Elevate Difference

Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States

In Making Marriage Work, Kristin Celello outlines the evolution of public perceptions and attitudes about marriage and divorce in the United States throughout the twentieth century. Drawing on magazine articles, films and popular books, she specifically looks at the development of the notion that being married requires a great deal of work and that a happy marriage is something worth working toward. In theory, both partners are expected to sacrifice, but in practice it has been women who have borne the brunt of the responsibility—even to the extent that being a wife has been popularly portrayed as a “full time job” rather than a relationship. 

Celello begins with the public perception in the 1930s that the divorce rate was out of control. From there, she covers pre- and post-World War II issues of “war marriages” which, experts warned, required a lot of work and attitude adjustments (on behalf of wives, of course) in order to survive. The book also looks at the rise of “expert” marital advice and the astronomical growth of the marriage counseling/couples therapy industry. Celello cites evidence such as articles from The Ladies’ Home Journal column “Can this Marriage be Saved?”—the answer to which is always a resounding yes, as long as the wife is willing to readjust her attitude and expectations—she also traces the development of the feminist movement and its impact on the national discussion about marriage and family. Not only did the media convince people that marriage is something to work on, Celello cleverly illustrates how counselors and psychologists ensured the growth of their professions by promoting the idea that it was impossible to have a successful marriage without extensive advice and professional help.

Celello moves on to look at the 1960s and ‘70s discourse during which some feminists would push for a more egalitarian notion of marriage, while others would wonder why the institution shouldn’t be abolished altogether. This invariably led to religious and other conservative thinkers reinforcing the idea that a woman’s ideal job is as a wife and mother. To that end, dubious studies were cited “proving” that when women failed to make their marriages work, their children suffered irreparable harm. The divorce rate did reach an all-time high in 1978, but Celello asserts that part of the reason for the declining divorce rate over the final two decades was the increased number of couples who opted to cohabitate (or not) rather than marry in the first place.

Careful attention is paid to race and class issues within the greater discussion. Celello points out that while the emphasis has generally been on ensuring that white middle class couples conform to the marriage-as-a-sacred-political-institution model, movements encouraging African Americans and low-income women to view “traditional” marriage as a ticket out of poverty have also presented themselves over the years. She clearly illustrates that while the idea that “marriage is work” has been a given for decades, the nature of that work and the reasons for performing it have morphed several times, reflecting changing cultural values and expectations.

Overall it’s a lively history, and any fans of Stephanie Coontz’s work will likely appreciate it. Those who lean a little less scholarly, but still like to make fun of Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, and the rest of the good-women-can-and should-keep-a-marriage-alive-forever peddlers will find it pretty accessible and enjoyable too.

Written by: Staci Schoff, May 24th 2009