It Takes Restraint, Listening Skills to Be a 'First Responder' to Someone's Marriage Problems
By Elizabeth Bernstein
Updated Feb. 9, 2015 11:00 p.m. ET
Mary Baremore remembers the time a few years ago when a close friend confided in her about her marital problems. Her husband was overbearing, the woman explained. She felt he often dismissed her opinion and rejected her sexually. Then she started to sob.
Ms. Baremore listened but didn't say much, even though she was thinking her friend should toughen up and talk to her husband. Timidly, she asked if her friend had thought about seeing a therapist.
"I felt totally inadequate," says Ms. Baremore, a 53-year-old sign-language interpreter who lives in St. Paul, Minn.
Sooner or later, someone in the depths of a marital or relationship problem will want to talk about what's going on and possibly to ask for advice. Being there for that person—a family member, a friend or even a work colleague—is challenging. No one teaches us how to give emotional support.
When someone we care about confides in us, a common instinct is to make this person feel better at all costs. We may offer false hope or criticize the spouse or partner, and if we are close to this person, their distress may become our distress. But these reactions aren't helpful.
Some experts are teaching people how to be more confident and effective in supporting a friend or family member through a marriage or relationship crisis—and how to set and maintain boundaries.
"The goal of a marital first responder is to be a good friend, not a therapist," says William Doherty, a marriage and family therapist and professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. He has developed a workshop called "Marital First Responders," which he conducts with military families, drug offenders and regular people at community centers and churches. I recently attended a workshop at a townhouse in Manhattan.
Marital first responders are natural confidants, the people others turn to first when they need to talk. A soon-to-be-published study of 1,000 people ages 25 to 70, conducted by Dr. Doherty and colleagues, indicates that 74% of adults have been a confidant to someone going through a marital or long-term relationship problem.
Natural confidants are most often a female friend, a family member (especially a sibling or adult child), a male friend or a co-worker.
In his research, Dr. Doherty found people who confide in a friend say it is most helpful if the friend simply listens. Confidants also can help by giving emotional support and helping the confider put the situation in perspective. They often can help a person understand his or her contribution to the problem or where the spouse is coming from.
Confidants can make mistakes. They say judgmental things or talk too much about themselves. They take sides. They try to fix the problem. "Don't confuse being a confidant with being an advice giver," Dr. Doherty warns.
The most important skill for marital first responders is listening, Dr. Doherty says. As a confidant, you should be careful not to interrupt or offer your own perspective too soon. Refrain from jumping to a conclusion, and remember: You are hearing just one side of the story.
Try to empathize with the person's pain, not the details of their story. Reflect the person's feelings back ("I can see how hurt you were when you felt put down by your wife in front of your friends"). Nonverbal communication—a look, a touch—goes a long way.
Avoid saying things that seem empathetic, but really are put-downs. ("I would leave a woman who did that.")
What you should say are things that affirm the strengths of your loved one and their relationship: "I know you are a caring person"; "You've weathered storms before." Avoid being so relentlessly upbeat and cheerful that the confider doesn't feel heard.
Offer perspective by helping the other person see that many relationship problems are common and surmountable. Help your friend consider the feelings of his or her partner. Don't accept addiction, affairs or abuse as "normal." You may want to briefly share one of your own experiences, but be careful not to equate it with the other person's. "You don't want to come across as a know-it-all," Dr. Doherty says.
If a person seems stuck in a problem—maybe the couple has stopped communicating—Dr. Doherty suggests the confidant may want to "challenge" the confider. Gently suggest that the person communicate more clearly with the partner or examine his or her expectations and contributions to the problem. "I" statements are great for this, Dr. Doherty says, as in, "One of the things I've learned is that when I don't speak up I can't expect him to know what I want."
If someone seems to be in danger of making a poor decision, a confidant might want to give advice. But it should be specific and infrequent. Recommend a book, the name of a marriage therapist or information about a couples retreat. "The first responder is, by definition, not the last responder," Dr. Doherty says.
First-responder training also covers boundaries. Confidants need to be wary of getting a sort of caregiver's fatigue. Feeling leaned upon too often can harm the friendship or working relationship.
If you are a confidant, identify your own emotional "triggers"—the relationship issues that upset you because you have dealt with them yourself. As a confidant, you don't want to escalate negativity or get more upset than the confider.
Depending on your relationship with the couple, you may need to resist being drawn into a triangle. Don't become a confidant to both spouses or act as mediator. You may have to tell the couple directly that you don't want to be in the middle.
My friends know I am a veteran confidant and, let's face it, a confider, too. An important point I took away from marital first-responders training was that most relationship problems—lack of sex, not feeling heard, conflicts about money, raising children—are universal. It can be comforting for a person to hear this.
Ms. Baremore, who felt her skills as a confidant were lacking, recognized she was sometimes judgmental of friends who confided in her. "I would say, 'What are you doing? Don't mess this up,' " she recalls. Or "Yeah, I saw this coming."
After taking the workshop at her church, she learned to listen without being distracted, to avoid judging or diagnosing and to reflect back what she was hearing. She got "tools to acknowledge that my own opinions are there, but I can set them aside," she says.
Soon after taking the workshop, Ms. Baremore had breakfast with a friend who disclosed that her husband was upset about how much time she spends at work. Ms. Baremore remarked, "It sounds like there is some tension in your family around scheduling." The two talked a bit about the issue and her friend switched topics.
Then Ms. Baremore disclosed her own tough time: Her mother-in-law is very ill, and she and her spouse are exhausted from parenting. "In the next breath," Ms. Baremore recalls, the friend "started to really share how things are going in her marriage. She really did have a lot to say, but she was looking for an opening."
A few days later, Ms. Baremore got a text from her friend asking to get together again. "It's unusual to hear from her so soon," Ms. Baremore says. "I took it as a signal that it was valuable to her to talk."