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  • More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss
  • Stephanie Coontz
More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss. By Rebecca L. Davis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. 317 pp.).

In an extraordinarily useful history that also makes for entertaining reading. Rebecca Davis traces the origins and evolution of marriage counseling and [End Page 240] marriage promotion in the United States. Interestingly, efforts to promote and stabilize marriage began in the 1920s as the flip side of the eugenics movement's desire to keep the "unfit" from reproducing. Paul Popenoe, a founder of the American marital counseling profession, hoped that by promoting better marriages among "the fit"—white Anglo-Saxon middle-class couples—their birth rates would rise in relation to those of the poor.

In 1930 Popenoe founded the Institute for Family Relations, which became the American Institute for Family Relations. By the 1950s, the files of his stable of marital counselors were the basis for the Ladies Home Journal's influential column, "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" The answer was invariably yes, if the couple conformed to their respective gender roles.

Davis argues that the goals of marriage-savers, then and now, were essentially conservative. During the Depression, she writes, counselors emphasized that "emotional growth, not handouts," would help couples achieve stability (61). Beginning in that era, and with especial vehemence during and after World War II, the tenets of Freudian psychiatry were increasingly employed to enforce a rigid definition of heterosexual mental health. Davis's chapters on postwar counseling goals and methods contain compelling quotes and other evidence revealing how insistent the profession was that a normal, healthy family required a woman's economic and emotional dependence upon her husband. In contrast to earlier eras' emphasis on the sacrifices women needed to make to sustain a marriage, counselors also insisted that the measure of a well-adjusted woman was how much pleasure she took in such dependence.

In other chapters, Davis discusses early experiments with predicting marital success and matching individuals for compatibility. She notes that the first computer-based matchmaking business opened in 1956, but even before that, sociologists and psychiatrists were trying to quantify the factors that would make divorce less likely. Whether secular or faith-based, counselors were especially anxious to prevent interfaith marriages and, despite tension over methods and sources of authority, to maintain strict gender norms, as well as to root out any impulses or behaviors that might smack of homosexuality.

Davis deftly reveals the class, racial, sexual, and gender biases of the counseling profession and its emphasis on marriage as a form of social control. But she avoids a top-down approach to history, arguing that the couples who came for counseling educated the experts, pressing them to recognize that there were other sources of marital conflict and other possibilities for marital health besides those identified by Freudianism.

There were also inherent contradictions within the counseling movement, Davis points out. In working with clients to improve their marriages through changing their behavior, counselors ultimately encouraged people to see the pursuit of individual happiness and personal fulfillment as legitimate goals—a pursuit that eventually bolstered the argument for liberalizing divorce laws.

As new social movements, including feminism, made headway in the 1960s, many psychiatrists abandoned their earlier emphasis on maintaining gender hierarchy within the home. In 1951, for instance, the director of the Family Service Association of Indianapolis was telling wives to "abandon their independent attitudes." But twenty years later he was warning that without an equal partnership of men and women, "marriage will not survive" (5). [End Page 241]

By the early 1970s, the core theories of the counseling profession were unraveling, creating a crisis in the profession that evoked responses ranging from a new concern with domestic violence and marital rape, to endorsements of "open marriage," to attempts to restore "traditional" marital roles, albeit through a very untraditional celebration of marital sexuality. Marabel Morgan, an evangelical who advocated wifely submission, proudly described how she once greeted her husband at the end of the day dressed in baby-doll pajamas and white boots, a get-up that inspired him to chase her around the dining-room table...


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pp. 240-242
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