Marriage Counseling Propaganda That Still Hurts Us.

Paul Popenoe, Eugenics, Marriage Counseling

You may remember a column in the Lady’s Home Journal called: “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”

It was written by Paul Popenoe (October 16, 1888 — June 19, 1979), the father of marriage counseling in the United States, an American agricultural explorer, eugenicist, and influential advocate of compulsory sterilization of the mentally ill and the mentally disabled. Paul Popenoe had absolutely no background in either mental health or psychology, yet shaped the field of marriage counseling for over 50 years.

He did, however, have a strong interest in human breeding, with a conviction that segregating “waste humanity” into rural institutions was necessary, and that their manual labour would offset the cost of their institutionalization. His interests in eugenics and work sterilizing patients in California became the scientific inspiration for the Nazi movement in Germany.

It didn’t stop with the mentally ill, however.

A college textbook he authored on eugenics contains a chapter expounding on Popenoe’s belief in “the racial inferiority of Negros.”

In addition to his sterilization programs, Popenoe promoted the principles of German and Austrian marriage-consultation services for eugenic purposes.

Concerned about the divorce rate in USA, Popenoe came to the conclusion that truly “fit” families would need to be married to reproduce, and he took it upon himself to “stabilize” American marriages by teaching American wives how to properly conduct themselves.

American Institute of Family Relations

With financial help from E.S. Gosney, he opened the American Institute of Family Relations in Los Angeles in 1930. By the 1960’s, the Institute was described as “the world’s largest and best known marriage-counseling center” with a staff of seventy.

After WWII however, his emphasis on eugenics waned, as revelations of the Nazi holocaust atrocities came to light. His primary focus shifted to espousing his views on the proper role of wives through his marriage counseling services and writings.

According to Wiki:

Under his direction, the Institute gave intensive training to over 300 marriage counselors and shorter courses around the U.S. to over 1500 other people. The caseload at that time averaged about 15,000 consultations per year.
From the files of these numerous cases came the material for the “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” book and serial. The Institute published a bulletin entitled “Family Life” monthly or bimonthly for decades.

The institute operated only a few years past his death in 1979.

That’s almost 50 years of Popenoe’s hate-filled, misogynous and racist influence on my beloved field of couples therapy!

America in the 1950’s craved marriage counseling.

Post-War Gender Politics

Divorce rates in the U.S. were rising by the end of World War II. The nearly 3 million women who held better-paying male-dominated factory and trade jobs during World War II, were expected to return to their everyday housework once men returned from the war. Sixteen million other who tasted decent wages for the first time, were again pushed down into the lower-paying jobs they occupied before the war.

The overall percentage of women working fell from 36% to 28% in 1947.

Not surprisingly, the impact of this social engineering created not only a burgeoning middle class, but discontent among women who were again disenfranchised, and an increasing preoccupation with the quality of marriage and family life in the USA.

Popenoe’s Pulpit

In the 1950’s Popenoe was everywhere. He appeared for over a decade on Art Linkletter’s TV show, and other early television programs, pandering his racist, misogynous, moralistic pseudo-science and attempting to shape the values of a generation.

His message?

A troubled marriage could be salvaged, and divorce prevented, but only if the wife took massive action.

Marriage as a Career

During the dawn of couples therapy, “marriage counselors” like Popenoe instructed wives that their primary happiness in marriage was found in being a “helpmeet” and support to their husbands and children. The relative happiness and success of the marriage were her sole responsibility. This notion was foundational to many of the family situation comedies of early television.

“Marriage counselors” of the 1950’s also instructed wives to assist wherever possible in their husbands’ professional aspirations. The corporate culture of the post-war era held that a wife could make or break her husband’s career.

Corporations of the 1950’s tended to hyper-focus on wives. In promoting or hiring executives, companies carefully considered the quality of the candidate’s home life. For example, R.E. Dumas Milner was a prominent mid-century hotelier and car dealer.

