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

David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: May 22nd 2019

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David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host. My guest today is Dr. Kristin Celello, and we'll be discussing the history of marriage in the US. 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. She is also assistant professor of history at Queens College, City University of New York. She received her doctorate in history from the University of Virginia in 2004 and was a 2006 post-doctoral fellow at Emory University Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life. Now, here's the interview.

Dr. Kristin Celello, welcome to Wise Counsel.

Kristin Celello: Thank you for having me, David.

David: Well, you know, most of my guests are psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, social workers and such, but you're out of a different mold; you're a historian.

Kristin Celello: Yes, I am.

David: However, you've written a book on the history of marriage, and so I think that makes you a person of interest, if you will, for my audience.

Kristin Celello: Oh, fantastic, thank you.

David: Yes, so how did you come to get interested in marriage?

Kristin Celello: Well, in fact, I should say I really study marriage and divorce, and that's sort of where my story comes from. I knew that I had an interest in the history of women in the United States, and I actually initially thought that I wanted to pursue doing work on weddings. And I was writing my master's thesis at the time and I just was having a really difficult time finding evidence and what have you, and my advisor said, well, if you can't do the beginning of marriages, how about you do the end of them? I remember that conversation very specifically; it happened back in the late '90s. And I started to get really interested. I did some work looking at divorce court records, and then over time I started to move - I was in the 19th century - move into the 20th century. And I was reading all these articles and I started to see, who are these marriage counselors who are writing these articles and actively trying to prevent divorce and improve marriage? And I looked and I looked and I realized that there really wasn't any historical work that had been done about that, and I thought it was an important thing to investigate further. And so that is how I came from looking at weddings initially to being interested in both marriage and divorce, which really forms the basis of the book.

David: Well, this begs the question - and I don't know if it's a fair one or not - are you married?

Kristin Celello: Ah, that's an interesting one. I'm in a long-term, a 10 year relationship and we have actually chosen not to get married.

David: Oh, interesting, we'll have to save that for a separate interview.

Kristin Celello: Right, I know. It's on my plate to write something a little bit further about those intersections; about being a historian of marriage who has chosen not to get married, but is obviously in a long-term, stable relationship. We moved to Canada together, it's not an informal arrangement that we have, but we have chosen not to get married.

David: Okay, well, I hope I didn't put you on the spot too much by asking you that question.

Kristin Celello: No, I'm very open and honest about that. It's a quirky thing, I guess.

David: What was your goal in writing this book?

Kristin Celello: Well, there were several goals. One of them was a historian's project: there has really been a lot of work done on marriage, a lot of it focused specifically on the 1950s because historians are always trying to figure out were the '50s the last gasp of something old or were they the beginning of something new when it comes to marriage trends; and then divorce, which people who wrote those books tended to write just about the law. And as I was doing my research I realized that I really don't think you can talk about marriage in the 20th or early 21st century United States without combining the two and talking about the two together; and how fears about divorce and the reality of divorce in people's lives affected how they approached marriage and their relationships. I also became really fascinated with this idea that today, when I think marriage and work are words that I pair sort of reflexively - and I should mention the book is called Making Marriage Work, and it's about how that's something that today seems natural but I argue that, in fact, has a history; that Americans haven't always necessarily worked, per se, on their relationships or seen it as something that is continually an evolving process and can be improved, and that there are experts out there in the world who can help you improve your relationship.

David: Yes, and I thought that was the particularly fascinating angle for my audience. Now, you know the old saw about a fish not being aware of the water it swims in. I think something like that might apply to the topic of marriage. It's an institution that's so ubiquitous and so charged with both personal and cultural meanings, experiences, assumptions, that I would think it might be very challenging to be able to stand back and get anything like an objective view. Do you know what I mean?

