Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Excellent article in The New Yorker yesterday about the marriage counseling industry and its origins:
Marriage in America is in disarray, or so they say. Americans, among the marryingest people in the world, are also the divorcingest. Even during the downturn, business is up at eHarmony, which has taken credit for one out of every fifty weddings in the United States, but “The State of Our Unions,” an annual report issued jointly by the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values, warns of a “mancession”: in a lousy economy, more men than usual are working fewer hours than their wives, making for unhappier husbands and angrier rows. A spike in the divorce rate is anticipated, although this may be mitigated by the fact that divorce isn’t cheap and people are broke. You might think that the mancession would also foretell a falloff in couples counselling, which isn’t cheap, either, but there’s no sign of a, ah, therapycession.
Campaigns to defend, protect, and improve marriage have been around for a long time. They’re usually tangled together. They even share a family history. David Popenoe, a founder of the National Marriage Project, is the son of Paul Popenoe, the father of marriage counselling, who is best remembered for the Ladies’ Home Journal feature “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” It’s still running. For decades, the stories in “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” came from Paul Popenoe’s American Institute of Family Relations, based in Los Angeles, the country’s leading marriage clinic. Reporters called it “the Mayo Clinic of family problems.” At its height, in the nineteen-fifties, Popenoe’s empire also included stacks of marriage manuals; a syndicated newspaper column, “Modern Marriage”; a radio program, “Love and Marriage”; and a stint as a judge on a television show, “Divorce Hearing.” People called him Mr. Marriage.
They also called him Dr. Popenoe, even though his only academic degree was an honorary one. For a time, he counselled more than a thousand couples a year. Consider a case published in 1953: Dick is about to leave his wife, Andrea, for another woman. He is bored with Andrea. “Living with her is like being aboard that ship that cruised forever between the ports of Tedium and Monotony,” he says. Can this marriage be saved? You bet. At Popenoe’s clinic, Andrea is urged to make herself more interesting. She learns how to make better conversation, goes on a strict diet, and loses eight pounds. The affair is averted.
Popenoe’s business launched an industry; marriage clinics popped up all over the country. They are popping up still. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, founded in 1942, has some twenty-four thousand members, although the actual number of therapists who see couples is much higher. Up to eighty per cent of therapists practice couples therapy. Today, something like forty per cent of would-be husbands and wives receive premarital counselling, often pastoral, and millions of married couples seek therapy. Doubtless, many receive a great deal of help, expert and caring. Nevertheless, a 1995 Consumer Reports survey ranked marriage counsellors last, among providers of mental-health services, in achieving results. And, as Rebecca L. Davis observes in an astute, engaging, and disturbing history, “More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss” (Harvard; $29.95), the rise of couples counselling has both coincided with and contributed to a larger shift in American life: heightened expectations for marriage as a means of self-expression and personal fulfillment. That would seem to make for an endlessly exploitable clientele, especially given that there’s not much profit in pointing out that some things—like the unglamorous and blessed ordinariness of buttering the toast every morning for someone you’re terribly fond of—just don’t get any better. Not everything admits of improvement.
Read the full article here.