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An Interview with Kristin Celello, Ph.D, on the History of Marriage in 20th Century America

David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: Jun 16th 2009

download this podcast read the transcript

Kristin Celello, Ph.D.In this edition of the Wise Counsel Podcast, Dr. Van Nuys interviews Kristin Celello, Ph.D. on the History of Marriage. Dr. Celello is a historian (not a mental health professional) who has written a history of the evolution of attitudes towards marriage in America during the 20th Century. She became interested in the history of marriage during the course of her graduate work. Starting from an interest in women's history, she became interested in weddings, and then when that proved difficult to study, in divorce. This led her to recognize that the institution of marriage was not well studied within the academic historical literature. She saw an interesting career opportunity and pursued it.

The study of the history of marriage is complicated because there are both public and private aspects to it. Much of the private material remains private and hard to access. Much of her source material for this book on marriage was thus taken from publically published materials including magazines, books and other media.

Dr. Celello's book is titled, "Making Marriage Work", which title functions at several levels. The main idea of the book is that public attitudes towards marriage changed radically across the 20th Century, starting at a position best described as "duty", and ultimately arriving at a position best described as "work". This is to say, in the early years of the 20th Century, people endured marriages when they didn't work well; there was no marriage counseling and few remedies such as easy access to divorce. By the end of the 20th Century, attitudes towards marriage had shifted from seeing it as something static and relatively unchangeable which needed to be endured to something you needed to work at actively; a process that required your focused attention in order to keep it functioning well, and which was capable of being nurtured into better health if it was ailing. Thus, the title refers both to making marriage function better, and to the transition towards viewing marriage as something requiring constant maintenance with the easy capability of becoming a chore.

The book is divided into chapters describing the public view of marriage during various periods of the 20th Century. The first chapter, covering 1900 through 1940 lays out the starting point where marriage is viewed as a duty and an obligation. Divorce was either illegal or difficult to come by and socially unacceptable. There were not yet any marriage counselors, although clergy would sometimes be called upon to advise a couple. Largely marriage and divorce was seen as a moral issue.

The earliest secular marriage counselors appeared on the scene in the late 1920s and early 1930s. These men were self-styled experts with eclectic backgrounds and little basic training in marriage, psychology or social work. Paul Popenoe opened one of the first (if not the first) marriage clinic in Los Angeles during this period; The American Institute of Family Relations. The treatment there seems to largely have consisted of discouraging couples from divorcing.

By the 1950s, marriage counseling was an accepted intervention which troubled couples could avail themselves of, but the idea that therapeutic intervention could help a marriage was still very new to the public consciousness. Very little conjoint counseling occurred (where both partners would meet together to discuss their problems as typically occurs today. Instead, largely marriage counseling was offered to wives on an individual basis, and the prevailing notion seems to have been that if there were problems in the marriage, it was because the wife was doing something wrong. Correspondingly, the treatment would have consisted of helping her to accept blame for causing the problem and to figure out ways to remediate the problem by changing her behavior. By today's standards, this is sick and wrong, but it does fit with the alternating stereotypes of the 1950s which persist today: one being the happy role-conforming family a la "Leave it to Beaver", and the other being the despairing housewife whose happy facade masked a suicidal inside, as depicted in the film "The Hours". For the first time, therapy for troubled marriages was available, but it was largely concerned with covering over the problems so as to preserve the facade of happiness; not about actually addressing structural issues.

The period comprising 1963 through 1980 saw two marriage trends emerge. On the one hand, a Christian Conservative movement emerged, as exemplified by Marabel Morgan's 1973 book "The Total Women" which argued for the continuation of 1950s attitudes towards marriage. On the other hand, the second wave of feminism occurred along with a shifting popular views of the nature of marriage and marital problems. The traditional sex-roles that confined women to care giving and husband pleasing roles in the home started to break down, women started to enter the workforce and the notion of divorce became less morally charged and more socially acceptable with many entertaining the notion that a divorce was sometimes better for children than exposing them to the continuing strive of a hostile marriage. Mediation, instead of court proceedings, became a popular way to pursue divorce.

Dr. Celello does not discuss it, but I (Dr. Dombeck) believe it was at this time that marriage therapy became a conjoint process, with techniques pioneered by the family systems school of psychotherapy. For the first time, marital problems were seen as being systemic in nature, which is to say, shared between the partners rather than being the province of the wife, and the route to resolving conflict being one of helping the partners to understand how each contributed to the problem so that they each could adjust their behavior.

Dr. Celello concludes her book with developments of the 1990s, which was remarkable to her by a disavowal of the "me" generation's focus on individual achievement and a tendency of marriage advisors to encourage spouses to pay more attention to the health of their marriages, sexually and otherwise. Other interesting trends beginning in this period include a tendency for people to wait until they are older before getting married, an increase in cohabitation rather than marriage, and domestic partnerships, aka same-sex marriages.

Dr. Van Nuys asks Dr. Celello what message her work might have for people who are presently experiencing marital difficulties. She replies that such people will be comforted to know that they are not alone; that there is a long history of marital difficulties which have persisted despite radical changes in terms of society's approach to handling those difficulties. She also reports that it is important to look critically at what contemporary marriage advisors have to say because today, as has consistently been the case in the past, many of the experts are not qualified on the basis of profession or education to talk expertly about marriage.

Dr. Van Nuys closes the interview by asking Dr. Celello to read a passage from her book. She chooses a passage describing an early 1950s television program called "Divorce Court" in which divorcing couples told their stories of woe. This early example of reality television was intended to be a cautionary tale hoping to frighten people into staying married rather than as an instance of therapy. The modern television show "Divorce Court" is an intellectual descendent of this early show, which also reminds me, in its fascination with divorce as an entertainment of the popular series Jon and Kate Plus Eight, which has experienced a ratings boost of late on rumors that the husband Jon has been having affairs that may jeopardize the stability of their marriage. It seems that people have liked to view relationship train wrecks for a long, long time.

Links Relevant To This Podcast:

About Kristin Celello, Ph.D.

Kristin Celello, Ph.D.Kristin Celello, Ph.D. is author of the 2009 book, Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States (UNC Press, 2009). She is also assistant professor of history at Queens College, CUNY. She received her doctorate in history from the University of Virginia in 2004 and was a 2006-07 postdoctoral fellow at Emory University's Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL).

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