It’s taken a long time to grasp the consequences of the ice storm that hit the American family in the late 1960s. In the decades since, as the number of divorces and unwed mothers climbed into what previous generations would have thought of as the Twilight Zone, social scientists were reassuring. The American family was simply adapting to changing times, they said. Children are resilient, and at any rate they would be happy as long as their mothers were happy. (Scholars tended not to notice that the same revolution that was liberating women from dependence on men was also liberating men—from their children.) But by the early 1990s, better data and more-sophisticated methodologies began to lead sociologists, demographers, and economists who study the family to change their minds. One after another, the nation’s most prominent researchers—Sara McLanahan, Andrew Cherlin, Frank Furstenberg, Paul Amato, and others—looked at the data and saw trouble for kids.
By now, an expert consensus—in as much as consensus is ever possible in these matters—has coalesced around two conclusions. First, even when researchers control for a host of variables, children growing up with married parents do better on a wide variety of measures, from school performance to teen pregnancy rates, than those growing up with a single parent. Second, single-motherhood, being disproportionately concentrated among African-American and Hispanic women and those with less education, reinforces the nation’s unacceptable rates of poverty and inequality. There remains strong disagreement about the causes and fixes, if there are any, for all of this, but the basic agreement stands.
Rebecca L. Davis, a history professor at the University of Delaware, is either unaware of or unimpressed by this consensus. It may not be immediately clear why this matters, since her book, More Perfect Unions, begins as a history of marriage counseling. But as her argument proceeds, a different subject comes into focus: Davis’s skepticism that marriage serves an important public purpose.
More Perfect Unions contains a reasonable enough account of the arrival of marriage counseling on the American scene in the late 1920s. Mobile, increasingly affluent Americans, impatient with traditional restraints and distanced from potentially supportive kin, found themselves isolated while weathering the inevitable strains of marriage. Their predicament came to the attention of progressive reformers who were influenced by emerging ideas of social science, Freudian theories about neurosis, and the protosexual revolution of the flapper years.
Some readers will be surprised to learn that almost a century ago specialists had already come to believe that sexual satisfaction was integral to marital well-being. A number of the earliest counselors were physicians working out of birth control clinics, where they provided advice about both contraception and foreplay. Eugenics, a preoccupation among some progressives, was also often part of the counseling package. Paul Popenoe, founder of the California-based Institute of Family Relations (later the American Institute of Family Relations), perhaps the first marriage counseling clinic in the country and one of the longest lasting, educated couples about possible hereditary defects, as well as how to manage marital conflict.
In the 1930s, marriage counseling became its own therapeutic specialty; by 1942, it had its own professional organization: the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. Though men dominated the leadership of the AAMFT, female social workers were increasingly on the front line as therapists. Davis periodically objects to the profession’s reluctance, despite its connection to social work, to steer couples toward sources of material assistance that might relieve hardship straining marriages during these years. Everything else about her history, however, suggests that marriage counseling was bound to be a middle-class affair. With its theoretical origins in psychiatry, and its clientele and professionals almost exclusively female, it was talky and introspective, hardly the sort of leisure activity to appeal to guys on the factory line. Not surprisingly, counselors promoted relatively egalitarian relationships between husbands and wives. As Davis recounts, it was the progressive judge Ben B. Lindsey, founder of the juvenile courts and one of the first self-anointed marriage experts, who popularized the idea of “companionate marriage” among American audiences.
Still, marriage specialists did not go so far as to question the separate spheres of husbands and wives. As marriage came under the microscope of a new generation of midcentury social scientists, the goal was “marital adjustment,” meaning, in part, adjustment to male breadwinning and female domesticity. In the late 1930s and the 40s, psychologists turned to personality testing to uncover the secret of successful unions. In a foreshadowing of our eHarmony age, they even applied their invention to matchmaking by bringing together single men and women with similar interests and backgrounds. Davis suggests that these psychologists were on the wrong track, since so much marital unhappiness was due to women’s frustration with their domestic lot. It’s hard to know whether this is a projection of contemporary attitudes onto the past, but she is certainly correct that by the 1960s women were in outright rebellion against obsolete sex roles imposed by marriage; some feminists wanted to see the entire institution thrown on history’s ash heap.
