Treating marriage as "the sick entity": Gender, emotional life, and the psychology of marriage improvement in Postwar Britain

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This essay examines how marriage relationships came to be constituted as therapeutic objects after WWII and the impact that this had on British postwar understandings of the meaning of marriage. In contrast to prevailing concerns during the interwar decades about sexual dissatisfaction as the chief impediment to marital stability, post-WWII marriage counselors and therapists framed marital harmony as dependent upon spouses' psychological maturity. An inability to sustain a stable marriage was interpreted as a sign of arrested development, most often stemming from a dysfunctional relationship with one or both parents in childhood. This essay reveals that the equalbut- different gender roles that were the cornerstone of the modern "companionate" marriage were crucial to marital counselors and therapists' psychological understanding of marriage as an interpersonal relationship during the decades following WWII. Practitioners gauged therapeutic success not only in accordance with whether or not couples stayed married, but also in terms of the extent to which spouses enthusiastically accepted the adult masculine and feminine spousal roles that the male-breadwinning nuclear family required. Moreover, therapists' valuing of the emotional dimensions of marriage made "natural" feminine attributes-such as a presumed ease in establishing loving relationships-a centrally valued aspect of therapeutic work and intimate life more broadly. Far from having a potentially disruptive impact on the presumed naturalness of gender difference (which had been a focus of criticism of psychoanalysis during the interwar decades), the psychoanalytic techniques that were developed to treat marriage problems after WWII were profoundly normalizing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)270-282
Number of pages13
JournalHistory of Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Gender and the nuclear family
  • Marriage therapy
  • Married couple as the unit of treatment
  • Post-WWII Britain

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • General Psychology


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