Kristin Celello: Yeah, very much so. There are several main sources for the book. One was, I went back and I have read every article about marriage and divorce that was published in any sort of magazine and a lot of advice books over the years. And I really tried to step back and say, okay, what were the issues at this particular time? Who were the experts? What was their training? What did they do at this particular time? And the other source was I did some work with looking at the papers of early marriage counselors, which is a profession that emerged starting in the late '20s, early 1930s. The history's a little bit murky there, but that was how I tried to step back, although certainly it's hard and particularly once my final chapter goes through the 20th century, which some historians don't even believe is history yet. But I think it's important to bring the story back. Some historians have the "If I can remember it, I'm not sure it's history yet" thing, but I thought it was really important to give an overview.

David: Well, were there any sorts of obstacles or challenges that you faced as you tackled the topic?

Kristin Celello: Well, one of the obstacles I faced - and this is, I think, perfect for your audience as practitioners in the future - is that it is very difficult to track down sources that are available, particularly, for counseling sessions; and that makes entire sense given the privacy issues and what have you. And so a lot of what I had to use in terms of the evolution of marriage counseling - and I do demonstrate in the book that it very much changed over time - was using published sources. I found a couple of pockets of records of people who had left stuff and if I agreed to all the privacy things, I could use those records by changing names and those sorts of things. But really getting a good source base on the ground and seeing how some of the stuff worked on the ground was certainly, I would say, a challenge. A lot of people who write about the history of psychologists and counseling, these sorts of issues, sometimes luck into a treasure trove of someone who donated papers somewhere or a hospital that kept papers. I had to sort of scrounge around all over the place to try to build my story.

David: Oh, you should have checked in with me, because I think, in fact, in the family therapy community there are various demo tapes of people working with families, and so that might have been some rich material there. But the book is out.

Kristin Celello: It's a fait accompli.

David: Yes, and really, the view that you took, the data that you chose to look at, was really a lot of the popular literature of the advice that was being given to people and being published and so on. Now, the title of your book - and you already made reference to this - the title of your book, Making Marriage Work, can be seen as a kind of double entendre: work, on the one hand, making it functional versus turning it into a chore. And I guess that was intentional, right?

Kristin Celello: Yes, it was very much so. I like the double play of words. And it also references - there was a Lady's Home Journal column that ran in the late '40s and early '50s by a gentlemen who was a psychologist at Penn State University, which was called "Making Marriage Work," and so it's also a reference to him as well as. again, his work in the public sphere as well as that double entendre meaning. And I would say less so a chore and more, in some ways, almost a career, particularly for women, to be invested in that way.

David: Yes, well, let's get into that. Your book is broken up into historical periods; let's step through them. The first period that you talk about is 1900 through 1940, which you characterize using words like chaos, experts, divorce, and the origins of marital work. So take us through that, if you will.

Kristin Celello: Certainly. One of the main questions I had to do in writing this book - the dissertation started in 1920 and I realized I needed to go back a little earlier than that - and the question was, if marriage hasn't always been work in the United States, what was it? What was the thing that sort of got people talking about offering advice about working on your marriage? And so what I do in that early chapter is I establish the ways in which marriage goes from being what I classify as a duty; something that, of course, you wanted to have a loving relationship with your spouse, but once you got in there, for better or for worse you were there. The divorce rate was relatively low; there weren't a whole lot of options for getting out; and there weren't a whole lot of people offering advice. You could certainly go to someone with religious training, for instance; a lot of clergymen and rabbis and priests were engaged in discussions about marriage and divorce at this time. But they spent a lot of time sort of talking about whether divorce should be illegal, these sorts of things, and they didn't necessarily have a standard advice procedure.

And so what I do in that first chapter, I look at the fact that as American society in some ways becomes a little more secular, that the divorce rate starts to go through the roof, particularly after World War I, particularly into the '20s; and how the sense of crisis that brought about and the ways in which this new breed of experts - of family sociologists, marriage counselors and others - tried to find ways to slow the divorce rate and also to make marriage happier as well. There's always that tension there: on the one hand trying to stop divorce, but then on the other hand not having people living in miserable marriages, giving them strategies whereby they can improve. And they do this by doing things like founding marriage counseling clinics, founding family life education classes on the university level, particularly in this time period in the '20s and '30s as well.

