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.
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.
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.
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”?