Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

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March 22nd, 2010

Working Women

A new social history says that the women were given the burden for making 20th century marriages work. Whose responsibility is it today?



If I told you that “relationships take work,” you’d roll your eyes. That’s so obvious to all of us in 2010 that it barely counts as advice.


With thousands of relationship self-help guides in print, daytime talk shows featuring advice on achieving better sex, compatibility and romance, and government funding for marriage preparation and education initiatives, the belief that relationships take work is firmly embedded in the modern consciousness.

The “relationship expert” — be it Dr. Phil McGraw with his televised tough-love guidance for couples on the rocks, or specially trained marriage and family psychologists — holds a central place in the American conversation about family formation and dissolution.

But these experts — me included — are a relatively new breed, argues social historian Kristin Celello in her fascinating new book, Making Marriage Work. She tracks explicit and subtle examples of how popular media, academics and marriage counselors helped construct a national language and dialogue about marriage, placing the burden for “making marriage work” squarely on the shoulders of women.

Here’s the brief history:

  • In the early 1920s divorce rates rose to 6.6 per 1,000 women; still tiny numbers by today’s standards, but they were rising and people were concerned. To educate couples on the modern, companionate marriage — and quell the rising tide of divorce — a diverse group of experts began writing for popular press outlets offering advice on how to improve marriages and create lasting relationships.
  • From the get-go, marital advice was primarily geared toward women. Experts assumed that women had a greater vested interest in marriage, both emotionally and financially, and held them accountable for the success or failure of the relationship.
  • Colleges and universities held marriage preparation courses throughout the 1920s and 1930s which stressed the scientific complexities of the role of “wife” in an attempt to appeal to the modern young women who, some feared, might eschew marriage and childrearing responsibilities for a career. The idea was to convince young women that marital work was a necessary and noble goal — and that working on marriage would yield benefits not attainable through divorce.
  • Then came World War II, and marriage experts cemented their role in American relationships. Wartime unions, often entered into in patriotic haste before the young serviceman shipped out overseas, created new social concerns about the future of American matrimony: What would happen when these young men, scarred by memories of battle and deprivation, returned home to their wives, virtual strangers to one another? Would America see a spike in divorce rates and social discord?
  • This is social history at its best because it makes us reconsider things we think are obvious. Who does the “relationship work” in your partnership or marriage?
Enter the experts: Women received a constant bombardment of advice on how to prepare for the return of their men from war. To fail at a marriage after a serviceman returned, experts warned, was a failing on the part of the wife. And with this advice, marriage experts were seen as patriotic themselves — helping the war effort by saving marriages.
  • Women’s magazines got on board in a big way, writing articles about how a good wife should encourage her husband’s success in business, monitor his diet, tend to the emotional and spiritual success of the marriage, and be willing to create spontaneous moments of romance and sexual intrigue to break up the monotony of family obligations. Being a wife, then, was a full-time job that required job-skills training and expert advice. And, in contrast, to have a marriage end in divorce was viewed as a failure to perform the “work” necessary in marriage.
  • Marriage experts, along with psychologists and other therapists, also introduced Americans to a new vocabulary for dealing with our emotional challenges and desires. In the early 1960s, “lack of communication” was seventh on the list of things that couples complained about in marital counseling sessions. By the early 1970s, it topped the list.

This is social history at its best because it makes us reconsider things we think are obvious. Sure, this is “history” and not present-day findings, but how different are modern relationship? Who does the “relationship work” in your partnership or marriage?

Women account for half the paid workforce, and in more than one-third of married couples, the wife outearns the husband. So should she be the one doing the bulk of both the paid work and the care work?

Guys, what do you think about this? Do you think that this history is an unfair lens through which to view your 2010 relationship? What kind of “relationship work” do you do — and do you feel valued for your efforts?

Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section, or email me at puresex AT bustedhalo (DOT) com.

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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  • Don

    Once again, another article on marriage that completely ignores the destructive effect that contraception has had on marriage in our society. It’s unfortunate that this is what passes for authentic Church teaching in the world of Busted Halo.

