Working at Marriage

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 28 August, 2012

At one stage in Rose Lerner's In for a Penny (2010) the recently-married hero exclaims that

Living with someone, being married to her – that’s work [...]. It’s trying to be what she needs even if it doesn’t come naturally, and struggling to understand her, and working together to make a life! It’s accepting that sometimes things aren’t perfect. (236)

The recognition that long-term relationships require work is, according to Sarah Wendell, "the number one lesson [to be learned] from romance novels" (181) because in her opinion:

courtship, the process of charming someone and demonstrating in word, thought, and action how much you care about them, does not end with the declaration of love or the commitment between you.

Courtship becomes part of relationship maintenance, but "maintenance" itself is a horribly unsexy word.  [...] "Routine care and maintenance" are among the most unsexy and uninspiring words. Oil changes, annual physicals, and food and water do not always inspire passion or the remote possibility of poetry. [...] It's better to think of the care and feeding of your relationships as "courtship" only without the pesky insecurity of not knowing if the person feels the same way about you. (181-82)

According to Kristin Celello, viewing marriage as a relationship which requires work is actually a fairly recent development in the institution's history:

The pairing of "marriage" and "work" is so pervasive and reflexive that it is difficult to imagine a time in which this was not a guiding maxim of American unions. Before the twentieth century, however, Americans did not work on their marital relationships. Rather, the "marriage as work" formula became popular in response to specific changes in marriage patterns, most notably the growing incidence of divorce in the white middle class. Furthermore, what it meant to work at your marriage, as well as the question of who performed this work, was by no means static, and, indeed, frequently contested.  (1-2)

Christine B. Whelan has summarised part of Celello's argument like this:

As 19th century ideas of marriage as duty faded, friendship, romance and personal fulfillment became more salient features of a successful 20th-century relationship. At the same time, divorce rates rose to 6.6 per 1000 women in the early 1920s. Celello argues that it is necessary to understand the 20th-century cultural panic over divorce to properly understand the new willingness to consume marital advice. To educate couples on the modern, companionate marriage—and quell the rising tide of divorce—a diverse group of experts began writing for popular press outlets offering advice for how to improve marriages and create lasting relationships.

From the beginning, whether from university professors or magazine columnists, marital advice was primarily geared toward women. Experts assumed that women had a greater vested interest in marriage, both emotionally and financially, and held them accountable for the success or failure of the relationship. Colleges and universities held marriage preparation courses throughout the 1920s and 1930s which stressed the scientific complexities of the role of "wife" in an attempt to appeal to the modern young women who, some feared, might eschew marriage and childrearing responsibilities for a career. The idea was to convince young women that marital work was a necessary and noble goal – and that working on marriage would yield benefits not attainable through divorce. (937)


Celello, Kristin. Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2009.

Lerner, Rose. In for a Penny. New York: Dorchester, 2010.

Wendell, Sarah. Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, 2011.

Whelan, Christine B. "Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States (review)." Journal of Social History 44.3 (2011): 937-39.

I think marital advice still devolves on women, especially as it relates to career and parenting. There are few books or articles or talking heads worrying about men trying to "have it all" or fretting over all the single father households ... and even fewer addressing the fact men are significantly more likely to abandon their partners (married or not) when times get stressful. Men are still left hanging as the default "norm" even when it is clear there is no norm to be had, and then women are blamed for the missing norm.


There are few books or articles or talking heads worrying about men trying to "have it all"

I know this isn't exactly the same, but there have been some moves made in the UK to try to encourage more equal parenting: at the time of the Queen's Speech in May this year

Officials said current rules on maternity and paternity leave were “outdated” because they presumed that women will do the “vast majority” of caring for infants.

There were few details about how the new flexible parental leave arrangements could work. Possible options include allowing mothers to return to work and transfer up to nine months of a year’s parental leave to fathers.

A spokesman for the Department for Business said: “Parents should be able to choose their childcare arrangements for themselves.” (The Telegraph)

As for marital advice, I've got a few old books/pamphlets of marriage advice (from the 1950s to 1970s, I think). I was thinking I could post some excerpts on the blog at some point. I haven't come across much recent stuff other than the rather ridiculous Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus which makes me think "no, we're all Earthlings."