Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States.
Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States. By Kristin Celello (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. xiii plus 230 pp. $29.95).
With thousands of relationship self-help guides in print, daytime talk shows featuring advice on achieving better sex, compatibility and romance, and government funding for marriage preparation and education initiatives, the belief that relationships take work is firmly embedded the modern consciousness. The "relationship expert"--be it Dr. Phil McGraw with his televised tough-love guidance for couples on the rocks, or specially trained marriage and family psychologists--holds a central place in the American conversation about family formation and dissolution. But these experts are a relatively new breed, and in an expansive work that joins the critical examination of popular culture with sociological research on marriage from each decade of the 20th century, Kristin Celello tracks explicit and subtle examples of how popular media, academics and marriage counselors helped construct a national language and dialogue about marriage, placing the burden for "making marriage work" squarely on the shoulders of women.
As 19th century ideas of marriage as duty faded, friendship, romance and personal fulfillment became more salient features of a successful 20th-century relationship. At the same time, divorce rates rose to 6.6 per 1000 women in the early 1920s. Celello argues that it is necessary to understand the 20th-century cultural panic over divorce to properly understand the new willingness to consume marital advice. To educate couples on the modem, companionate marriage--and quell the rising tide of divorce--a diverse group of experts began writing for popular press outlets offering advice for how to improve marriages and create lasting relationships.
From the beginning, whether from university professors or magazine columnists, marital advice was primarily geared toward women. Experts assumed that women had a greater vested interest in marriage, both emotionally and financially, and held them accountable for the success or failure of the relationship. Colleges and universities held marriage preparation courses throughout the 1920s and 1930s which stressed the scientific complexities of the role of "wife" in an attempt to appeal to the modern young women who, some feared, might eschew marriage and childrearing responsibilities for a career. The idea was to convince young women that marital work was a necessary and noble goal - and that working on marriage would yield benefits not attainable through divorce.
But it was during the Second World War that marriage experts cemented their role in American relationships. War-time unions, often entered into in patriotic haste before the young servicemen shipped out overseas, created new social concerns about the future of American matrimony: What would happen when these young men, scarred by memories of battle and deprivation, returned home to their wives, virtual strangers to one another? Would America see a spike in divorce rates and social discord? In one of the most fascinating chapters of the book, Celello links the rise of marital experts to the debate over and preparation for such eventualities.
Indeed, the war years reinforced the idea that marital work was women's work, Celello argues, because it was the women who were available to receive the constant bombardment of advice on how to prepare for the return of their men from war. To fail at a marriage after a serviceman returned, experts warned, was a failing on the part of the wife. Veterans faced so many readjustment problems upon returning to civilian life that it was "only appropriate for wives, and not husbands, to adapt after they were reunited," Celello summarizes. Marriage experts, then, were seen as patriots--helping the War effort by saving marriages.
By midcentury, the scope of women's work within marriage began to expand considerably. Dorothy Carnegie, wife of self-help guru Dale Carnegie, outlined many of these new marital responsibilities in her 1953 book How To Help Your Husband Get Ahead. A good wife should encourage her husband's success in business, monitor his diet, tend to the emotional and spiritual healthy of the marriage and be willing to create spontaneous moments of romance and sexual intrigue to break up the monotony of family obligations. Being a wife, then, was a full-time job that required job-skills training and expert advice. To have a marriage end in divorce was viewed as a failure to perform the "work" necessary in marriage.
The increasing prominence of marital therapists and relationship experts after the War may be tied to the rise of a larger therapeutic culture in America. Family values and psychological maintenance went hand-in-hand. As Celello notes, there is ample evidence of an increase in psychological awareness, vocabulary and expenditures in the latter half of the 20th century: Joseph Veroff finds that in 1976 one-half of Americans said they would consider seeking help for a hypothetical personal problem, an increase from the one-third of respondents who said they would seek help in 1956. (1) Marriage experts, along with psychologists and other therapists, also introduced Americans to a new vocabulary for dealing with emotional challenges and desires. In the early 1960s, "lack of communication" was seventh on the list of things that couples complained about in marital counseling sessions. By the early 1970s, it topped the list.
In the latter decades of the century, public fears about the changing role of women and the fate of the nuclear family contributed to a retrenchment of the belief that wives needed to work on their marriages to avoid the failure of divorce. While Celello devotes a chapter to the second-shift work of wives employed outside the home--and the gendered response from experts insisting that those working women also create time for "super marital sex" and other enticements for their mate--the real contribution of this work is the pre-War and mid-century social history examining how our modern assumptions of marital work came to be.
This book would be an excellent addition to a course on the sociology of marriage, family or gender roles. The long-standing belief that women have a special responsibility for the success of their relationships lives on today, Celello concludes, and women are still the recipients of the vast majority of relationship advice. Learning about the history of these ideas is the first step toward questioning their salience for the future.
(1.) J. Veroff, et al., Mental Health in America: Pattern of Help-seeking from 1957-1976 (New York, 1981), p. 68.
Christine B. Whelan
University of Pittsburgh