  • Robert

    “Women account for half the paid workforce, and in more than one-third of married couples, the wife outearns the husband. So should she be the one doing the bulk of both the paid work and the care work?”

    That’s a legitimate question but ignores another. Should 2/3rds of men, earning 70 – 80 percent of household income do 50 percent of all domestic duties as well?

    Magazines aimed at women – promoting a conceited victim culture – scream “yes”.

    Many men I know have decided that marriage is not worth it.

    To be a priori wrong all the time is beneath their dignity.

  • V

    “Whose marriage is it, anyway?” …

    Has it struck anyone that the further afield folks go to get advice for their relationships, that the higher the divorce rate and more prevalent the “hook-ups”?

    Frankly, I think that the more you try to control all aspects of the relationship, the more you try to steer everything just so… the more likely you are to wind up beached on rocky shoals in your relationship. If all must be perfect, you are better off celibate. Just remember that even Saints were human (and therefore flawed) too.

    People, as a general rule, don’t like to be controlled and manipulated to live up to some great, shiny ideal… particularly if they had no input or feedback for those goals to begin with. People prefer to have some say in their own goals and destinies. Women are like this too… but we forget that others need their own freedoms too.

    This is not to say that ideals or positive goals aren’t laudable… even necessary to a successful marriage. I’m not even arguing that traditional rules need to be thrown out (gee, see how well it’s working so far…) to the contrary.

    My point is, so much of that advice are from small-minded busy-bodies that think they can read the minds of others. They want control, so they tell you how to “take control of your marriage” or some such nonsense. The point of a marriage is not to be in charge, but to be a partner in survival, a partner in child-rearing, a partner in managing your own small patch of civilization. It’s still a jungle out there, no matter how civilized our technology purports to make us. Equality doesn’t always mean the same, it means a dynamic balance where the two parties each have their own spheres of expertise, where that person is trusted to that area. And you can’t divide up “the relationship” or “raise the kids” in that way, either.
    After all, even in the most traditional families, there always was, “Just wait until your father comes home.” That qualifies as helping to raise the kids… thus the father does the unpleasant task of laying out the big discipline actions.

    So what does all that have to do with a committed marriage?

    Second guessing is the death of any relationship. Rules don’t guide a marriage, principles do. Principles like Trust, Fidelity, Balance, Mutual Respect, and the idea that no one person is entirely responsible for the bad things that happen in life. Even if one party or the other made that decision, we all make decisions with incomplete information.
    Most of the time our life choices are truly a gamble, and we don’t always have the choice about how much to risk.

    So I guess you could call that principle “Stuff Happens”, or “We all Make Mistakes” or “Forgiveness”. While I’m all in favor of the latter in a general sort of way,
    I’m also hesitate to use that word, because it implies that there is some fault that needs must be forgiven in the first place. Many times, the biggest break in a relationship is not a deliberate act on one party or the other, but an unfortunate turn of events that turns a decision by one party into a disaster. I know of a couple who got divorced over a miscarriage. Another who divorced over the loss of a job. In an ideal world, I suppose that either one of these could have been avoided, but it isn’t and probably not.

    In this day and age, this “act right and create your own perfect world” mythology is so prevelant it’s frankly no wonder to me that we are divorcing like mad and ‚Äúhooking up‚Äù as a substitute for spiritual sustenance. It’s choose your own adventure time, romance style. Don’t like what you have? Go off and find something new. But it turns out, that no situation, no matter how controlled, how contrived to be perfect ever is. So they toss out marriage with the bath water, feeling like life owed them their perfect soul mate.

    The first rule? Find out post haste what types of flaws you can live with, and find out which of the principles are absolute requirements. Then find a partner who believes in them too, and can make the sacrifices that a marriage needs, and who sees you like God does… at least some of the time.
    Make sure that they do before you jump the broom.

  • Matt

    Keeping the husband happy is way easier, if the wife is at all reasonable. Most husbands don’t want much, really.

