The Search for Domestic Bliss: Marriage and Family Counseling in 20th-Century America

By Fife, Stephen T.; Holyoak, Derek | Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, April 2018 | Go to article overview

The Search for Domestic Bliss: Marriage and Family Counseling in 20th-Century America


Fife, Stephen T., Holyoak, Derek, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy


Dowbiggin, I. (2014). The search for domestic bliss: Marriage and family counseling in 20th-Century America. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 262 pp., $34.95.

Ian Dowbiggin is a professor of history at the University of Prince Edward Island and the author of several books on the history of social reform movements in 20th-century America. In The Search for Domestic Bliss, he describes the history of marriage and family counseling/therapy and the influence of a few determined and politically motivated pioneers of the marriage counseling movement. This well-researched and provocative book will challenge readers to consider the social benefits and costs of the marriage and family counseling profession. It is also an excellent example of how a small group of individuals can have a major impact on public opinion related to subjects, such as sex, marriage, women's roles, and family matters.

Dowbiggin chronicles the development of the marriage and family counseling/therapy profession by highlighting key figures such as Emily Mudd, Earnest Groves, Alfred Kinsey, and Paul Popenoe, and their influence on the marriage counseling movement. These forerunners were a small but determined group of social reformers and activists, some with strong ties to Planned Parenthood, birth control, population control, eugenics, and socialism. He claims it was the efforts of such individuals that opened up the American mind to the need for marriage and family counseling. However, Dowbiggin questions whether early pioneers were responding to public demand for marriage counseling or stimulating such demand. He describes how counseling professionals orchestrated a shift from looking to family and community for help with marital problems to relying on specialized experts on marriage and family. The author argues that by promoting high expectations for personal fulfillment within marriage, the marriage counseling movement created a need for itself. He makes the case that, for better or worse, these individuals instilled in the American populace the need for family therapy in American society-a concept the author calls therapism.

Dowbiggin also highlights the well-known irony of high value and expectations of marriage in America and the high divorce rate, in spite of significant time and resources spent seeking help from marital experts and professional counselors. He reviews the historical progression from institutional marriage and loyalty to others to the contemporary "me marriage" that emphasizes individual needs, personal fulfillment, and loyalty to self. Like others previously (e.g., Doherty, 1995), he contends that therapy's emphasis on enhancing personal well-being comes with a significant cost-the undermining of marriage and family relationships. …

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