Research says adults seek relationship advice from family, friends

Experts say friends and family often give poor advice on relationship issues.
February 18, 2014

Most adults confide in family and friends when they have relationship problems, but that isn’t always the best choice.

University of Minnesota research found that respondents mainly had only one or two confidants for relationship issues, who were usually close friends or family rather than counselors or other qualified professionals.

Communications senior David Forschler said when he encounters problems with serious relationships in his life, he confides exclusively in his close friend Luke.

“For other stuff, I’ll go to other people, but with relationships, it’s usually just him,” he said. “He usually knows more than me.”

In the research, announced earlier this month, the issues that survey respondents brought up ranged from everyday problems, like needing more attention, to more serious issues, like infidelity or a possible breakup. Nearly three-quarters reported being a confidant, according to the survey.

Most University students are typically monogamous. More than 77 percent of sexually active students reported that their most recent sexual partner was a spouse, a fiancé or an exclusive dating partner, according to the 2013 Boynton Health Service College Student Health survey.

Family social sciences professor and study leader Bill Doherty said he became interested in researching relationship confidants when he was a clinician, after noticing how often his patients went to friends and family with problems.

“We always try the easiest things first,” said assistant family social science professor Tai Mendenhall. “Just like with physical problems, we’re generally going to go take Advil or Tylenol before we go wait in a waiting room for physicians.”

But since these close confidants are not trained in giving relationship advice, some experts claim they often say the wrong thing.

Doherty and Mendenhall said confidants often take their friend or family member’s side on issues, which could leave out their partner’s perspective.

Additionally, these friends and family members could have a negative impression of the person’s partner if the only time they hear about the partner is when there is a problem.

The risk of offering the wrong advice or taking sides, Doherty said, can sometimes result in a confidant becoming too involved, which can be stressful.

The study found that only about half of confidants feel confident giving advice and 40 percent are stressed by these conversations.

But when it comes to serious relationship problems, like emotional and physical abuse, people often don’t confide in anyone, said Planned Parenthood nurse Pamela Glenn.

“The part that’s challenging [when considering confidants] is the whole idea of abuse in relationships,” Glenn said. “It’s harmful that people are keeping it a secret.”

This phenomenon is also evident in Doherty’s survey, which showed that emotional and physical abuse were both among the least talked-about subjects.

But when people do confide in friends and family with relationship problems, Doherty said, there should be more efforts to equip these people with the resources they need to give good advice.

Doherty said when giving relationship advice, people should utilize four basic skills, called LEAP, which stand for listen, empathize, affirm and offer another perspective. In more extreme cases, they should utilize the acronym CAR, which stands for challenge, advise and offer resources.

University resources

When looking for an expert opinion, Mendenhall said, there are several resources on campus.

The first resource should be University Counseling and Consulting Services, he said. Resources are also available at Boynton and Fairview Health Services.

One resource available to all students, regardless of whether they are in a relationship, is a class called Intimate Relationships, which Mendenhall teaches.

Teaching assistant Damir Utrzan said even if people aren’t in a relationship, the course helps students look introspectively into what factors in their life may influence their relationships in the future. He said the course could also help with non-romantic relationships.

In any given semester, students from about 70 majors enroll in the course. About eight in 10 students in the course indicated noticeable changes in their intimate relationships, according to a survey by family social science professor Jane Newell.

“Everybody has to take reading and writing and arithmetic growing up, and everybody has to learn what we think is essential, and I think that human relationships and connections are essential,” Mendenhall said. “Most of how we cope or grow or heal in life are things that are connected with other people.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed Jane Newell’s title. She is a family social sciences doctoral candidate.
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