Bill Doherty, a marriage therapist and community organizer, talks a lot about the importance of becoming “citizens” of marriage. In 1999, he founded the Families and Democracy Project at the University of Minnesota.  The group “stresses the importance of citizen work to strengthen family life, the need to transcend the traditional provider/consumer model of education, health care and professional service delivery, and a vision of families and communities creating public initiatives to change their world.”

One of the project’s premises is that “families must be engaged as producers and contributors to their communities, and not just as clients or consumers of services.” Because as another of the Project’s guiding principles states, “the greatest untapped resource for strengthening families is the knowledge, wisdom, and lived experiences of families and their communities.”

Cue Marital First Responders, a new initiative by the Doherty Relationship Institute to empower ordinary people to respond effectively when a friend confides in them about a marriage problem. According to a representative survey commissioned by Doherty, 73 percent of American adults have been a confidant about problems in someone’s marriage or long-term committed relationship, and 63 percent have confided in someone other than a professional about their relationship. Women are more common confiders than men, but still, 69 percent of men have been a confidant, and 78 percent of women.

Here are the top ten problems that people report 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%)

The point is that most people turn to a friend or family member first before seeing a professional (if they ever see one). Marital First Responders aims to equip these “natural confidants” with the confidence and skills to help when someone confides. The training aims to empower ordinary people by passing along some of the wisdom and experience of professionals. The classes help people to respond in tricky dilemmas—for instance, what do you say when your friend tells you he’s having an affair?—as well as cover special topics (“how married couples deal with ADHD, depression, anxiety, money problems, time management differences”). The training also helps people to know when to recommend that their friends seek professional help.

The classes have been piloted in the Minneapolis area, and the next classes will be offered in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in conjunction with disseminating partner First Things First.

For far too long, we in America have imagined marriage and divorce as purely private matters.

The initiative is overdue. For far too long, we in America have imagined marriage and divorce as purely private matters, the province of the married couple alone. If they need help, we think, they can go see a professional. But at its best, marriage is a community affair, in which friends and family take responsibility as witnesses and “friends of the marriage” (Doherty’s phrase). Yes, we need professionals—but there aren’t enough marriage professionals to help every couple in distress, and not every married person immediately feels comfortable confiding in strangers.

For instance, imagine that your friend, whose complaints you have frequently heard but you never thought much of it, calls one evening to tell you that she’s thinking about divorce. She says that she has grown so far apart from her husband, and that she can’t imagine their marriage recovering. Besides, there’s a friend from work she has been getting close to, and she kind of likes him. She says she is unhappy and that she thinks she is falling in love with the friend at work. What do you say? You care for your friend and her husband, and you think they could work things out. But how do you say that to your friend without offending her? That’s where Marital First Responders can help.

There’s Community Supported Agriculture. What about a Community Supported Marriage? Marital First Responders is a welcome step in empowering all of us with the responsibility and information we need to become citizens of marriage.