New book on history of marriage

In this insightful history, marriage counseling is shown to be a modern innovation in a world in which marital perfection has become an American ideal.

In an interview with Rebecca Davis, the author of More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss, she states:

“I guess you could say that I’m less ‘frustrated’ about marriage’s resilience [than the interviewer]. In fact, I would argue that marriage’s very resilience suggests that it has no inherent value; it is a socially constructed social and legal relationship that acquires meanings from the institutions that govern it, the people who participate in it, and the social and cultural actors that represent it.”

Of course, just because something is socially constructed doesn’t mean it lacks value. If you want the full answers, we advise you read the book.

Some reviews of the book:

In this original and beautifully- written history of marriage counseling, Rebecca Davis demonstrates that the American obsession with marriage says as much about the quest for the perfect nation as it does about the desire for marital bliss. More Perfect Unions is essential reading for anyone interested in changing ideas of marriage, intimacy, gender, race, sexuality, and American identity itself.
–Elaine Tyler May, author of Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (20100306)

Marital conflict is centuries old, but as Davis shows in this eye-opening history, marriage counseling is a twentieth-century innovation. Her deft and lively analysis explains how an ideal of marital perfection has made Americans the most marrying kind in the Western world today.
–Nancy F. Cott, Harvard University (20100329)

Judicious, deeply researched, and rich with insight and fascinating detail, this book describes the debates surrounding marriage since the 1920s: the impact of divorce on children, the relationship between single parenthood and poverty, gender inequities in spousal roles, and the still unresolved tension between marriage and personal fulfillment.
–Steven Mintz, author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (20100330)

Davis details the convoluted origins, contradictory beliefs, and unanticipated consequences of America’s marriage counseling and marriage promotion movements, both secular and religious, over the past 100 years. This excellent resource deals sensitively with the gender, racial, and sexual biases of its sources.
–Stephanie Coontz, author, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (20100711)

This fluent study traces Americans’ changing attitudes towards marriage throughout the 20th century, with a particular emphasis on the period between the initial rise of marriage counseling in the 1930s and the emergence of the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and ’70s. Davis considers myriad issues and influences, including shifting approaches to homosexuality, the role played by different religious institutions, and the impact of race on the public discourse on marriage. Davis illustrates her dense social history with illuminating case studies of such pivotal figures as the eugenicist Paul Popenoe, a pioneer in the field of marriage counseling, and Florence Hollis, a lesbian teacher and researcher who applied psychoanalytic theory to marriage counseling. These fascinating examples reveal the competing intellectual and social forces that had a stake in defining and influencing American marriage. The author balances this nuanced and admirably thorough history with unwavering emphasis on the impact of evolving gender roles on the institution. (Publishers Weekly )

An interesting social history.
–Laura Vanderkam (Wall Street Journal )

An astute, engaging, and disturbing history.
–Jill Lepore (New Yorker )

More Perfect Unions is…a useful, and usefully provocative, book. It should find a durable life in the discourse of marriage and gender studies.
–Jim Cullen (History News Network )

Davis presents marriage counseling as an institution with larger aims than connubial bliss, but also as a tool of the state, clergy and social scientists to help strengthen families, communities and economies.
–Lisa Bonos (Washington Post )

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  1. Posted August 12, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this link and discussing my book! I just wanted to clarify my quote above from the interview: I say that marriage has no *inherent* value — meaning, from the standpoint of historical scholarship, not that it doesn't have meaning to many people, but rather that it only has the meanings we assign to it. Marriage *is* meaningful to many people because they give it meaning, because our laws and social arrangements have determined that marriage should have particular significance. But the degree to which those meanings and values have changed–across time and cultures–suggests that the legal institution of marriage does not, on its own, have a set or fixed value. Which is, in fact, what being “social constructed” implies.

  2. Posted August 12, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Rebecca, thanks for the clarification! I think it's interesting how strongly the concept of marriage gets drilled into us according to the culture we grow up in. Since it's hard to think about it objectively, your perspective is very helpful.