- Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States by Kristin Celello
Peruse any magazine stand and you are bound to find a multitude of articles advising readers on how to have a healthy relationship. Talk shows and reality TV also reinforce the heteronormative models of healthy coupledom. The consensus in contemporary American culture seems to be that marriage is—and should be—work. Moreover, this burden continues to fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders. Twenty-first-century men might be expected to be more emotionally invested in relationships than their fathers and grandfathers were, but wives are still targeted as the spouse whose efforts could make or break a relationship. Not only is marriage work, then, but it is also most definitely women’s work.
Kristin Celello has written a compelling history of how the marriage-as-work trope emerged over the course of the twentieth century. Celello begins with the development of romantic marriages at the century’s open, moves through a consideration of the effects of World War II, postwar reconversion, and women’s liberation, and finishes with an examination of marital work late in the century. Aware that much of the terrain she surveys has been well trod by previous scholars, Celello is careful neither to mimic nor to dismiss their prior claims. Using this literature as a solid foundation, she builds a strong analysis of the role played by various experts in the creation of a heteronormative model of American marriage. She also uses creative sources to give voice to the couples themselves. Moving beyond simple demographics, Celello considers the ideals that couples brought to their relationships and what happened when the realities failed to meet them. Celello locates the sources of these ideals in the growing field of marriage counseling. While professional marriage counselors became increasingly common as the century progressed, a large body of popular counselors also offered premarital and marital advice through magazines, television, and self-help books. Together, [End Page 125] these professional and popular counselors persuaded Americans to make their marriages work. Celello employs a wide variety of sources, including cultural images, publications produced for popular as well as professional audiences, and letters exchanged between counselors and couples seeking advice. The result is a creative account of how the American work ethic intersected with the most intimate of American institutions in the twentieth century.
Celello opens this volume by introducing the experts who made marriage work. Celello admittedly “uses the term ‘expert’ loosely,” relying not on training or certification but rather on “the authoritative way in which they present their views, particularly in the popular media” (6). While experts varied widely in their backgrounds and venues, they shared a firm belief that marriage was in crisis and that it was their role to remedy it. These experts certainly had a financial stake in convincing Americans that counseling could save their relationships, but Celello does not let this self-interest dominate the story. Instead, she uses larger political, economic, and social trends to understand the ideological framework that motivated them. These experts believed—and persuaded the public to accept—that marital success was essential to national stability, that a successful marriage took effort, and that it was the duty of American women to make sure their marriages did not fail.
The first chapter explores the transition from marriage as a social, civic, or religious duty (and, for women, a means to financial stability) into a romantic relationship that couples expected to be emotionally fulfilling above all else. Concurrently, the increasing availability of and social acceptance for divorce made marital success more precarious than ever. New experts appeared that sought to deromanticize marriage, lowering expectations of personal satisfaction in order to improve chances for success. In the first decades of the twentieth century, they counseled young people, particularly women, about the dangers of choosing the wrong spouse or marrying for the wrong reasons. They hoped that by...