As divorce rates in the U.S. were rising by the end of World War II, so were fears over the state of marriage and family life. Skyrocketing rates sent many couples to seek expert advice to bolster their marriages.
During this time, the idea that marriage could be saved — and a divorce prevented — with enough work gained ground, according to Kristin Celello, assistant professor of history at Queens College, City University of New York, in her fascinating book Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States. A slew of experts stepped in to help American couples strengthen their unions — and with some interesting suggestions.
These experts, however, weren’t necessarily trained therapists or even anyone who had anything to do with psychology. Take marriage expert Paul Popenoe, for example. He was incredibly well-known and established one of America’s first marriage counseling centers in the 1930s, made regular media appearances and contributed to Ladies Home Journal — and he was a horticulturalist.
The marriage prescriptions of the 1950s could be summed up in one sentence: It was mainly a woman’s job to foster a happy marriage and steer it away from divorce.
Marriage as a Career
For starters, marriage counselors encouraged women to think of marriage as a fulfilling career. As Celello writes:
Emily Mudd, for instance, outlined the many roles that women had to assume when they became wives. She approvingly quoted a “modern and prominent wife” who explained “To be a successful wife is a career in itself, requiring among other things, the qualities of a diplomat, a businesswoman, a good cook, a trained nurse, a schoolteacher, a politician and a glamour girl.”
Experts also believed that wives were responsible for their husbands’ professional success. Dorothy Carnegie, whose husband was self-help guru Dale Carnegie, published How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead in 1953. She laid out a variety of suggestions and cited personal examples. For instance, because her husband had a tough time remembering names, she’d learn the names of party guests before events and incorporate their names into the conversation.
Corporate culture actually dictated that a wife could make or break her husband’s career. When hiring or promoting an employee, companies supposedly considered his wife. Celello cites self-made millionaire R.E. Dumas Milner in an article in Good Housekeeping:
We employers realize how often the wrong wife can break the right man. This doesn’t mean that the wife is necessarily wrong for the man but that she is wrong for the job. On the other hand, more often than is realized the wife is the chief factor in the husband’s success in his career.
Coping with Alcohol, Affairs & Abuse
Even when alcohol, affairs or abuse was the issue in a failing marriage, wives were still responsible for making the marriage work — and for likely causing their husbands to stray, drink or be violent in the first place.
For instance, experts suggested that wives consider whatever they were doing or not doing to cause their husbands to cheat. Fixing their behavior could bring their husbands back home. If a husband did come home, it was also his wife’s duty to make sure that he didn’t cheat in the future.
This is what a counselor at the American Institute of Family Relations told a woman whose husband had an affair after 27 years of marriage:
We have found in our experience, that when a husband leaves his home, he may be seeking refuge from an unpleasant environment. Could it be that your husband feels that he is not understood or appreciated in his own home? What might there be in your relations to him that could make him feel that way? Could you have stressed your contribution to your marriage in such a manner as to have belittled the part he has played and thus made him uncomfortable in his presence?
Experts also had ideas on how to deal with physical abuse in a marriage. As Celello writes in Making Marriage Work:
Clifford Adams thus assured wives whose husbands were prone to violence that following a program of avoiding arguments, indulging their husbands’ whims, helping them relax, and sharing their burdens would “foster harmony” in the home and make them “happy wives.”
Divorcees Anonymous (DA) was an organization that helped women avoid divorce, Celello writes. Interestingly enough, it was started by an attorney named Samuel M. Starr. Again, it was all about what the woman could do to save the marriage.
One woman sought help from the DA when she found out her husband was cheating. Apparently, according to Starr, the problem was that the woman looked decades older, wore dowdy clothes and had stringy hair. The women in the organization took her to the beauty salon and sewed her new clothes. They also worked with her daily on “her mind and her heart as well as her appearance.” When she was deemed improved, the DA set up a date with her and her husband. After that, the story goes that the husband stopped seeing his mistress and came home.
When most couples attended marriage counseling, they actually saw the counselor separately. The American Association of Marriage Counselors believed that “joint conferences with both partners can be helpful but are difficult and potentially dangerous.”
Finding a Husband
A woman’s career as a wife didn’t just start with her walk down the aisle, Celello points out. It began when she started searching for her mate. Women had to persuade potential partners into marriage since it was understood that women benefited more from matrimony. In essence, women had to work for their proposal, as the author of How to Make Him Propose described it. Specifically, the author writes:
It is up to you to earn the proposal — by waging a dignified, common-sense campaign designed to help him see for himself that matrimony rather than bachelorhood is the keystone of a full and happy life.
In addition to conducting a dignified campaign, women also needed to work on themselves, as a four-part series in 1954 in Ladies’ Home Journal suggested. In it, a single 29-year-old woman wrote about her counseling sessions in a “Marriage Readiness Course” at the American Institute of Family Relations. She learned that she needed to lower her expectations, improve her appearance and work on her intimacy issues — which she did and eventually landed a groom.
(Not that much has changed. Books on how to get a guy to marry you still exist today.)
In reality, according to Celello, many husbands did value their relationships and were willing to work on them. But the advice of the 1950s overwhelmingly put the responsibility of a relationship’s success on the wife.