Selected Works

Why are Americans so obsessed with marriage?
Journal Articles
Journal of American History, 94, no. 4 (March 2008): 1137-1163
Book Chapters
In The Blackwell Companion to Religion in America, edited by Philip Goff
In The Embrace of Eros: Bodies, Desires, and Sexuality in Christianity, edited by Margaret Kamitsuka

More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss

The American fixation with marriage, so prevalent in today's debates over marriage for same-sex couples, owes much of its intensity to a small group of reformers who introduced Americans to marriage counseling in the 1930s. Today, millions of couples seek help to save their marriages each year. Over the intervening decades, marriage counseling has powerfully promoted the idea that successful marriages are essential to both individuals' and the nation's well-being.

Rebecca Davis reveals how couples and counselors transformed the ideal of the perfect marriage as they debated sexuality, childcare, mobility, wage earning, and autonomy, exposing both the fissures and aspirations of American society. From the economic dislocations of the Great Depression, to more recent debates over government-funded "Healthy Marriage" programs, counselors have responded to the shifting needs and goals of American couples. Tensions among personal fulfillment, career aims, religious identity, and socioeconomic status have coursed through the history of marriage and explain why the stakes in the institution are so fraught for the couples involved and for the communities to which they belong.

Americans care deeply about marriages—their own and other people's—because they have made enormous investments of time, money, and emotion to improve their own relationships and because they believe that their personal decisions about whom to marry or whether to divorce extend far beyond themselves. This intriguing book tells the uniquely American story of a culture gripped with the hope that, with enough effort and the right guidance, more perfect marital unions are within our reach.

From Publisher's Weekly:

This fluent study traces Americans' changing attitudes towards marriage throughout the 20th century, with a particular emphasis on the period between the initial rise of marriage counseling in the 1930s and the emergence of the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and '70s. Davis, assistant professor of history at the University of Delaware, considers myriad issues and influences, including shifting approaches to homosexuality, the role played by different religious institutions, and the impact of race on the public discourse on marriage. Davis illustrates her dense social history with illuminating case studies of such pivotal figures as the eugenicist Paul Popenoe, a pioneer in the field of marriage counseling, and Florence Hollis, a lesbian teacher and researcher who applied psychoanalytic theory to marriage counseling. These fascinating examples reveal the competing intellectual and social forces that had a stake in defining and influencing American marriage. The author balances this nuanced and admirably thorough history with unwavering emphasis on the impact of evolving gender roles on the institution.


An astute, engaging, and disturbing history.
--Jill Lepore (New Yorker)

Fascinating... As Davis shows, a movement that set out to repair marriage ended up transforming it.
--William H. Willimon (Christian Century)

A deeply researched and readable work... Many more insights await the reader in this gem of a study, rich with detail culled from case histories, personal letters and many other archival sources.
--Nancy L. Roberts (Catholic News Service)

What can we learn from a narrowly focused account of the history of marriage counseling? In the hands of a perceptive scholar such as Rebecca L. Davis, a great deal... The most significant contribution Davis makes in this meticulously researched study, however, is the nuanced picture she gives us of ever-shifting gender roles... For this reason, among others, this book is a must-read for scholars in women’s history and gender studies.
--Norma Basch (Journal of American History)

More Perfect Unions is...a useful, and usefully provocative, book. It should find a durable life in the discourse of marriage and gender studies.
--Jim Cullen (History News Network)

There could hardly be a more opportune time to have at hand Rebecca Davis's smart, thoughtful, and meticulously-researched new book of social history.
--Bella DePaulo (Living Single blog,

[An] engrossing study.
--Lauren Winner (, Christianity Today)

An interesting social history.
--Laura Vanderkam (Wall Street Journal)

Davis presents marriage counseling as an institution with larger aims than connubial bliss, but also as a tool of the state, clergy and social scientists to help strengthen families, communities and economies.
--Lisa Bonos (Washington Post)

In this original and beautifully-written history of marriage counseling, Rebecca Davis demonstrates that the American obsession with marriage says as much about the quest for the perfect nation as it does about the desire for marital bliss. More Perfect Unions is essential reading for anyone interested in changing ideas of marriage, intimacy, gender, race, sexuality, and American identity itself.
--Elaine Tyler May, author of Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era

Marital conflict is centuries old, but as Davis shows in this eye-opening history, marriage counseling is a twentieth-century innovation. Her deft and lively analysis explains how an ideal of marital perfection has made Americans the most marrying kind in the Western world today.
--Nancy F. Cott, Harvard University

Judicious, deeply researched, and rich with insight and fascinating detail, this book describes the debates surrounding marriage since the 1920s: the impact of divorce on children, the relationship between single parenthood and poverty, gender inequities in spousal roles, and the still unresolved tension between marriage and personal fulfillment.
--Steven Mintz, author of Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood

Davis details the convoluted origins, contradictory beliefs, and unanticipated consequences of America's marriage counseling and marriage promotion movements, both secular and religious, over the past 100 years. This excellent resource deals sensitively with the gender, racial, and sexual biases of its sources.
--Stephanie Coontz, author, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage

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