David: You mentioned the importance of the clergy. Did the profession of marriage counseling evolve out of pastoral counseling?

Kristin Celello: No, from my research it's actually the opposite in some ways. The earliest marriage counselors were sort of a diverse group of individuals. A number of whom - and this is something that a couple of other historians have written about and certainly is the case - were very involved with the eugenics movement. Paul Bowman Popenoe is the most famous one, who became very famous in the post World War II era. He was the founder of "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" in the Ladies Home Journal and he authored books on sterilization, influenced California sterilization laws in the '20s. Also, he and Abraham Stone were actually birth control experts. So it was actually something that, I think, a lot of early marriage counselors and early folks in the academy positioned themselves as being different from the clergy, saying: they're not dealing with the reality; they're still fighting amongst themselves about should divorce be legal; that's not really helping anyone; we're the new secular ones, we're the experts; whereas clergy and your friends and your neighbors are not so. Now by the '50s we do see pastoral counseling emerging in its own right, in part as a way for churches to keep people engaged with the church and not just looking, necessarily, always to secular sources for that sort of aid. Of course, that doesn't mean that clergymen didn't offer marriage advice in the '20s and '30s. It's just the people I write about were trying to distance themselves a bit from that.

David: That's interesting these dynamics are still at play. Nothing goes away, really. Now, in your next chapter you take a look at war marriages: "keeping women on the marital job in war and peace" was the subtitle of that chapter. I assume we're moving into the Second World War here; what are the issues there? How have war and peace affected the institution of marriage in this country?

Kristin Celello: I will say, the World War II stuff is one of my favorite chapters. I don't know, it's just there's something about what happens there and it's one that's obviously the shortest period of time; having written about 40 years in the first chapter and then really looking at six or seven years in the second chapter. But what happens is when the United States enters World War II after years, particularly, of Depression, a lot of folks had put their marriages off and the marriage rate just skyrockets across the country, particularly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. So by early 1942 the marriage rate is going through the roof. Some of that is people who've postponed their marriages because of the Depression; some of it is because, with impending deployment, there's a romance about getting married and there's a "what if we'll never see each other again?" And the numbers just are amazingly high.

And the expert community had spent the '20s and the '30s talking about people should be cautious before marriage, people should take time to know one another, maybe get some premarital counseling or what have you. And all of a sudden that goes out the door when people, because of the circumstances of war, wanted to get married. The same experts were also aware that after World War I the divorce rate had spiked, and there were real concerns about what was going to happen after World War II. And, in fact, the divorce rate in 1946 and 1947 was the highest in the United States until the 1970s. So they knew that that was going to happen, but they nevertheless got out there.

This is where we see marriage counseling becoming part of the public conversation. A lot of marriage counselors and other experts were out in the papers saying, ladies, your husbands are off doing important work overseas. We need you; you can get a job; you can be Rosie the Riveter, but don't forget your marriage. Don't forget that he's going to have some problems adjusting when he gets home and that you can do something about it and help him do that. And women on the home front are a much easier audience to reach than soldiers overseas who, clearly, have other things on their mind as well. So that's what happens in chapter two; and, in fact, as I said, the divorce rate does spike in the sort of mid to late 1940s, but then it stabilizes once again in the '50s. And the '50s is really one of the only times - is the only time - in the 20th century the divorce rate really does sort of go down and stabilize.

David: Well, speaking of the '50s, that's the area you segue into next. How did marriage and our attitudes about it change in the 1950s? What was the emphasis? I think you talked about a new emphasis on "saving marriages."

