Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States


Simpi Srivastava reviews Kristin Celello’s Making Marriage Work (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009) observing how it investigates the transformation of marriage as a social, urban, or religious obligation.

Author- Kristin Celello

Publisher and Date of Publication- Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009

Dr. Kristin Celello in her book Making Marriage Work examines the mainstream culture with the help of sociological research on marriage from each decade of the twentieth century. Historian Kristin Celello has composed a convincing history of how the metaphor ‘marriage-as-work’ rose through the span of the twentieth century.

Dr. Celello is Associate Professor of History at Queens College, City University of New York. She earned her doctorate in History from the University of Virginia in 2004 and was a 2006 post-doctoral fellow at Emory University Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life. Other than being an author of Making Marriage Work, she also has co-edited a volume titled Domestic Tensions, National Anxieties: Global Perspectives on Marriage, Crisis, and Nation, Oxford University Press, 2016. Her current book project is After Divorce: Parents, Children, and the Making of the Modern American Family

In the book, Kristin Celello tracks how academics, popular media and marriage advisers helped develop a national discourse about marriage, putting the weight for ‘making marriage work’ extensively on the shoulders of women.

Scrutinize any magazine stand and one will undoubtedly notice a large number of articles prompting readers on the best way to solidify a marital relationship. Reality TV and talk shows additionally fortify the heteronormative models of a healthy marriage. In Making Marriage Work, historian Kristin Celello whose expertise includes history of marriage, divorce and counseling, offers a profound record of marriage and divorce in the United States in the twentieth century, concentrating on the idea of marriage as ‘work’, and uncovers how the notion that ‘work ethic should be applied to marriage’ turned out to be a major component of American’s collective consciousness.

In the book, Kristin Celello tracks how academics, popular media and marriage advisers helped develop a national discourse about marriage, putting the weight for ‘making marriage work’ extensively on the shoulders of women. In principle, both the partners are presumed to be responsible for their marriage and make sacrifices, however practically it has been women who have borne the brunt of the obligation, to the degree that being a wife has been prominently depicted as a full-time job. And wives are focused as the companion who has the power to break a relationship or make it since it all lies on her efforts. Not only is marriage work, but it is also most definitely women’s work. Marriage is majorly thought to be the sole responsibility of a woman and she is the one responsible to keep it going, and if the marriage doesn’t work then she is the one at fault. 

Celello not only examines the expectations that the couples enter the marriage with, but also look at what happens when these ideals and expectations are not met. Celello finds the sources of these standards and ideals in the developing field of marriage counseling. While proficient marriage instructors turned out to be progressively mainstream as the century advanced, a vast group of famous counselors additionally offered conjugal advice through television and self-help books. Together, these experts and counselors persuaded Americans to make their marriage unions work. In this book, Celello utilizes a wide range of sources and illustrations, including publication created for professional and mainstream audiences, cultural images, and letters traded amongst advisers and couples looking for guidance. The outcome is an innovative record of how the American hard working attitude met with the most intimate of institutions in the twentieth century.

The book investigates the transformation of marriage as a social, urban, or religious obligation (and, for women, a way to social identity and financial stability) into a sentimental relationship that couples anticipated that would be emotionally satisfying. Simultaneously, the expanding accessibility of and social acknowledgment for divorce meant a low rate of marital success. New specialists created an impression that tried to de-romanticize marriage, bringing down expectations of individual satisfaction keeping in mind the end goal to increase the marital success rate. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, they guided youngsters, especially women, about the risks of marrying for all the wrong reasons or picking the wrong partner. They believed that by alerting women to make rational rather than sentimental and emotional choices about marriage, fewer mismatches would end in divorce. Celello explores the troubles of doing this. Marriage specialists told women that if they weren’t careful in choosing a spouse, then they should accept and expect their married lives to be a failure. Kristin Celello, also, analyses the second shift of wives, the modern presumptions of marital work and how couples anticipated that marriage would require reciprocal, if not equivalent, attempts from both the husband and the wife to save the marriage, and turned to the marriage counselors for advice and help.

Celello has a good hold on her writing and the subject, and writes in an unmistakable voice. Those who lean a little less scholarly will enjoy reading the book and there is much to be learned from the book. Celello persuades through this book that the historical backdrop of making marriage work is basic to understanding current examinations about marriage and divorce in the United States. After reading this book, it was easy to infer that 21st century Americans are not sure as to how to comprehend marriage and hence they have been flooded by plenty of conflicting advices about marriage from marriage counselors from all parts of the political and religious ranges. However, significant questions remained unanswered. What precisely does a solid marriage resemble? Why do women care more about saving their marriages, as compared to men? If women work harder to save their marriages, is it because they genuinely want to or because they’ve been forced to do so because of societal pressures? The consensus of the answers to these questions is missing. 

In conclusion, this book corresponds to the wider question, which is, how does it become the responsibility of women to take the brunt of a failed marriage and how wives are constantly told to readjust their expectations and attitudes. Celello looks at divorce from a gendered lens and through her book, she lays a strong foundation of women being at a direct target of patriarchal society, who hold a thorny dart of opinion that a subservient wife should ‘work’ towards catering to her husband’s every desire which will, in turn, lead to a successful marriage. This book informed me about the historical struggles that the women in the United States have faced and are still facing being at a receiving end in a marriage, which has further helped me question their salience in the future.


Reviewer’s Bio

Simpi Srivastava grew up in New Delhi. Currently, she is a Research intern at the Observer Research Foundation. Before this, she completed her master’s in Sociology from Ambedkar University, Delhi, and a bachelor’s in Philosophy from Miranda House, University of Delhi. 

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