Your divorced friends may give the best marriage advice

July 25, 2012 at 1:50 PM ET

First comes love, and then comes marriage. But if you want to stay happily wedded, go to a divorced pal for some relationship advice, according to new findings from the Early Years of Marriage Project, a long-term NIH-funded study on marriage and divorce that began more than 25 years ago.

“You can go to the happily married and ask them what makes their marriages work, and that’s what I did first, but there are two different takes,” says University of Michigan lead investigator Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., author of a new book called "Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship." “The divorced can tell us about what they learned about marriage the hard way, and what they would do differently.”

The study includes 373 couples, between the ages of 25 and 37, who were in their first year of marriage in 1986. Over the past quarter century, 46 percent of these couples divorced. Slightly more than 70 percent of the 210 individuals Orbuch interviewed about their past relationships are now in new relationships, including more than 40 percent who remarried.

There were some surprises.

The divorced folks who were ambivalent about their ex-partners seemed to be healthier and more likely to find relationships over time. “What I found that is that who don’t feel strongly positive or strongly negative about an ex do pretty well,” says Orbuch. “It’s common sense to let go of anger, but it’s also beneficial to let go of positive feelings.”

While couples have been fighting about finances for ages, it’s no surprise that nearly half of all study subjects say that money matters strained their first marriages. And study results show that six in 10 folks in new relationships don’t share expenses. “What I thought was that people would resolve their issues about money and when they were in new relationships they may be less worried about it,” says Orbuch. “That wasn’t the case.”

Men, it seems, also need what social scientists call affective affirmation, or in layman’s terms, a compliment, some encouragement, maybe even just a cuddle showing support.

“Husbands who reported that their wives noticed them and made them feel special were very happy,” says Orbuch. In fact they were so happy, that couple was about two times less likely to get divorced.

Surprisingly, men need this non-sexual show of support more than women. “We (women) get it from a lot of people in our lives like best friends, kids, even a stranger walking down the street who says ‘I like your haircut,’” says Orbuch. “Men generally don’t get that from other people except their wives.”

The next step in the study is to follow these remarriages to see what happens over time. While divorce statistics are always a hot button issue and depend greatly on many factors, most social scientists agree that about 45 to 50 percent of first marriages will end in divorce. Second marriages may not fare much better and may actually fare worse. “I’m very curious to see what happens to these (divorced) couples, as well as couples in the study who have been married for 25 years or 30 years and then wind up divorced,” says Orbuch. “We can learn a lot from them.”