In a 1950’s article in Good Housekeeping he wrote:

We employers realize how often the wrong wife can break the right man. This doesn’t mean that the wife is necessarily wrong for the man but that she is wrong for the job. On the other hand, more often than is realized the wife is the chief factor in the husband’s success in his career. –R.E Dumas Milner.

Slack Cut for Bad Husbands… a 1950’s Cultural Norm.

Alcohol, domestic abuse, or chronic affairs. It didn’t matter. A man’s behavior was merely a “window” into the quality of his partner.

If a husband was violent, abusive, alcoholic, or a chronic philanderer…well then, what was the wife doing or not doing to make him so unhappy?

Before the advent of science-based couples therapy, “marriage counselors” like Popenoe instructed wives to reflect on how they eroded the quality of their husband’s marital experience. If a husband strayed, the wife’s job was to create conditions favorable for his return.
If you fix your behavior… you fix your husband’s actions.

Here is what a “marriage counselor” at Popenoe’s American Institute of Family Relations told a woman whose husband had begun an affair after almost 30 years of marriage:

We have found in our experience, that when a husband leaves his home, he may be seeking refuge from an unpleasant environment. Could it be that your husband feels that he is not understood or appreciated in his own home? What might there be in your relations to him that could make him feel that way? Could you have stressed your contribution to your marriage in such a manner as to have belittled the part he has played and thus made him uncomfortable in his [own] presence? (italics added)

Domestic violence

Again, the wife’s problem in the dawn of couples therapy.

The unfortunate incidents could be completely eliminated if a wife could just do a better job helping her husband to relax.

Another 1950’s marriage “expert” Clifford Adams espoused:

We can assure wives whose husbands are prone to violence that following a program of avoiding arguments, indulging their husbands’ whims, helping them relax, and sharing their burdens would “foster harmony” in the home and make them even “happy wives.” –Clifford Adams

Divorcees Anonymous

Divorcees Anonymous (DA) was an organization that purported to “help” women “avoid the shameful pitfall of divorce.” It followed the cultural assumptions that the happiness of the husband should be the sole preoccupation of the wife.

DA was essentially a form of peer-pressure. The organization was founded by a male lawyer. Women would coach and provide help to distressed wives in troubled marriages by helping them to accept fuller responsibility for their husband’s discontent and take action to woo him back.

Confused Approaches in the Dawn of Couples Therapy

In the dawn of marriage counseling, most couples that attended marriage counseling saw their “counselor” separately. The American Association of Marriage Counselors held that “joint conferences with both partners can be helpful but are difficult and potentially dangerous.”

This seems ridiculous today, but such was the state of “expert” advice in the 1950’s.

Finding a Husband

The “career” of being a wife began even before the wedding with attracting and securing a suitable husband. In the 1950’s the prevailing cultural belief was that women benefited more from marriage than men (science has now discovered that the exact opposite is true).

Essentially women had to persuade and “sell” themselves as worthy spouses.

Here is some typical 1950’s blather from the Ladies Home Journal’s four-part series about the importance for women to engage in relentless self-improvement in the pursuit of a husband:

It is up to you to earn the proposal — by waging a dignified, common-sense campaign designed to help him see for himself that matrimony rather than bachelorhood is the keystone of a full and happy life.

In another one of the segments, a single 29-year-old woman wrote about a recent counseling session in a “Marriage Readiness Course” at Popenoe’s American Institute of Family Relations.

She learned that she needed to lower her expectations, improve her appearance and work on her intimacy issues. She later happily reported that she acted on the advice, and landed a suitable mate.

Modern science faces into cultural bias and is curious and cautiously skeptical about how it informs the conversation.

The Dawn of Science in Couples Therapy

Thanks to the research of Drs. John Gottman and Susan Johnson, and other researchers, we have learned that the actual truth of marriage and intimacy is sometimes counter-intuitive and can violate popularly held beliefs.

The dawn of couples therapy was a dark time of ignorance, patriarchy, and an unbearable pressure on women to accept full responsibility for the relative health of their marriages. Thanks to the dawn of science-based couples therapy, we’re getting smarter.