Rebecca L. Davis
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    The American fixation with marriage, so prevalent in today’s debates over marriage for same-sex couples, owes much of its intensity to a small group of reformers who introduced Americans to marriage counseling in the 1930s. Today, millions of couples seek help to save their marriages each year. Over the intervening decades, marriage counseling has powerfully promoted the idea that successful marriages are essential to both individuals’ and the nation’s well-being. Rebecca Davis reveals how couples and counselors transformed the ideal of the perfect marriage as they debated sexuality, childcare, mobility, wage earning, and autonomy, exposing both the fissures and aspirations of American society. From the economic dislocations of the Great Depression to more recent debates over government-funded “Healthy Marriage” programs, counselors have responded to the shifting needs and goals of American couples. Tensions among personal fulfillment, career aims, religious identity, and socioeconomic status have coursed through the history of marriage and explain why the stakes in the institution are so fraught for the couples involved and for the communities to which they belong. Americans care deeply about marriages—their own and other people’s—because they have made enormous investments of time, money, and emotion to improve their own relationships and because they believe that their personal decisions about whom to marry or whether to divorce extend far beyond themselves. This intriguing book tells the uniquely American story of a culture gripped with the hope that, with enough effort and the right guidance, more perfect marital unions are within our reach.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-05625-1
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [viii]-[xi])
  3. Prologue: The Pursuit of Marital Happiness
    (pp. 1-10)

    The caller from St. Louis was days away from divorce. One afternoon in July 2003, Russ explained to the listeners of National Public Radio’sTalk of the Nationthat he would very soon dissolve his twenty-eight-year marriage. Rather than uniting two souls, he concluded, marriage was a “legal institution hanging over your head,” preventing two unhappy, incompatible people from disentangling their lives. Michael McManus, a guest on the show and a founder of Marriage Savers, an organization that tries to promote marriage and reduce divorce rates, wanted to change Russ’s mind. Seizing what he considered a ripe opportunity for intervention,...

  4. 1 Shaken Foundations
    (pp. 11-28)

    Having endured a month’s separation from her husband, Emma K. believed that she needed outside help to resolve her marital problems. By the time she put pen to paper in September 1927, perhaps she had already turned to relatives or neighbors—the traditional purveyors of marital advice—but, finding their suggestions lacking, now sought a more “expert” authority. Or perhaps having read Judge Ben B. Lindsey’s books and magazine articles and having heard his voice on the radio, where he increasingly extolled the merits of “companionate marriages” that valued emotional and sexual fulfillment, she considered him a trusted confidante. Whatever...

  5. 2 Searching for Economic and Sexual Security
    (pp. 29-63)

    Agnes r. asked her local Bureau of Domestic Relations, a family court, to sue her husband for nonsupport. It was 1940, and World War II had yet to end the worst economic depression in living memory. Poverty shrouded the industrial landscape of steel mills and factories in Cleveland, Ohio. Residents of once-thriving working-class ethnic communities now lined up for relief checks at the Department of Public Welfare. The R.s’ 1936 wedding in a Roman Catholic church on the city’s East Side had united two native-born children of Polish immigrants. But only four years into the marriage, and with a son...

  6. 3 Counseling Prosperity
    (pp. 64-100)

    After three years in a marriage that had begun when she was seventeen years old, a young, pregnant woman prepared a memo for her counselor at the Ohio State University’s marriage clinic. In it she outlined her progress from discontented house wife to happy homemaker over the course of four counseling sessions during the summer of 1952. She had confronted feelings of betrayal and disappointment about her husband’s infidelities, ultimately blaming her sloppy housekeeping for his philandering (“Why come home to a constantly dirty house?”). With the support of her marriage counselor, she wrote, she had begun to take “interest...

  7. 4 Quantifying Compatibility
    (pp. 101-135)

    On november 17, 1956, millions of Americans caught their first glimpse of the marital future when radio and television host Art Linkletter had a UNIVAC machine—one of the world’s first computers, massive in size—wheeled onto the stage of his popular NBC variety quiz show,People Are Funny.In the weeks leading up to the broadcast, Linkletter had advertised in newspapers for interested contestants, sent questionnaires to over four thousand men and women, and sorted their answers with a UNIVAC machine to find propitious pairings. None other than Paul Popenoe wrote the thirty-two-item questionnaire, which included, according toTime...

  8. 5 Sacred Partnerships
    (pp. 136-175)

    In 1959, looking back over sixteen years of regret and disappointment, the anonymous author of a letter to the editor of theChristian Centuryblamed the minister who officiated at his wedding for failing to give him and his fiancée the kind of premarital counseling that might have averted their unpropitious union. Instead, because the minister had “promoted this fading courtship from both sides,” his confidence in his skills as a matchmaker blinded him, the author wrote, to the couple’s evident incompatibility. At the time of his engagement, the writer explained, he had been too afraid to ask for the...

  9. 6 Marriage under Fire
    (pp. 176-213)

    Speaking in 1974 before a gathering of the National Organization for Women (NOW), a feminist advocacy group that she had founded in 1966, Betty Friedan excoriated the American advice industry for deceptively urging women to find happiness in conventional marital roles: “If there’s anything that makes a feminist . . . it is growing up and believing that love and marriage will take care of anything, and then one day waking up at 30, or 40, or 50, and facing the world alone and facing the responsibility of caring for children alone. If divorce has increased by 1,000 per cent,...

  10. 7 The State of Marriage
    (pp. 214-252)

    The young couple who walked into the Domestic Relations Court of Los Angeles County that day in 1958 had filed their petition for a divorce, but Judge V. J. Hayek would have none of it. Perhaps their mistake was to bring their infant son with them. Hayek scolded the parents as if they were his own children: “You don’t belong in here when you have a little baby like this.” With a mix of what must have been both annoyance and wounded pride, the husband let Hayek know that his advice was not welcome. He and his wife reiterated their...

  11. Epilogue: Twenty-First-Century Battlegrounds
    (pp. 253-260)

    Engaged and married individuals, counselors, clergy, and social scientists have expended a vast amount of time, money, and energy to improve and repair marriage. In the process of fixing marriage, they have transformed it. Diagnoses of what ailed American marriages changed dramatically over the course of the twentieth century. Shifting taxonomies of marital conflict paralleled changes in gender relations, understandings of sexual difference and identity, and ethno-religious politics. Marriage counselors variously blamed marital conflict on economic depression, wartime dislocations, ethnic differences, excessive romanticism, youthful follies, the counterculture, feminism, psychological instability, sexual ignorance, and spiritual ennui. They suggested, in turn, a...

  12. Abbreviations and Archival Collections
    (pp. 261-264)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 265-302)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 303-306)
  15. Index
    (pp. 307-317)