Kristin Celello: Yes, I was really surprised when I started to do my research in the 1950s and I found this Reader's Digest article that was called "Divorce is Going Out of Style!" with an exclamation point. And I really thought that's what I was going to name the chapter because that was going to be what the discourse in the '50s was about. And instead I found that there still remained a tension and a concern that the statistic in the '50s was one in four marriages was going to end in divorce. Now those statistics are problematic; you know, today people will say one in two. There's a lot of reasons; that it counts people who get married sort of serial marriage. You know, I always tell my students, Elizabeth Taylor counts every time she gets a divorce. So first time marriages is a little different, but what happens is there still remains a real concern about divorce, family disruption, what have you.

And this is really the golden age of women's magazines as well, and so we start to see a proliferation of advice columns that come out. There's, like I said, "Making Marriage Work" is one; "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is one; the Women's Home Companion has the whole series; McCalls has a "Why Marriages Fail" series, in which they say they're talking about why marriages fail, but all of the marriages are saved. And what we see is there's a persistent theme of things can be bad but there's always a way that you can improve them and make them better.

What I do find happening in the '50s is that while ideals are very high about what marriage can do for couples in terms of personal happiness and what have you, that the bar for success is oftentimes set very low. And so as long as you remain married, that's the important thing in a lot of the literature; so all the marriages in "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" were saved, for instance. And what I found was intriguing about that, I actually found in the archives letters that suggested that that was the purpose, but they called it "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" with a question mark. So they knew every marriage was going to be saved, but they pretended they didn't, in some ways.

David: Right, do you think that the letters were genuine? Or is there a chance that they made up the letters?

Kristin Celello: That's a good question. I know that "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" was actually based on the files of the American Institute of Family Relations, which was in Los Angeles, which had been founded by Paul Popenoe as one of the first marriage counseling clinics - if not the first, again, the records are sketchy - in the United States. And they did, in fact, use actual records of actual people; that they went back through his case files and found people whose marriages had been saved and then a Ladies Home Journal reporter went and interviewed them and told their story. I don't know how they do it now. It's the longest running; it still runs to this day.

David: Oh, my goodness.

Kristin Celello: It's the longest running column in any sort of monthly magazine in the entire United States; debuted in 1953. And so sometimes you read these columns and you definitely get a sense that they are composites or fictional, but I know in that case that they were, in fact, based on real couples and their personal experiences of marriage counseling.

David: Well, what was the sort of marital advice that was being proffered in the '50s?

Kristin Celello: The advice, again for the most part, was the idea that saving your marriage was important and was enough; and that divorce was, in some ways, a disaster. And I really do find marriage counseling in the '50s there was very little what I think of as pretty standard today. There was very little joint counseling; marriage counseling was in individual thing. There was oftentimes encouraged that wives would just go themselves, talk to a counselor, and then would fix whatever problem they had; they could fix it on their own. There wasn't as much of an idea as marriage as being sort of something that two people work on together or that communication's important. Communication comes a little later in the '70s. And so a lot of the advice was figure out what's wrong with your marriage and how you can change it.

And that's when we get some of the stuff I found most distressing in my book, where you do get in marriage counseling manuals, in Ladies Home Journal, you get instances of women whose husbands [sic] are chronic alcoholics and them being asked to consider what their problem is, why they're making their husband drink. Domestic violence, we see similar evidence with that; that the suggestion is that if your husband beats you that it's something you've done to provoke him and you should get counseling and change it so that he no longer does. And so that's some of the stuff that I think modern readers find the most shocking because it seems like it's a stereotypical 1950s thing, but, in fact, that was some of the best advice offered at that time. Now, again, I'm looking at what's going on largely in magazines and in some manuals, and so I don't know how that necessarily played out for individual counselors.

David: I don't know if you've seen the very popular TV show that was running, Mad Men?

Kristin Celello: Yes, I'm a fan.

David: You're a fan, and I think it was set in the '50s and, certainly, they do depict the alcoholic wife who's kind of leading a life of no meaning; that the husband had meaningful work and the wife was kind of just adrift.

