On Asking How to Be Married, and Not Whether to Be

Marriage counseling implicitly taught Americans to devalue singlehood

Posted Jul 25, 2010

Yesterday, Rebecca Davis, author of More Perfect Unions, talked about the American quest for bliss in marriage and its checkered past. Today our conversation continues with a question from a reader.

When I wrote previously about marriage education programs and their questionable effectiveness, a reader posted a comment asking what that had to do with the topic of my Psychology Today blog, Living Single. I still haven't responded to that, but since your publicist sent me your book, clearly others have the same idea. How would you answer the question of why someone interested in the place of singles in contemporary society might also be interested in these marriage and relationship education programs?

Rebecca Davis:
This question really gets at the heart of the marriage counseling and education movement: its bedrock assumption that marriage is an essentially benevolent institution. What I argue in my book is how and why that idea-that marriage is the ideal relationship for adults-took root in American culture. Starting in the 1930s, supporters of marriage counseling argued that if a marriage was full of conflict or lacked for love, the fault lay with the two individuals who made up the couple, not with the institution to which they had committed themselves. Counselors had a term for what a successful marriage required: "adjustment." For decades, adjustment theory was the guiding principle of marriage counseling, and it had everything to do with teaching men and women-but women in particular-that marriage required them to "adjust" themselves to their new, gender-specific roles as husband and wife. Of course, various women's rights and free love advocates had been saying that something was wrong with marriage, not simply with the people getting married, since the mid-nineteenth century, but they were more or less ignored or disregarded as kooks and radicals. Ironically, marriage counseling itself, though it had been busy teaching women and men to "adjust" to marriage, contributed to the gradual realization among many mainstream counselors and couples that something was, in fact, wrong with marriage as an institution.

This transformation occurred because American women explained to marriage counselors that adjustment often required an enormous, painful emotional sacrifice on their part. "Adjustment" was a process of a gender conformity: counselors explained to women that in order to be a successful wife, they would need to take up housekeeping and childrearing enthusiastically; men learned that they needed to be reliable providers for their families. The reality for many couples, however, could not have been more different. The case notes I found in the archives document hour after hour of women (who often attended marriage counseling alone-men were not that involved in marriage counseling until the 1970s) describing how their marriages deprived them of happiness, a sense of self, and the opportunity to pursue their vocational or creative aspirations. And counselors did what they were trained to do: they listened. Gradually, they learned. By the 1970s marriage counseling had changed; it had become more about teaching spouses to communicate, empathize, and develop partnerships based on equality, rather than gender-specific role play. I discovered that a major fault line in the culture wars of the 1970s (and since) was between people who believed that traditional gender sacrifices were necessary and even beneficial (a viewpoint espoused by the New Christian Right and on display in bestsellers like The Total Woman, a 1973 book that taught women to that they would improve their marriages-and have a better chance of leading their husbands into a personal relationship with Jesus-if they were submissive, sexually available housewives), and people who considered traditional gender roles to be a dangerous and often unsuccessful basis for a happy marriage.

Back to question of what this has to do with place of single people in American society: The point I make in the book is that marriage counseling became not simply about fixing the relationships of two married people-or, in the case of premarital counseling and education, about preparing men and women for heterosexual marriage-but about teaching Americans to value marriage as the best, healthiest, and most sexually and spiritually rewarding relationship an adult could have. Instead of simply teaching people to have "healthy" marriages (and we could spend hours parsing the multiple versions of "healthy" that evolved over the decades), marriage counseling taught Americans to define marriage itself as a healthy state of being. The flip side of that lesson, however, was that other forms of adult status-being single or divorced-were implicitly understood to be less desirable.

Thanks again, Rebecca, for this terrific discussion. And thanks for your willingness to answer several more questions in the next two posts.

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.

(The photo of Rebecca Davis was taken by Sabrina Ward Harrison.)

Part 1: The American quest for bliss in marriage has a checkered past

Part 2: this post

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?