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Marriage Guidance: Kissing and Telling

Deborah Cohen opens the archives of the Scottish Marriage Guidance Council, founded in 1946, and finds that couples in the postwar years were more than happy to air their dirty linen.

A soldier on leave in 1942 weds his fiancé in a Berkshire churchPity the bewildered data protection officer. What to do with a populace that cherishes privacy even as it engages gleefully in self-exposure?

The modern preoccupation with both telling all and protecting our privacy is often taken to be something new and puzzling. But it is neither so paradoxical nor so new, for it predates both the social media revolution of the early 21st century and the loosening sexual mores of the Swinging Sixties. It was a cultural shift before it was a technological one. It started in the 1930s and was in full swing by the 1950s. Let us observe the phenomenon by cutting the plastic bands strapped around the postwar case files of the Edinburgh marriage guidance centre and peering at their contents.

First detected in the 1930s, the so-called ‘crisis of the family’ nearly became a truism after the Second World War. Rocketing rates of illegitimacy, a huge rise in the number of divorces, an epidemic of juvenile delinquency, bombed-out families doubling up and getting on each other’s nerves: everywhere the fragility – but also the centrality – of family life was apparent.

Putting the British family right would require a work of psychic reconstruction no less profound than the physical rebuilding of the country – or so claimed the army of ministers, doctors, solicitors, social scientists, psychologists and respectable married ladies who volunteered themselves for duty at the National Marriage Guidance Council, founded in 1946. What was required was an intervention into the most private realm of marriage.

But would people talk about their intimate lives with strangers? Naysayers thought it very unlikely that anyone with sense would voluntarily submit to marriage counselling. While working-class families were accustomed to the prying investigations of moral welfare workers and district nurses, so resented was this meddling that the precedent was not encouraging. And as far as ‘counselling’ went – the word itself was an American import – the middle classes were still practically virgin territory.

Yet in postwar Edinburgh – as in the rest of the country – the sceptics were soon proved wrong. The voluntary staff of local worthies was quickly inundated by confessions and complaints, delivered up by immaculately coiffured doctors’ wives as well as by dishevelled machinists. Affairs, drunkenness, illegitimacy, venereal disease, domestic violence, incest: every type of family secret was aired. Even those, like the newsagent Mr Green, who seemed at first glance unlikely to avail themselves of counselling had plenty to say: ‘I wondered how and when he would open his mouth,’ the counsellor recorded in her case notes, ‘he just looked at me rather dumbly – like a sick cow – but after a few remarks by me – he suddenly started and for about an hour and a half didn’t stop.’

Far from being unwilling to talk, the centre’s clients were (as one Edinburgh counsellor put it) ‘bursting’ to tell their stories. By the late 1940s people were more willing to consult a counsellor than they had been before the war. Evacuation and bombing had made it much more acceptable among all social classes to seek help outside one’s own family. There were hasty marriages to be repented at leisure and extramarital affairs that disrupted apparently contented partnerships. Wives who had done things their own way during the war years struggled with returning husbands eager to assert their control. As marriage itself became more difficult, expectations of it had soared, buoyed by a relentless advice industry that prescribed perfect mutuality in all things. In the 1940s more than 80 marriage guidance clinics sprang up across Britain; the National Marriage Guidance Council was one of the fastest-growing voluntary organisations in the postwar years.

But even as marriage guidance gurus confidently proclaimed to have found the solution to the ‘disease’ of marital disharmony, their own records revealed a disturbing fact. The vast majority of clients attended only once or twice. Like the 37-year old chartered surveyor, who in October of 1951 hurried into the Edinburgh Centre to confess that he and his wife drank too much – and that on a variety of occasions, he had struck her – they came in a crisis, told the counsellor in a great rush about their problems and never returned.

Faced with the dismal statistics about the low numbers of repeat customers, the leaders of marriage counselling emphasised the useful services they nonetheless provided. Counselling, they argued, provided an opportunity for catharsis, even if the client’s first visit was also her last. Talking about their troubles allowed people to vent feelings that would otherwise be bottled up.

Catharsis had always been envisioned as part of the counselling process. Increasingly, however, it became an end in itself, for a chance ‘to pour it all’ out was in fact all that those who visited its centres sought.

While people appeared eager to discuss their problems, they were not prepared to entertain the counsellors’ questions or to return for more probing scrutiny. Even the most apparently forthcoming of clients quickly clammed up when pressed for more information. Mrs Thomas was typical: she ‘talked on and on’ about how her husband neglected her, but turned ‘resentful’ and ‘indignant’ when the counsellor inquired further about her childhood.

The more questions a counsellor asked, the more resistance they encountered. People did not want to ‘lose face’, as one expert recognised, by yielding access to their private lives. They were, however, eager to be rid of their secrets. Although they bristled at the comparison, the National Marriage Guidance counsellors served much the same function in the 1940s and 1950s as the country’s agony aunts, whose own mailbags bulged with letters from unhappy correspondents. Marriage guidance provided a means of confessing secrets without answering questions, of getting things off one’s chest without compromising privacy.

In these mid-century adventures in confession, what is noteworthy is the desire many people felt – very evident today – both to talk out loud about shameful subjects and to stake a claim to their inviolable privacy.

Deborah Cohen is Ritzma Professor of the Humanities at Northwestern University. Her latest book is Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day (Viking, 2013).

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