Book Reviews

Book Review – More Perfect Unions

MORE PERFECT UNIONS: The American Search for Marital Bliss.  By Rebecca L. Davis.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press.  2010.

More Perfect UnionsIn her meticulously researched history of marriage counseling in the United States, Davis examines the profession from its origins in the 1920s and 1930s to its status in the present day.  Incorporating material from advice manuals, professional journals, popular periodicals, oral histories, and dozens of archival collections, Davis traces changes in the profession as it adapted to the nation’s evolving needs, fears, and desires.  From anxiety about white “race suicide” in the 1920s to concerns about same-sex marriage in the 2000s, marriage counselors have dealt with every hot-button social issue of the past eight decades.

Originally the province of Freudians and eugenicists who urged middle-class whites to build marriage around starkly defined gender roles and the goal of reproduction, marriage counseling expanded in the 1940s and 1950s to include a variety of practitioners.  Clergy members, radio hosts, and even Red Cross workers dispensed marital advice in wartime and postwar America. Their prescriptions were familiar:  A successful marriage required a dominant husband and a dependent wife who cheerfully embraced motherhood as her biological destiny.  With the development of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, experts began to counsel greater mutuality within marriage.   At approximately the same time, however, states adopted no-fault divorce laws that made it easier for couples to dissolve marriages that did not meet the new standard of mutual satisfaction and shared decision making.  Rising divorce rates and discomfort with women’s greater equality both inside and outside marriage quickly led to a conservative backlash that saw authors such as Marabel Morgan once again counseling wives to submit to their husbands.  Even at the height of the Watergate scandal, Morgan’s The Total Woman outpaced Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men as the nonfiction bestseller of 1974.

Since the 1970s, psychologists, sociologists, social workers, advice columnists, clergy members, and other marriage advisors have failed to reach consensus on the ideal ingredients for marital success.  Advocates of traditional role-based marriage share media time, bookshelf space, and office buildings with counselors who advise that happy marriage requires shared wage-earning and housekeeping and room for personal growth.  As society has grown more accepting of gay and lesbian couples and states have begun to legalize same-sex marriage, some counselors have also extended their services to same-sex partners.  Regardless of their clients’ sexual orientation or the exact nature of their advice, today’s marriage counselors share one common value: They believe that strong marriages are the foundation of a strong America.  As Davis persuasively argues, this core belief has sustained the marriage counseling business for eighty years.

Davis provides excellent discussion of how the marriage counseling profession changed in response to historical events.  She occasionally, however, oversimplifies description of the historical events themselves.  (For example, she seems to imply that Betty Friedan single-handedly founded the National Organization for Women.)  Her study nevertheless marks an important contribution to the historiography of American marriage.

Katherine Jellison, Ohio University, Athens

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Discussion

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