Making Marriage Work: Marital Success and Failure in the United States, 1920-1980

Celello, Kristin Mary, Department of History, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, Department of History, University of Virginia
Boris, Eileen, University of Virginia
Hays, Sharon, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Cindy, Aron, University of Virginia
Aron, Millicent, Department of History, University of Virginia

In a July 2004 article discussing the present state of marriage in the Nation, a commentator queried: "How exactly did the rhetoric of the factory become the default language of coupledom?" This dissertation seeks to answer that question, by exploring the history of how and why marriage became work. It argues that the contemporary American fear that the institution of marriage is in crisis is hardly new. Marriage commentators, in fact, declared marriage to be in serious jeopardy throughout the twentieth century. The leading proponents of this theory were a diverse group of self appointed "family life experts," who shared a concern about the rising divorce rate and its implications for personal relationships and the larger public welfare. The desire to avoid divorce and to be happily married, in tum, led many American couples-especially those of the white middle class-to seek and to follow the experts' advice. While the existing historiography generally treats marriage and divorce as separate areas of inquiry, this dissertation demonstrates the centrality of fears about divorce to how experts and the public thought about American married life through most of the twentieth century.

This study also explores the variety of ways-most notably through the professionalization and the popularization of marriage counseling-in which such experts attempted to transform marriage into a viable modern institution. It argues that they enjoyed their greatest success in convincing Americans that "successful" marriages did not just happen, that such unions required concerted effort. The actual performance of marital work, however, was never an equal proposition. Many experts and husbands expected wives to take responsibility for their relationships, and women were often blamed if their marriages were unhappy or ended in divorce. Even when second-wave feminists posed a significant challenge to this state of affairs, they rarely denied that work was an important element in any marital relationship. While both the definition of marital success and the nature of marital work evolved over time, the core idea-that good marriages required effort-had become ingrained in how Americans thought about and went about being married.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
marriage, divorce, U.S., twentieth century
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