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The Sometimes Sordid History of the American Quest for Bliss in Marriage

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I write for and about singles who love their single lives, and are not on some quixotic quest to become unsingle and thereby full of bliss. So why should I care about the cottage industry of marriage education and marriage counseling? That's what one of my readers asked me. I happened to have in hand Rebecca Davis's savvy, smart, and meticulously researched new book of social history: More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss. So I asked Davis how she would answer that question.

Here's part of what she said:

"Instead of simply teaching people to have 'healthy' marriages, marriage counseling taught Americans to define marriage itself as a healthy state of being. The flip side [was that living single was] implicitly understood to be less desirable."

You can read the rest of her very thoughtful answer this question here. There was a lot more I wanted to know, and the author was most patient, so our discussion went on for a while. Here are some highlights, together with some links to the other parts of the interview.

Rebecca Davis told me that "marriage counseling, when it first began in the United States in the 1930s, was more concerned with heterosexuality than it was with marriage." As recently as the 1970s, counselors wondered whether marriage could "cure" homosexuality. "Another popular line of thinking," Davis added, "was that premarital counseling should begin at birth." (More of the sordid details can be found in her longer answer, here.)

One of the things that bothers me about the contemporary marriage movement is its focus on "fixing" the marriages or the 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 More Perfect Unions that marriage counseling was once very deliberately targeted toward people who were NOT poor. Here's a snippet from our interview in which Professor Davis explains some of what the poor found alienating:

"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.'" (Read more here.)

We ended on this question that I posed to her: "To me, one of the enduring curiosities and frustrations about the place of marriage in America is how resilient it is. The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s did not knock marriage off its perch - instead, it had a hand in creating more egalitarian marriages. In the same-sex community (as you note in your book), the people with an interest in continuing to challenge traditional marriage have not had nearly the impact on our cultural conversations as those who want to work for full access to Marriage (and not to marriage-light consolation prizes such as Domestic Partnerships or Civil Unions). Can you give a short answer to the question: What's this about?"

Rebecca Davis had a lot to say in response to this question, including this:

"I guess you could say that I'm less 'frustrated' about marriage's resilience than you are. In fact, I would argue that marriage's very resilience suggests that it has no inherent value; it is a socially constructed social and legal relationship that acquires meanings from the institutions that govern it, the people who participate in it, and the social and cultural actors that represent it."