Americans spend billions on marriage and family counselling, seeking advice and guidance from some 50,000 experts. And yet the divorce rate suggests that therapy doesn’t make couples happier or marriages more durable. Quite the contrary, argues Canadian scholar Ian Dowbiggin in his thought-provoking book, The Search for Domestic Bliss: Marriage and Family Counseling in 20th Century America: the counselling industry is part of the problem. MercatorNet interviewed him about the intriguing history of marriage counselling.


MercatorNet: Why are Americans so bad at marriage when they have so many expert marriage counsellors and sex therapists to help them?

Ian Dowbiggin: Actually, I argue in my book that Americans are so bad at marriage BECAUSE they rely on the many therapists and counsellors who are there to help them. It is not a question of there not being enough therapists to go around. There is no shortage of so-called experts on marriage and the family.

MercatorNet: You have unearthed some very interesting material about the origin of the marriage counselling movement. Just to set the scene, was there much formal marriage counselling before World War II?

Dowbiggin: The problem is that the consensus within the profession favours the notion that marriage is there for individual gratification, like any consumer product, and therefore is as disposable as an old toaster or faded pair of jeans. Naturally, people who follow experts’ advice, and then are inevitably disappointed when marriage fails to satisfy all their desires, are more prone to quit on their marriages than people who see marriage as a firm commitment between two individuals for better or for worse.

Prior to World War II, there was little to no formal marriage counselling. A handful of activists who believed that changing social and economic conditions required a re-definition of marriage offered forms of counselling either at birth control clinics or in college classrooms. But the organization which launched the marriage and family counselling movement (MFC) wasn’t founded until the World War II years, and the field didn’t really begin to grow until the 1950s.

MercatorNet: Emily Mudd is generally described as the most influential figure in marriage counselling in the US. But she also started Philadelphia’s first birth control clinic, was a strong supporter of eugenics, population control and legalised abortion. It seems an odd combination of causes…

Dowbiggin: In Emily Mudd’s mind this wasn’t a strange combination of social causes. Far from it: to her, like many of the founders of the MFC movement, sex and reproduction were the most important marriage issues, and the more married couples could control them both the happier they would be.

Sexual liberation and the freedom to space pregnancies through artificial contraception were allegedly the means for achieving these aims, but like so many birth control reformers Mudd believed that the state was entitled to step in when “choice” failed to reduce family size. Hence her tolerance for population control programs which, especially in the developing world, tried to pressure women into practising contraception or undergoing sterilization.

MercatorNet: I was surprised by her links to sex researchers Alfred Kinsey and William Masters and Virginia Johnson (the authors of two best-sellers of the 1960s, Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy). Is this an important part of the narrative?

Dowbiggin: The emphasis on sexual liberation accounts for the deep involvement of Kinsey and Masters and Johnson in the origins of the MFC movement. Incidentally, I was the first historian to document this involvement. My book was the first to show that Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, mainly through the intervention of the ubiquitous Emily Mudd, played instrumental roles in the MFC movement at a time when East Coast social activists like Mudd largely ran the profession. The subsequent revelations about Kinsey’s personal life and the now out-dated views of Masters and Johnson are reminders of how the field in its early days was more committed to social activism than rigorous social science or disinterested clinical practice.

MercatorNet: How did marriage counselling move from saving the marriage to saving individuals?

Dowbiggin: Marriage counselling moved from saving marriages to saving individuals largely thanks to the influence of Emily Mudd (the phrase is hers). Mudd’s career in MFC indicates that she was driven by an ideological faith that individuals could be liberated by re-defining and re-organizing social institutions like marriage along the lines of self-fulfillment and self-esteem. In other words, marriage itself would be a vehicle of major reform.

She was typical of the kind of 20th Century American activist who, in the words of sociologist Robert Nisbet, imposed wildly unrealistic expectations on marriage and family life which these institutions simply could not realize. If divorce was a casualty of this campaign, then so be it. Mudd prized personal self-actualization above anything else, and that included vital social institutions such as marriage and the family.

MercatorNet: Is there such a thing as marriage counselling which does not suffused with ideologies which subvert the idea of marriage as a permanent, exclusive commitment?

Dowbiggin: One important thing my book shows is that recently there has been a backlash among some practitioners working in the field against the prevailing professional attitude toward marriage.

One counsellor who rejects what he calls today’s “consumer” model of marriage is the University of Minnesota’s William J. Doherty. In Doherty’s mind, the current-day “value-neutral” or “non-judgemental” approach to counselling simply disguises and perpetuates the “individualism” that depicts marriage as “a venue for personal fulfillment stripped of ethical obligations.”

As a therapist, he refuses to pose as value-neutral and tells his clients that he is an “advocate for marriage”. If clients don’t like his viewpoint and practice, he says, they “can call me off but they’re going to have to look me in the eye and call me off.” I am no clinician myself, but this therapeutic approach strikes me as the most sensible, and at the very least the most honest.

MercatorNet: What kind of reception has your book had?

Dowbiggin: My book has largely been ignored by clinicians and academic historians, even those who have already written about the topic. Doherty has written that my “fascinating book… will change how we see ourselves as couples therapists,” but there is no evidence of this at all. This is remarkable given my revelations about Mudd, Kinsey and Masters and Johnson. I leave it up to your readers as to why.

Suffice to say, these revelations do not flatter the development of the field, and certainly are uncomfortable facts for the historians who have argued in the past that marriage counselling was a right-wing enterprise run by judgemental social conservatives and designed to keep women in unhappy marriages. It would be nice if other historians at least acknowledged my book, published by a leading academic press, but meanwhile the fact is that there has been a resounding—and suspicious—silence regarding what I have written. 

Ian Dowbiggin, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, teaches history at the University of Prince Edward Island. He is also the author of A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America (2003) and A Concise History of Euthanasia (2006).

Ian Dowbiggin, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, teaches history at the University of Prince Edward Island. He is the author of A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America (2003) and...