American couples’ ambitions for personally fulfilling marriages have never been higher nor—given the high rates of divorce—more elusive.

Thus, as Rebecca Davis tells us in her history of marriage counseling, it is no surprise that engaged and married couples increasingly have turned to experts to help them anticipate and navigate the peaks and valleys of married life. In the early 1990s, she notes, 4.6 million Americans sought professional help with their marriages, and fifty-six thousand licensed marital therapists stood ready to provide such help. Their numbers may be even higher today.

Despite its popular appeal, however, marriage counseling has done little to boost marital happiness or success. According to Davis, marriage experts have fostered the “uniquely American obsession” with marriage but have done very little to improve the lives of married couples. In her telling, the main reason is ideological. Over the course of eight decades, marriage counseling has been captive to reactionary forces that have done more harm than good.

Marriage counseling emerged in the 1930s but, as Davis explains, the first marriage counselors were not much interested in counseling or marriage. They were eugenicists, physicians, and reformers whose main mission was to change the sexual and reproductive behavior of married couples. Botanist Paul Popenoe, founder of one of the first marriage-counseling centers, fought for legal sterilization of the “unfit” while promoting increased childbearing among the “fit.” Birth-control advocates Margaret Sanger and Alexander Stone, for their part, campaigned to give married women contraception in order to limit the number of children they would bear. Sanger and Stone, Davis notes, built alliances with the eugenics movement as well.

By mid-twentieth century, however, marriage counseling had emerged as a professional discipline and a therapeutic service for the middle class. Strongly influenced by Freudian theory and new scientific personality tests, marriage-saving professionals diagnosed and treated marriage problems as instances of personality conflicts and maladjustment to traditional husband/wife roles. Pastoral counselors incorporated psychology and testing into their premarital and marriage programs in an effort to appeal to better-educated, middle-class parishioners.

According to Davis, Catholics adopted premarital counseling and postmarital programs as a way to enforce Catholic teachings for the growing population of suburbanizing faithful. Catholic premarital counseling of the 1950s and ’60s, she writes, “cheered the conjugal pleasures of sex while remaining opposed to mechanical birth control.” Likewise, she says, lay Catholics created Pre-Cana and Cana Conferences to integrate more secular and scientific insights into marriage, as long as they supported Catholic teachings.

Government, too, got into marriage counseling. State welfare departments mandated counseling to reduce welfare case loads. Concern for children led family courts to refer couples for counseling. In California, following passage of the nation’s first no-fault divorce law, courts in the state required all minors who applied for a marriage license to undergo premarital counseling if a judge deemed it necessary. And passage of the 1996 welfare reform act, which called for efforts to strengthen marriage, led to federally funded marriage-education programs.

Davis is unsparingly critical of almost all these activities. Whether practiced by psychologists or priests, secular educators or lay religious couples, private therapists or public officials, she argues, marriage counseling was rooted in bad science and repressive ideologies. Throughout its history, promarriage efforts championed traditional gender roles, treated homosexuality as a sin and sickness, pushed marriage as a solution to poverty, and talked up marriage as a way to shore up religious identities and beliefs.

This sweeping indictment suffers from several problems. First, Davis focuses heavily on the 1950s and ’60s, and then measures mid-twentieth-century marriage-saving efforts against the ideals that many hold for marriage in 2010. This is one way to read the historical record, of course, but it is excessively present-minded. Much of the messy texture of human experience, including the contingencies and challenges faced by those who tried to solve problems in the past, is sacrificed for her over-determined thesis.

Further, she lumps together under the rubric “marriage counseling” a highly diverse and changing group of individuals, organizations, and activities, including marital therapy, premarital counseling, public marriage-education programs, popular advice and social-reform movements, and ascribes a high level of orthodoxy to all of them. This argument strains credibility, given the wide variety of organizational missions and motivations, and surely would be historically unprecedented, if true.

Davis also frequently overstates her case without adequate supporting evidence. For example, she writes: “Toward the end of the [twentieth century], public officials, arguing that saving heterosexual marriage could save the nation, had launched national campaigns to make marital status the benchmark for determining social-welfare benefits and economic citizenship.” Such a strong and unqualified statement demands specifics: Who were these public officials? What were their statements? What did they mean by economic citizenship? and so forth. But her evidence is limited to one or two Bush administration officials who ran responsible-fatherhood and marriage-education programs out of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Some of her assertions are entirely unfounded. Writing of the marriage debate in recent decades, Davis’s claims that “conservative public discourse produced a prolonged jeremiad against divorce and female-headed households because of their alleged impact on children’s well-being” (italics mine). The social-science evidence on the impact of marital breakup and single parenthood on children’s well-being is hardly alleged: it is a well-established empirical finding in sociological studies with large data sets and sophisticated analyses. Further, there is a broad consensus among scholars, including liberal sociologists Andrew Cherlin, Paul Amato, and Sara McLanahan. (A disclaimer: Since the early 1990s, I have written about the social-science research on the impact of divorce and single parenthood on children, and I currently direct the Center for Thrift and Generosity at the Institute for American Values, a think tank that Davis criticizes.)

All that said, Davis is correct to conclude that marriage counseling has done very little to change divorce trends or to boost the marriage rate. Divorce remains high and the marriage rate continues to decline. One only wishes that Davis had been able to free herself from her own preconceptions in order to offer a more thoughtful exploration of why this is so.


Related: Daniel Cere reviews The Marriage-Go-Round

Published in the 2010-06-18 issue: 

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture (Knopf), directs the Center for Thrift and Generosity at the Institute for American Values.

Also by this author
Values & Voters

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads