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Reading Laura Doyle’s HuffPost post, “6 Reasons Marriage Counseling is BS,” I recalled my own experience with marriage counseling as my marriage imploded. It was or miss — three couples’ counselors (the first was clearly clueless, the second was good but he didn’t like her, the third came too late), and one solo therapist (I liked him) but only after a spent a week figuring out my crap with the Hoffman Process (which was transformational).

I also thought of divorce advocate Beverly Willett’s push to make it harder to divorce, (which worries me and others; more on that soon), putting all the faith on counseling (and a waiting period) before a couple splits in hopes of “saving” the marriage (totally ignoring the cohabitation reality. There are 12 times as many cohabiting couples today as there were in the 1970s and 40 percent of first babies born to single mothers are born to cohabiting couples who rarely make it past five years; in fact some two-thirds of the unmarried moms split from the child’s biological father and start a new relationship before the kid is 5 years old — how do we “save” those families?)  

But reading through the comments, I was struck by how many were questioning why is it up to the wife to make a marriage “work”? But that is indeed what most people like Doyle advocate for (“You have to go along with any plan he makes unless you are very sure it would endanger your health,” she writes in her book. But, she assures, “Your husband will adore you for it” — advice that has made more than a few cringe).

Doyle isn’t the only one who thinks it all rests on the woman’s shoulders, or so I learned by reading the illuminating book Making Marriage Work by Kristin Celello, newly out in paperback; I now understand why we consider marriage as something to “work” on (although it wasn’t always seen that way; it used to be a “duty”) and why saving a marriage is “women’s work” — that’s how it has been presented to women for decades.

As Celello writes:

Decades of visits with marriage counselors, of reading advice columns in magazines and newspapers,  and of watching portrayals of marriage and divorce on film had ingrained the “marriage as work” formula in the minds and lives of American woman and men. … Two interrelated forces decisively influenced this history; deep-seated anxiety about divorce on the one hand, and Americans’ desire to have a stronger, more satisfying marital relationship on the other. tweet

But, how did it fall in the wife’s lap? “Experts,” she says (and those experts more often than not had a rather nebulous background, such as “Can This Marriage Be Saved’s” Paul Popenoe, whose degree was in botany, up to Dr. Phil and John Gray), “assumed that women needed marriage more than men, for both financial and emotional reasons.”

That often isn’t necessarily true, but that doesn’t mean all married women are any happier. And, according to Celello, marriage counselors and “experts:”

promoted  the notion that American couples frequently needed expert intervention in order to overcome their problems and to have successful marriages. The mere presence of counseling professionals in a community meant that couples with failing relationships who did not seek help were not as committed to marriage as those who did. Furthermore, marriage counselors suggested that by seeking help and by actively participating in the counseling process, most marriages — or at least contracted between two “healthy” individuals could not fail. tweet

In other words, if a wife worked hard enough, she could save her marriage, if not from unhappiness, than at least from divorce. And, it’s true that wives have indeed worked harder on their marriages than husbands have, she notes — and the husbands who joined in were often “gently” convinced — coerced? —  into therapy.

All of which makes Celello somewhat skeptical of anything that promotes women as being able to save their marriage of they try harder:

History tell us that, too often, the push to keep marriages together led many women to stay in abusive or otherwise unsatisfactory relationships. Overzealous marriage promotion programs run the risk of promoting more women to do the same. tweet

So, maybe Doyle is right— marriage counseling is BS. But becoming a surrendered wife (which, although written decades later, sounds suspiciously like the advice of Florida housewife Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman) doesn’t sound much healthier.

  • Has counseling helped your marriage?
  • Is “saving” a marriage the wife’s job?
  • Are the happiest marriages the ones in which the wife “surrenders”?



4 Responses to “Why is marriage ‘work,’ and why is it the wife’s responsibility?”

  1. Lololo says:

    I am currently in an low-conflict but mutually unsatisfying marriage. My husband seems to feel the marriage is basically fine, if I would just will myself to screw him more often, which is exactly what I have BEEN doing for three years, and have finally just had enough. it feels like bald cheap prostitution now, not love. Over the last few years, Ive bought and read books, subscribed to blogs ranging from ultraconserative “fascinating womanhood” to moderately conservative “marriage builders” to positively newagey “four points of balance” approaches.

    oh, and a detour through the he-man woman-haters club, “married man sex life.” So, along the the way I’ve tried a bunch of approaches to get it back on track. Date nights, losing weight, sex on demand, getting a life of my own, finding and expressing admiration and appreciation, lowering my expectations… None of it makes me want him physically.

    Now I am to the point of being emotionally completely fine with splitting and am merely getting myself occupationally/financially ready. I am basically CHECKED OUT, just maintaining politeness and civility, as he will always be my kids father. I’m thinking long term now and that no longer involves marriage.

    He senses this, complains that I am “not really trying” so he won’t either. Oh ho, my erstwhile darling. Oh ho. He wants to try marriage counseling but I don’t– a stranger is going to tell me precisely what? and we’re not going unless I schedule it. Ok. Classic standoff stuff but I can’t seem to muster the drive to do one more thing about the marriage.

    My mom was into the whole biblical submission thing. It really meshed with her uber nonconfrontational nature, and they were married 25 years before dad ran off with someone younger and mouthier. So, did it “work?” Were they happy? Yeah, depends on what you mean by “Work” and “happy.” Assuming they were both pretty happy for the bulk of those 25 years, I have to consider that part a success, even if it did end messily.

    but I don’t know how precisely each of them felt over the years. Maybe one or both of them had been doing the quiet-desperation thing all along.

    and They did raise three kids to reasonably successful adulthoods, so I feel that part means it was at the least a qualified success!

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Thanks for writing, Lololo.
      Sorry that you and your husband are struggling. If you’ve lost interest in him physically, it takes a lot to get that back — if you even want to, that is.
      Curious — are your parents still alive so you can have a conversation with them, especially your mom; was she happy as a wife and mother? I thankfully had that talk with my mom before she passed away. She had few choices, and so she stayed. But she was a marital renegade, moving to another state and living apart from my dad for about 10 years (although he visited monthly). In the last few months of her life, when they’d no longer live together (my dad was in a nursing home at that point), they were loving and kind to each other. It was really good for me to see that.
      Stay strong!

  2. Tammy Durrant says:

    I think to make a marriage work it takes two people to do that not one. Marriage is hard work relationships aren’t easy as humans are so diverse. I think that some people just see the wedding day and all the romantic aspects of it. Once the hard works starts of living together etc many people seem to get bored with it. I have a friend who lived with her partner for over 7 years they decided to marry it only lasted 6 months and then they split up. I don’t really know why she told me once they got married he felt he owned her became very controlling. She has never married since and said she has no desire to do so. So course many marriages do work so you can really generalise.

  3. Uzeyr says:

    Why hasn’t it occurred to you? That maybe men know what’s going on but wish to satisfy their own happiness more. Yes I know lending her all the load gives me less stress then her, but I do so willingly (help myself more)

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