Unfortunately, Davis misses a number of opportunities to mine her history. Both social workers and their clients were usually female, meaning that marriage counseling often boiled down to women talking to women about their husbands. Davis makes nothing of this arrangement, yet surely it served to elevate the values of emotional closeness and communication in popular expectations of marriage. She notes how professionals encouraged conventional gender roles, yet fails to explore the extent to which modern work arrangements and the growing importance of childhood education locked men and women into separate spheres. This was Christopher Lasch’s thesis in Haven in a Heartless World (1977), a crucial book on 20th-century theories of the family that is oddly missing from Davis’s sources.
Nor does she fully delve into the rich topic of her subtitle. What was the American idea of marital bliss, and how much did counselors shape it? Did counselors want to “temper naively romantic youth,” as she says at one point, or did they reflect the American “obsession with marital perfection,” as she says at another? Over time Americans have abandoned the ideal of close, affectionate friendship of the companionate marriage model for the loftier notion of a “soul mate” union. Do those high expectations have anything to do with the fact that roughly half of American marriages end in divorce and 40 percent of children are born out of wedlock? The first marriage clinics had only a few hundred clients a year. Today, as Davis notes, “millions of couples seek help from marriage counselors annually.” What do counselors tell all of those couples about their soul mate dreams? These questions are never raised, much less answered.
In large measure, this is because by her last chapter Davis abandons her ostensible topic—the history of marriage counseling—for the culture war. She turns her attention to what she views as the growing state interest in marriage, especially since the 1990s. During this time, local and federal governments experimented with religiously conceived covenant marriage and premarital counseling (both of them correctly described as failures), as well as welfare reform and the George W. Bush–era Healthy Marriage Initiative. Yet in quickly passing by the epochal rates of divorce and single motherhood—nothing to see here!—and ignoring the strengthening evidence of problems for children, she makes those looking for a way to stem the decline of the two-parent family seem overwrought. To that end, she often mischaracterizes motives, for instance by stating that the primary goal of welfare reform was “transforming the American family” rather than promoting self-sufficiency through work. Worse, she implies that racial animus was behind a lot of reform. The creators of the Minnesota Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Initiative, for instance, used “coded language” that “barely concealed their interest in targeting poor minority mothers.”
This combination of strategic omission, error, and innuendo is on full display in Davis’s discussion of the infamous 1965 Moynihan Report (The Negro Family: The Case for National Action). Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, was among the first to raise the alarm about changes in the family, specifically the black family, in the 1960s. Even as black male employment was rising, the number of female-headed households on the welfare rolls was increasing. This, he argued, would surely hamper black progress. Davis’s take? Moynihan was painting all blacks with the same brush. But as the historian James T. Patterson remarks in his forthcoming book Freedom Is Not Enough, Moynihan explicitly distinguished the black middle class, whose families were largely intact, from fatherless ghetto families. Davis asserts that Moynihan’s ideas became “policy gospel.” In fact, charges of racism hounded Moynihan for years, and the subject of the black family was verboten in policy discussions for more than two decades. By that time, the proportion of black children born out of wedlock—most of whom would barely know their fathers—was well on its way to today’s 72 percent.
Of course, Davis is free to argue that this statistic and the trends it reflects do not add up to be the social problem most scholars, not to mention the general public, believe them to be. Instead, she implies that the notion that marriage is a public concern is an “ideology” dreamt up by 20th-century marriage counselors, religious activists, and bigots. This is simply wrong. The social importance of marriage—rooted in ancient philosophy, religion, and law across cultures, and embraced by America’s founders—was a product of the stability and rootedness it provided not only for children, but also for men, who are more likely to stick around if they believe the children they are raising are their own, and for women, who need help raising their young. Marriage counseling was a flawed and, it appears, largely unsuccessful attempt to square modern individualism with that universal arrangement.
You can say this ancient idea of marriage ain't so, or with women now financially independent, that it no longer holds true. But given how much better children fare when they grow up with married parents, you’d better make your case. More Perfect Unions doesn't even try.
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Kay Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal, is the author, most recently, of Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age (2006).
Reviewed: "More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss" by Rebecca L. Davis, Harvard University Press, 2010.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Sam Fam