Kristin Celello: Yeah, and that's one of what I talk about a lot with my students, our images of the '50s: there's the one which is the ideal, very happy family, and then the other is, in fact, the desperately unhappy wife who feels unfulfilled even though she's supposed to be happy being a wife and being a mother. And, you know, I think reality largely fell in between the spectrum of those two things. But you certainly get a sense that the ideals are set so high that people who failed to reach them oftentimes felt there was something wrong with them and then there was something wrong with their marital relationships.

David: Yes, particularly when all you see in the media are portrayals of happy relationships and then you feel like, much as today with advertising, that one comes up feeling short somehow. Now, next you talk about the period of 1963 through 1980 in terms of radical feminism, liberated housewives, and what you refer to as "total women". Take us through that.

Kristin Celello: Yes, this is really where, obviously, we're getting into more recent history, so in some ways it feels almost a little more political to get into some of this stuff. But that chapter I really looked at both what women who were involved in the second wave of feminism were saying, both ones who are more radical - and those were the ones who were calling for the abolishment of marriage - as well as the ones who I call liberated housewives. What I found, there's oftentimes a stereotype of the feminist movement of the '60s and '70s that they were almost exclusively against marriage. And there were, certainly, people and some of the most vocal folks were out there doing that, protesting bridal fairs and threatening to sue the city of New York for making women into slaves by marriage, and this sort of thing.

But when you read feminist literature, they actually were not denying that they thought that marriage could be successful; they were asking to change the terms. They were asking, why in the '50s was marital happiness and success - as well as child care and house care, housekeeping - why were those exclusively female domains? Wouldn't it be happier and better if husbands got involved with these things as well? Couldn't we have a more well-rounded family life if we take that approach?

There also is a transition where people are saying, well, maybe we shouldn't always keep marriages together at all costs; maybe there are certain breaking points where it's better if the marriage doesn't work. And so feminists take over the Ladies Home Journal in the early '70s and they publish a section called "This Marriage Couldn't Be Saved," with a woman who does work with her husband and wants to try to save the marriage, but at the end she finds that she and her children are going to be happier if, in fact, they split. And we start to see, for instance, in the '60s and '70s trends towards divorce counseling, mediation, trying to help people get through the divorce process in a less confrontational way. There are also changes in the divorce law that affect that as well.

But we also then see the last part of that chapter. The total women are, in fact, a reaction to that that comes out of, particularly, the growing social Christian conservative movement that starts in the '50s and '60s and is really growing in strength in the '70s. So Marabel Morgan, who was a self-proclaimed Florida housewife, publishes this book - it's the best-selling non-fiction book of 1973 - in which she specifically argues that making her marriage work and doing these things is exclusively a female responsibility and she really resents that feminists are arguing that those responsibilities should be shared. The man should be the head of the household but the wife should be the one who takes care of keeping him happy, keeping the marriage fun sexually and in terms of leisure time and all those sorts of things. And so what I think is really interesting about this time period is that the idea that marriage is work is clearly ensconced in the American conversation about marriage. The next thing is who does the work? How does that do? And if you go to a counselor, you can now pick and choose what sort of people you want to talk to and what kind of advice they're going to give in some ways.

David: So was that the title of the book, The Total Woman? I almost seem to remember that.

Kristin Celello: Yes, it is.

David: Yeah, I think I remember that book. And also the '60s and '70s were characterized as the Me Generation, as a very narcissistic generation and so I think one of the things that happens during that time, as well, is that people are starting to say, well, divorce would be best for the kids. If there's marital tension, the kids are going to pick up on it and so the best thing to do is to get divorced rather than to subject the kids to these terrible marital conflicts that they're going to pick either consciously…

Kristin Celello: Exactly. What's fascinating is you just hit on the inspiration for what is hopefully going to be my next project, in which I'm looking to do a project on the history of single parenthood and particularly looking at the evolution of debates about the effects of divorce on children in particular.

