Money Problems Have Nothing to Do with Marital Problems, and Other Bad Advice from the Past

Guess who was most skeptical of bad advice about marriage

Posted Jul 26, 2010

Rebecca Davis, author of More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss, has been answering questions for the Living Single readers, and I'm delighted with the response. If the number of page views is any indication, the first post, The American quest for bliss in marriage has a checkered past, has already been very widely read in just two days. The second, On asking how to be married, and not whether to be, elicited some very moving personal stories in the comments section. Those stories are a reminder as to why it is so important to let people know that there is an alternative perspective to matrimania. This is the third post in this series, and there will be one more after this. I've also asked Professor Davis if she would write more about the role of religion in the issues we discuss here, and she has graciously agreed to do so in the future.

Now on to today's questions.

One of the things that bothers me about the contemporary marriage movement is its focus on "fixing" the marriages or marriagability of poor people - often African Americans. The leaders of the movement do not seem at all concerned with wealthy white people such as Larry King, who could write a brief history of divorce based solely on his own experiences. So it was a real revelation to me to learn from your book that marriage counseling was once very deliberately targeted toward people who were NOT poor. Want to tell us about that?

Rebecca Davis:
Your question reminds me of a scenario I encountered last summer when I was seven and a half months pregnant. The airline I was flying to the U.K. insisted that I present a letter from my doctor stating that I was in good health (and presumably to release the airline from liability if I went into labor somewhere over the Atlantic). I wanted to ask the agents what sort of reassurances they required of Dick Cheney, who seemed like a far more likely candidate for a mid-flight medical emergency than I was. But I digress.

One of the biggest and most fascinating surprises of my research was discovering the long history of failed efforts to target marriage counseling and education to poor and minority women. Interestingly, when marriage counseling first began in the midst of the Great Depression, counselors shied away from dealing with economic issues. In fact, social workers, who provided the bulk of marriage counseling then and now, tried to convince their clients that their marital conflicts were unrelated to their financial problems. A wife would say "really, I just need my husband to get a decent job again, and I'm sure we'll stop fighting," while the social worker (often advised by psychiatrists steeped in psychoanalytic theory) might reply "ok, that's your defense mechanisms talking - let's dig deeper to discover the emotional and psychological conflicts that are really antagonizing you from your husband." Poorer clients were turned off by that approach, so once private social work agencies stopped giving out financial assistance (a shift that started during the Great Depression and was more or less complete by the end of World War II), they stopped going. African American and poor people more often showed up at these agencies because they were referred to them by a state agency-by the public schools (if a child was having behavioral problems, for example), or by the courts. As a result, fairly early on in its history, organized marriage counseling in the United States attracted mostly white, working- and middle-class women.

I found evidence that at least a few public welfare departments tried to require or recommend counseling for women who were receiving public assistance as early the mid-1950s, but those efforts did not gain much traction. The idea languished until the mid-1990s, when the 1996 welfare reform law identified out-of-wedlock pregnancy as a source of poverty. Conservative policy analysts-many of whom today oppose expanding marriage rights to include same-sex couples-jumped on this issue, producing reports that interpreted that fact that that poor women with children were disproportionately unmarried as proof that marriage itself was a solution to poverty. George W. Bush appointed some of these analysts to his administration, and they helped him launch the Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood initiatives during the first term of his presidency. The 2005 budget identified Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood as core components of the federal government's anti-poverty measures; the programs receive funding under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which was created in 1996 to replace needs-based welfare (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) with time limits and work requirements. These programs are specifically aimed at African Americans and Latinos. As you have so persuasively documented here and elsewhere, these marriage education programs not only fail to promote "healthy marriage" among the participants when compared to control groups, but they have in some instances actually increased rates of separation and even of domestic violence. President Obama has proposed a new effort, the Fatherhood, Marriage, and Families Innovation Fund, to support "responsible fatherhood" and "healthy marriage" programs for low-income parents as part of his budget proposal, but it is not at all clear whether his programs would differ substantively from those that the Bush administration funded.

I wonder whether one of the points of all the hype about achieving happier marriages is to distract people from a more threatening possibility than that of an unhappy marriage - that is, the possibility of leading a perfectly happy life without marrying and without necessarily looking to any one person to be "The One"? So, by keeping the attention on the search for the royal road to marital bliss, the pro-marriage movement undermines our inclination to consider a much more fundamental question - why pursue marriage at all?

Rebecca Davis:
That question is not one that gets asked very often in the United States, frankly, and I don't think that that's going to change any time soon. Americans are intent on "protecting," "reforming," and "improving" marriage, but they do not express much interest in jettisoning it. Of course, recent census reports have documented that a declining percentage of American households include a married couple; more families are led by single people or by two adults who are not married to one another. Historically speaking, I think the question you are asking here has been much more salient, fraught, and complicated for women than it has been for men. I really see this issue as a question of the degree of women's economic and sexual emancipation.

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

Part 2: On asking how to be married, and not whether to be

Part 3: this post

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