Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

The American Quest for Bliss in Marriage Has a Checkered Past

Historian Rebecca Davis unveils a century of American obsession with marriage

Bella's Introduction

There could hardly be a more opportune time to have at hand Rebecca Davis's smart, thoughtful, and meticulously-researched new book of social history, More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss. As many of you know, I have been exasperated by the recent success of the marriage education movement in getting their messages into the mainstream press - including, for example, the Washington Post and NPR - in a very misleading way that greatly exaggerates any actual effectiveness of the programs. It is as if they got big-time free advertising under the guise of journalism.

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As a scientist, I was outraged by what seemed like a co-opting of science. The groups point to scientific findings, thereby burnishing their credentials, without being honest about what the findings really do show. What I saw was an attempt to pursue an ideology, in a way that also generated mega bucks for lots of people, and along the way, added to our culture of matrimania and singlism.

What I had little or no knowledge of before reading Rebecca Davis's new book was the whole historical context of what Davis calls "the American search for marital bliss." I didn't realize the other big, important factors that have been in play over the decades in this struggle to define what marriage should be, what should count as a successful marriage, and what people come to accept as the most effective ways to achieve a good marriage.

I thought this was going to be one short Q & A post, but I learned so much from this amazing scholar that I'm going to continue our discussion over the next several posts.

I'll say more about Rebecca Davis in the note at the end of this post, but let's jump straight to the first question.

Bella:
Without asking you to summarize your entire book, can you point to some of the big issues I was missing in focusing only on ideological agendas, the financial rewards these groups were creating for themselves, and the misrepresentation of science?

Rebecca Davis:
Marriage counseling, when it first began in the United States in the 1930s, was more concerned with heterosexuality than it was with marriage. That might sound bizarre or baffling, but here's what I mean: the people who initiated the earliest organized marriage counseling and education programs were preoccupied with changes in men's and women's sexual attitudes and behaviors and with shifts in gender roles. Some of these counselors abhorred these changes (particularly women's greater sexual and economic independence and the greater availability of reliable contraceptives), and others celebrated them. But they all agreed that, as a result, marriage in America had been thrown off its axis. Marriage counseling became a project of setting heterosexual relationships aright.

Over time, the goals and concerns of marriage counselors broadened considerably. After World War II, many reformers believed that marriage held the keys to forging a healthier, more prosperous society. For ministers and rabbis, marriage counseling, and particularly premarital counseling, increasingly came to seem like an ideal way to anchor suburban spiritual communities. And social scientists were right there in the thick of it, producing studies, psychometric tests, and surveys, which they claimed could help predict a couple's chances for marital happiness.

But that underlying preoccupation with the fortunes of heterosexuality survived. I discovered a surprisingly robust conversation among counselors, into the 1970s, about whether marriage to a person of the opposite sex could "cure" someone of same-sex desire. Another popular line of thinking contended that premarital counseling should begin at birth, as children grew up with an understanding of heterosexual marriage as the epitome of responsible adulthood. Fortunately, most counselors abandoned this deeply damaging line of thinking. Today, many of the people who do this sort of work refer to themselves as "couples counselors," who will help both the married and the unmarried, straight and gay alike. A backlash has occurred among socially conservative (and especially among religiously conservative) counselors, however, who have revived older conceptions of heterosexual marriage as the apex of adult maturity and mental health.

It's worth noting that the people who initiated marriage counseling services in the United States-the eugenicists, birth control advocates, social workers, physicians, and eventually, clergy who set up clinics or offered less formal counseling arrangements-did not grow rich from their efforts. Social work was a mostly female occupation (then as now) and was not well compensated, and private social work agencies did not begin charging fees for their services (on a sliding scale) until after World War II. The few independent clinics that existed charged fees, but except for psychiatrists and some clinical psychologists, counselors charged relatively modest amounts for their services.

Bella:
Thanks so much, Rebecca, for answering this question and the ones to follow with such thoughtfulness and insight. Readers: I'll be posting more of this interview in subsequent posts.

Rebecca Davis, Photo by Sabrina Ward Harrison

More about Rebecca L. Davis:
Rebecca's Ph.D. is in American History, from Yale University. She did her postdoc at Princeton University's Center for the Study of Religion. She lives in Swarthmore, PA, and teaches in the history department at the University of Delaware. Read more about her background here and learn more about her book and some of the wonderful reviews it has garnered here.

Part 2: On asking how to be married and now whether to be

Part 3: Money problems have nothing to do with marital problems, and other bad advice from the past

Part 4: If marriage keeps changing, does that mean it has no real essence or value?

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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