David: Yeah, that's a pendulum that seems to keep swinging back and forth and I know it sort of swung to that extreme of if you make yourself happy, your kids will be happy. And more recently it seems to have been swinging back the other way. There's a bunch of research, really, that suggests that really the kids aren't happier. And so it's a complex situation.

Kristin Celello: It's a complex situation and I think it's fascinating and actually found some evidence that these debates start again considerably earlier in the 20th century than I had initially thought. I have a research assistant, who's working with me right now, and she's, like, Kristin, did they really start talking about this stuff in the '70s? There's a little bit earlier, but that is when it really explodes.

David: Yes, and then you move into talking about much closer to where we are now, the 1980s and 1990s, and you use the term "super marital sex" and the "second shift." What's super marital sex? That's certainly a striking term.

Kristin Celello: Super marital sex, those are both names of books that got a lot of play in the '80s. I believe it was Paul Pearsall was the name of the author of Super Marital Sex and Arlie Hochschild is The Second Shift. And I chose that because one of the things that happened, I find, in the '80s - particularly as it becomes evident that more women are moving into the workforce, the divorce rate is still relatively high, what have you - some of the focus on the advice you get, particularly in magazines and in certain forms of advice literature, seems to switch. And one of those is a very obsessive focus on - you know, there's another book called Keep the Home Fires Burning - making sure that your relationship, in spite of the fact you're tired and both people are probably working and having children and all that sort of stuff, that you do need to focus on maintaining your relationship; and one of the important elements in that is maintaining a sexually satisfying relationship. It's much more explicit than you get in the earlier kinds of advice. And there's real concerns, for instance, about is there going to be an infidelity epidemic once women are in the workforce and working around a lot more men and all these sorts of things. So that's one of the trends I see in how the advice evolved with changing circumstances in Americans' lives, such as more working wives and mothers being in the workforce full time. And then The Second Shift refers to this idea that women's work, you know, they have two jobs: that they do the work at their career, but then also when they come home they have child care and housekeeping responsibilities and those sorts of things as well.

David: Right. And do you, in fact, know the data in terms of was there an epidemic of infidelity as a result of women going out into the workforce?

Kristin Celello: The numbers are impossible. The statistics range so widely it is impossible to know what they were and if they really vary any from men. It's sort of implied that this could happen and there's some anecdotal evidence of, again, like "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" where a wife goes out and gets a job and immediately falls for a co-worker. But I don't think statistically that the numbers were significantly more, although I'm not a statistician, so don't quote me on that.

David: Yeah, well, it seems to me that one of the real challenges in trying to do this sort of research is that it's all so politicized. I mean, you must feel like you're walking through a mine field as you try to draw conclusions and make points.

Kristin Celello: Yes, it is; it is difficult and it's difficult as well because, you know, I should have clarified this earlier. I mean, I really am in some ways talking about a white middle class conversation that's going on in the United States, and that particularly once you get into the '60s and '70s, it becomes all the more politicized when you start talking about African American families. It's in single parenthood, all those sorts of things as well. Class - it is hard and so I do my best, like I said, to try to take the evidence; to not go in with an agenda and look at the evidence that, as I said, there's things that I really was surprised by and changed along the way because of that. But certainly the further you get into the process, the more politicized it becomes; and obviously marriage is back in the news in the early 21st century for a variety of different reasons.

David: Well, you said some things surprised you. What would be an example of something that surprised you?

Kristin Celello: For instance, as I was saying earlier, I really didn't think that this conversation about divorce would be as extensive in the '50s as it was. I mean, I read about, for instance, a group called Divorcees Anonymous, which sort of spread throughout the country in the early '50s. And it's women who got divorced and regretted it and go and help women, in sort of an AA type model, to convince women who are considering divorce that it's not to their best interest to do so, and help them win their husbands back. I didn't know what I was going to find when I started looking at the feminist movement and looking at what that balance was between women who were advocating for the end of marriage and those who were looking at marital work from a different perspective. I really didn't know what I was going to find in the '80s and the '90s, and I do think that that's a history that, like I said, a lot of the books in the past have focused so intently on the '50s, I wanted to push us past that. But I think we'll continue to come up with ways to study the latter part of the 20th century as well.