    I would absolutely, without hesitation or regret, die for my wife. No question. But I’m certainly not rushing off looking for an opportunity to do so. I’d much rather LIVE for her. I’m pretty sure she agrees. :)

    And I for one have no complaints whatsoever about the relative amounts of attention each of us gives to making the other happy. I’m very happy with my marriage. It may be that many (or even most) wives focus more on their own happiness than their husbands’. Certainly that would have been true with a number of the women I dated before my wife. But then, there’s a reason I didn’t marry any of them, and I did marry her.

    My wife is an extraordinary woman. Sociologists might be interested in just _how_ extraordinary she is, compared to female-kind at large, but as her husband I’m just happy she picked me.

    My advice to men considering marriage is this: watch how she treats strangers. Some day, when she’s in a bad mood, you’ll get the same treatment your waitress at the diner just got from her. Can you live with that? If not, keep looking.

    And my advice to _everybody_ is this: develop habits of kindness and generosity. Even when it hasn’t been earned. Perhaps _especially_ then. Because one day you’ll find yourself mad at someone you love, and if you’re not in the habit of kindness, you’ll say and/or do something you’ll really regret when you calm down.

  • Christy

    I think the men have a lot more pressure to make things work these days. My husband told me about a conversation he had with some fellow Catholic men recently, and they really take to heart the biblical suggestion that wives obey their husbands and husbands must love their wives as Christ loves the church. They take this to mean that on the wife’s part, they just have to love & support the husbands, and try to agree on things. But the husband must be willing to die for his wife. Christ died for us, and they need to love like he did. This seems like it’s a slight misinterpretation, and it could be considered borderline creepy. In the end of it all, I wouldn’t really want my husband to die for me. It’s a romantic notion, but not a healthy one.

    anyway, my point is that if this is the level of pressure that men are feeling towards keeping up their marriages, then it seems to be skewing in the opposite direction now. I think my husband spends more time worrying about his input into the relationship than I do. (Am I earning enough? Am I doing enough for her? Am I going to be a good enough husband? Am I going to be a good enough father? Will I be able to provide for a family? Will I be able to communicate and respect her needs for a career? Will I be contributing to the household chores enough? … These are all questions my husband seems to be asking himself on a regular basis.)

    There seems to be so much emphasis on the wife being kept happy, that I think we forget it’s a 2-way street. I have to tell my hubby to relax a little sometimes, and just enjoy being with each other, rather than worrying about whether our marriage is perfect enough.

    I think the fact that men focus so much on keeping the wife happy, and the wives seem to focus on keeping the wife happy… this indicates a backward trend. I would definitely be interested in some sociological data on this subject though.

  • Matt

    The special emphasis on the responsibilities of women was a legitimate response to the circumstances of those times. But relationships have always required investment from both parties.

    When people comment on my relationship with my wife, it’s most often either in the generic form (“Wow! You two are so happy and so dedicated to each other! Don’t see that too often anymore.”) or implicitly placing the onus on me to make it work (“Wow! It’s amazing she hasn’t left you yet, considering you’ve been out of work for two years!”).

    The fact that the onus is on me is as much a response to _these_ times as the old emphasis was to the first half of the 20th century. Most divorces are initiated by women. Ergo, practical advice of the form “how to keep your wife happy” is probably of much more social use than similar advice of “how to keep your husband happy”.

    Do I feel valued for my efforts? Yes…by my wife. And also by the priest who married us (and who still knows us best). By society at large? Not really. Society, after all, would greatly prefer that I neglect her needs and desires in order to ensure that I can work 16-20 hour days, six or seven days a week, and be on-call the remainder of the time.

    Society can stuff it. Her opinion of my priorities is the only one here on Earth that counts.

  • Phil

    Relationships take two to make them work. We have a divorce culture today because of the flawed thinking of the past. We need to wake up to the fact that both partners share equally in the success or failure of a marriage. It is a bitter pill to swallow for many, but no less the truth!

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