Marriage Therapy? Are You Some Kind Of Racist?


Abortion and birth control have both been (often unjustly, occasionally justly) linked to the eugenics movement. Now add a surprising item to that list: marriage therapy.

According to a fascinating and frustrating piece by Jill Lepore in this week’s New Yorker, “the father of marriage counselling,” Paul Popenoe, was also a confirmed eugenicists. He actually co-wrote a textbook on the topic, Applied Eugenics, which laid out, “the practical means by which society may encourage the reproduction of superior persons and discourage that of inferiors.” Those means were two-pronged: sterilization of “inferiors,” and heterosexual, child-producing marriage for everybody else. Popenoe wrote, “I began to realize that if we were to promote a sound population, we would not only have to get the right kind of people married, but we would have to keep them married.” To that end, he opened a marriage clinic called the American Institute of Family Relations. Lepore doesn’t (this is one of the frustrating things) delve much into Popenoe’s therapeutic practices, but they sound like they ran the gamut from upsetting to horrific. Lepore writes,

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.

Andrea’s lucky she was willing to put out. Popenoe once wrote, “some frigid women require surgical treatment.” Not only did a morbid part of me want to know what this treatment entailed (I’m imagining the terrifying devirginizing-by-dildos scene from Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss), but given that Lepore opens by detailing our culture’s current obsession with various forms of marital improvement, I was hoping for more evaluation of said forms. To the unmarried — or at least to me — marriage therapy has some of the fascination of open-heart (ha?) surgery, and I wanted to see how often it worked, and what some of the complications were.

But Lepore’s piece is really an omnibus review of several marriage-related books, using Popenoe as a lens. Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him is, of course, on the list — of Gottlieb, Lepore writes, “I think it was Popenoe who fucked up her love life.” Essentially, Lepore’s point seems to be that those who advocate for marriage as a general concept often do so because they have an ideological axe to grind (Popenoe’s son, a founder of the National Marriage Project, is worried that single mothers are putting the nation at risk of “social suicide”). Indeed, the idea that “saving” a marriage is an intrinsic good falters before marriages in which, say, the husband finds his wife tedious because she’s eight pounds too fat. Germaine Greer echoes this sentiment in today’s Times of London, when she champions women who leave abusive or unfaithful husbands even though they are likely to face economic deprivation and social judgment as a result. Greer writes that a divorcing woman “chooses an honourable life of hardship against servile acquiescence in a marriage that is rotten. I admire such women more than I can easily say.”

Popenoe’s racist ideas may drive home the point that marriage has often been more about preserving social structures — and often disturbing ones at that — than about making actual couples happy. And Greer’s right that those who choose happiness over structure often pay a great and unjust price. But Lepore also points out that Americans are “among the marryingest people in the world,” and an understanding of the institution’s more objectionable supporters isn’t going to stop people from tying the knot. Nor is it going to keep them from seeking help if the knot begins to fray. A closer examination of the ways marriages break down, and the ways their participants try to build them back up — in other words, the article I hoped Lepore would write — might actually serve as a corrective to the modern-day Popenoes who think marriage will solve all of society’s problems. It might, that is, show that marriage is too difficult and too individual to be a cure-all for anything.

Fixed [New Yorker]
Germaine Greer: ‘I Admire Women Who Divorce’ [TimesOnline]

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