David: Well, in fact, your book leaves us off in the '90s and we're currently rocketing towards 2010. Do you have any sense of what's afoot for marriage now?

Kristin Celello: I call the epilogue "Still Working," and suggested that, obviously, this isn't something that died with the 20th century and trying to find ways to make marriages happier and more stable and what have you; although, certainly, the statistics are changing in terms of people waiting to get married later, more cohabitation, all those sorts of things. There looked for a moment, as I was writing this, that amongst the Bush Administration Faith Based Initiative, they really looked like marriage promotion might become the next big issue in terms of convincing poor women that marriage was the best alternative and that they should be the ones to take responsibility for their marriages.

Also, right before the book went to press, my editor emailed me; he had found one of the first studies that had been done out of Vermont which had reached sort of a decade with civil unions and it was about how same sex couples approach some of the work of their marriages, both the housework and the emotional work, in a different manner than do heterosexual couples because there's less sexual assumptions that are made between those couples. So I think all of that is going to be really interesting to follow in the future for sure. And I was really glad; it was a last minute addition, but he said, oh, you have to read this.

And that's the thing with marriage, it was hard to stop because marriage has caught our cultural eye and it's sort of having a moment right now; and people are talking about it and there kept being all these great new articles and different ways of looking at things. New York Times Magazine back, I think, two summers ago had "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" and it was a whole thing on new strategies in terms of marriage counseling, and so it's certainly an ongoing conversation. And I think that's because Americans in general are attached to marriage, and see it as a fundamental institution, more so than perhaps folks in other even Western European countries.

David: That's interesting. What are the implications, if any, of your research for people who are currently experiencing marital discord of one sort or another?

Kristin Celello: Well, I think that they could certainly take solace if they read it, knowing that their problems, while certainly individual to the couple, are ones that people have faced for a long time. I think my work certainly would suggest that if you're looking to seek help - I mean, right now, I think we're overwhelmed, particularly with the Internet. It's funny, I have a Google alert on "making marriage work" and the stuff I get - my book is rarely the thing that pops up. You know, marriage is based across the religious spectrum, across the political spectrum, what have you.

I use the word "experts" a lot in my book and I explain in the beginning that I use that term loosely because a lot of the folks who became the face of marital expertise were not people that scholars would necessarily think of as being rigorously academic or what have you. Paul Popenoe of "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" had a degree in botany but no actual what we would think of as credentials to be running the largest marriage counseling center in the United States in the 1950s. And so I think when you read the book it hopefully would make people sort of think about who's giving the advice, what the content of that advice means and perhaps being reflective about that. I think that's important.

David: Okay, well, speaking of the experts, do you think your work has implications for those in the helping professions who work with couples.

Kristin Celello: I've actually been really pleased that folks like you and some other folks I've talked to from the helping professions have actually been interested in my work. Obviously you expect the historian's audience, but I've been really pleased for that. Certainly, I think, it re-emphasizes that there are certain fads in counseling that do come and go, and that being aware of what's a fad and how that evolved and what have you is perhaps important, although that's something that you'd have to see. But, you know, it is a history, and some people choose to take lessons through history more so than others, I would say.

David: Yeah, well, I think it's always helpful to see one's own issues in a larger context; and, at the very least, it does that. I wonder if there's a passage in the book that you'd like to share with us before we end here.

Kristin Celello: Certainly. I had my eye on the opening of chapter three; and one of the things we haven't really talked about, but another thing I do in the book, is I do some stuff with identifying movies and television shows and what have you that sort of reflect, try to give a snapshot of what the overwhelming discussion at that particular time period is. So I looked at a great movie called The Divorcee from the late 1920s. And what I do in the opening of chapter three, is I talk about a television show called Divorce Hearing, and so I thought I'd read you a little bit from that.

