, from mile to serious, to these confidants.

The most common problems brought to confidants:

  • Growing apart - 68%
  • Not enough attention - 63%
  • Money - 60%
  • Not able to talk together - 60%
  • Spouse/partner's personal habits - 59% 
  • Considering divorce - 58%
  • Infidelity - 51%
  • Personal problem of the spouse/partner - 49%
  • Job-related problems 48%
  • In-laws and other relatives - 47%
  • Spouse's leisure activities - 41% 
  • Household responsibilities - 41%
  • Being controlled by the partner - 40%
  • Alcohol or drug problems - 38%
  • Sexual problems - 38%
  • Differences in tastes and preferences - 37%
  • Spouse/partner's friends - 34%
  • Severe emotional abuse - 32%
  • Conflicts over raising children - 30%
  • Physical violence - 27%
  • Conflicts over child care responsibilities - 22%
  • Religious differences - 14%