Making Marriage Work: Marital Success and Failure in the Twentieth-Century United States
I am going to use my time at the MARIAL Center to prepare my manuscript, Making Marriage Work: Marital Success and Failure in the Twentieth-Century United States, for publication (it is under contract with The University of North Carolina Press).
Making Marriage Work explores how Americans came to understand marriage as an institution that couples, and especially wives, needed to work at in order to succeed. I demonstrate how family life experts—most notably through the professionalization and the popularization of marriage counseling—continuously redefined the character of marital work and the meaning of marital success as they responded to a persistent fear of family breakdown. As husbands and wives in the 1920s increasingly became willing to end marriages that did not fulfill their expectations, family life experts assured couples that hard work—and not love alone—led to viable marriage relationships. While these experts promised new levels of companionship and intimacy for married men and women, by the 1950s, a successful marriage was, quite simply, one that did not end in divorce. Yet even when second-wave feminists posed a significant challenge to this state of affairs in the 1960s and 1970s, they rarely denied that work was an important element in any marital relationship. Decades of visits with marriage counselors, of advice columns in magazines and newspapers, and of portrayals of marriage and divorce on film had ingrained the “marriage as work” formula into the minds and lives of American women and men.
This narrative supports several key arguments. First, conceptions of marital success can only be understood if contextualized with concurrent understandings of marital failure. Whereas the existing historiography treats marriage and divorce as separate areas of inquiry, my work demonstrates the centrality of fears of divorce to how experts and the public thought about American married life. Second, while the concept of marital work was egalitarian on the surface, closer examination reveals the gendered and racial assumptions upon which it rested. Experts consistently expected women to take primary responsibility for working at their marriages. As a result, wives, much more so than their husbands, were held accountable if their marriages were unhappy or ended in divorce. The equation of marriage and work also ignored the realities of African-American and white working-class life, and thus led experts and the middle-class public to censure those men and women whose relationships failed to fit into the narrow confines of the working marriage model. Finally, I argue that the contemporary American concern that the institution of marriage is in crisis is hardly new. This history of marriage in the twentieth century, therefore, is best understood as a constant negotiation between attempts to hold on to “traditional” relationships and to transform marriage into a thoroughly modern institution.