We need to talk (about the history of marriage counselling)

“We’re talking about a profession that didn’t exist before the 20th century,” says Dr. Ian Dowbiggin, in an office overstuffed with books in the History Department in UPEI’s Main Building. “Before 1900, if you wanted advice about your marriage, you talked to your friends, your priest, or your family. More likely, you didn’t talk to anyone about it.”

Dowbiggin is researching the history and rise of marriage counselling: an unheard-of profession in 1900 which became accepted as mainstream by the 1960s.

“It’s a remarkable story, really,” says Dowbiggin. “And a great example of the rise of something called ‘the therapeutic sensibility’: the increasing reliance on professional expertise to get through life.”

Dowbiggin’s research focuses on Emily Mudd, an early pioneer in family and marriage counselling. She was also heavily involved in the 1920s with the birth-control movement.

Emily MuddEmily Mudd

“And that’s not surprising,” explains Dowbiggin. “Many of Mudd’s fellow pioneers came out of the birth-control movement. In counselling men and women about birth control, they were finding common problems in marriages. No one seemed to know much about effective birth-control methods, which led to unwanted pregnancies, and even conjugal disharmony, if you will.”

Mudd and her husband opened a birth-control clinic in the late 1920s. By 1933, she had opened North America’s first marriage counselling clinic.

“The field grew quickly from there. By 1942, there was a national organization for marriage counsellors. By the 1960s, even early detractors of the movement, such as the Roman Catholic Church, were sending their priests for training in marriage counselling.”

Dowbiggin's research on this subject has taken him to Harvard, which houses Mudd’s collection of papers. He’s also dug deeper into the story of marriage counselling by visiting the archives of the universities of Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Michigan, and Minnesota.

Dowbiggin is the author of several books about the history of psychiatry and psychology, most recently “A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America”, published by Oxford University Press. 

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