David: What was it called? Divorce what?

Kristin Celello: Divorce Hearing.

David: Oh, Divorce Hearing. Was that like a court show, like Court TV?

Kristin Celello: It was. So here, shall I read?

David: Yes.

Kristin Celello: Okay.

"In 1958, Divorce Hearing debuted in syndication on television, 'presented in the belief that divorce is America's greatest danger in the home and the community, and that understanding is the greatest weapon against divorce.' The program was the brainchild of Paul Popenoe, who had become a national celebrity thanks to his monthly feature in the Ladies Home Journal, and regular appearances on Art Linkletter's House Party.

"Each episode of the show featured two couples who had filed for divorce in real life. Standing before Popenoe in a courtroom setting, each spouse took a turn describing their path to marital breakdown. In one episode, for instance, a Mrs. G alleged that her husband of two years had been 'playing around with a local beauty shop owner.' She hired a professional investigator who confirmed her suspicions. Mr. G, however, argued that the investigator was a phony and that 'he had heard about jealous women, but his wife was in a class by herself.' Sadly, Mr. G still loved his wife and their daughter, but believed that under the conditions it would be best for them to divorce.

"Despite Mr. G's clear desire to reconcile with his wife, Divorce Hearing's purpose was not to bring about happy endings. As Popenoe clearly explained at the beginning of each show, 'It is our intention on this program to examine the complaints and problems of couples who have filed for divorce in the sincere hope that a better understanding of the causes and consequences of divorce may impress upon you the importance of saving your marriage. It should be understood that Divorce Hearing is an inquiry program and is not marriage counseling.' He further reminded the divorcing couple at the opening of each segment that their purpose on the show was to 'help others avoid the tragedies you are now faced with.'

"This stated intention, however, did not prevent Popenoe from advertising the benefits of marriage counseling. Nor did his producer's conviction that showcasing marital strife made for better television, to the point that they worked to provoke couples before taping. On one episode, then, Popenoe finished a special bit for reconciliation that reintroduced his viewers to a couple who had overcome their problems after appearing on the show. His script read: 'In most instances, the couples appearing on Divorce Hearing, unfortunately, have gone too far to save their marriages. Even though they may inwardly want to turn back and try again, they've generated so much momentum towards divorce by filing and telling their friends and relatives, that pride often becomes the main obstacle to reconciliation. Had these couples, or any couple whose marriage ended in divorce, sought competent counseling early in their marriage, even before any serious difficulty had arisen, they would, in all probability still be living happily together.'

"Divorce Hearing, therefore, capitalized on two significant trends of the 1950s: the public's seemingly unquenchable thirst for televised courtroom dramas, and high expectations for married life that were matched by widespread anxieties about the stability of American marriages."

So, I'll stop there. And I have a great picture as well on page 74 of the set itself of the Divorce Hearing.

David: Okay, well, that certainly whets our appetite, and, boy, the circus still rolls on.

Kristin Celello: I was shocked to find that Divorce Court is something, that when I'm flipping through the channels when I'm at the gym, you can still see today; but this was the first and it was syndicated throughout the country.

David: Yeah, that's amazing. Well, Dr. Kristin Celello, you've been very generous with your time and I want to thank you so much for being our guest today on Wise Counsel.

Kristin Celello: Thank you so much for having me, David, it was a pleasure.

David: And if you think my voice sounds different than on previous podcasts, you'd be right. Yes, I've come down with a summer cold. So, despite my own ragged voice, I hope you found this interview with Dr. Kristin Celello interesting. Even though she's not coming out of the helping professions, an outsider's historical view may give us important perspective on the issues surrounding both marriage and couples therapy. In fact, our previous interview with Jonathan Engel, Ph.D. on the history of American psychotherapy back in February, sets a good precedent for this. If you haven't had a chance to listen to that interview, it's a good companion piece to this one with Dr. Celello.

You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the home page.

If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like ShrinkRapRadio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.

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