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The Obamas’ Working Marriage

In a recent issue of People magazine, Michelle Obama does her best to dispel any notions that she and the President have a “perfect” marriage.  Rather, she insists: “I don’t want anybody to think that it’s easy. It works because we really work at it.”

With this revelation, the First Lady invoked a truism that has been a staple of American marriages for close to a hundred years: in order for a marriage to be successful or “to work,” you have to make a concerted effort or “work at it.”  What she might not know, however, is that this idea has a long history, one that is more complicated than most Americans realize.

 Prior to the twentieth century, Americans generally thought of marriage as a duty.  Most husbands and wives certainly hoped to love and to find companionship with their spouses.  But if this love disintegrated over time, they had little choice but to stay married.  While divorce was technically legal throughout most of the country, the cost and social stigma associated with it prevented most Americans from opting out of their marriages.

By the 1920s, the situation had changed.  Divorce had grown increasingly common and being divorced became more socially acceptable.  Not surprisingly, religious authorities and social scientists were concerned about this turn of public opinion.  They believed that a strong nation needed strong marriages.  They also thought that Americans were placing overly high expectations on marriage, which only led to more divorces when those expectations proved out of reach.

But how could experts solve this problem?  Most of them acknowledged that divorce was now a reality in the United States.  Still, they felt that they could convince American husbands and wives to pay more attention to their relationships.  They thus formulated a plan to convince the public that “good” marriages required a healthy amount of investment and effort. 

Experts found a myriad of ways to accomplish their task.  For instance, they introduced marriage education courses into high school and college classrooms.  They also invented the practice of marriage counseling, which became more and more popular over the decades.  While experts did not necessarily succeed in slowing the divorce rate, they were exceptionally good at bringing the “marriage as work” formula to the American public.  Michelle Obama, then, is one of tens of millions of Americans who reflexively pair “marriage” and “work” when they discuss their relationships.

What isn’t clear from this story, however, is the question of who experts expected to perform marital work.  Most popular marriage advice, in the past and today, calls for “couples” to work on their marriages together.  But if one considers the places in which this advice is dispensed—in women’s magazines, on daytime television, and in self-help books—it is clear that experts expected, and continue to expect, wives to be their audience and thus primarily responsible for making their marriages work.   

Such advice was commonplace and unremarkable in the 1950s, but it became more controversial and complicated with the rise of feminism, changes in dating and courtship, and women entering the workforce in ever greater numbers. For the past three decades, debates have raged over the distribution of marital work, both of the menial (housework, childcare) and of the emotional variety.  Many Americans have strived for a more equitable distribution of labor.  Others, particularly social and religious conservatives, have argued that wives alone need to rededicate themselves to their marriages, particularly given the rate of divorce in this country. 

It is impossible to know, of course, how the Obamas have resolved these thorny issues.  Michelle Obama’s use of the word “we,” rather than “I” suggests that, at least in her estimation, both she and the President are dedicated equally to making their marriage work.  At the same time, it is not surprising that we are learning about their marriage from the First Lady and not from her husband—proof that old habits disappear slowly. But if the First Couple truly makes working on their relationship together a priority, they may well serve as role models for a new generation of American marriages.