Paul Popenoe

The Racist Roots of Marriage Counseling

Paul Popenoe was not a psychologist or psychiatrist, nor did he finish college, but the father of marriage counseling in America was called Dr. Popenoe anyway. After all, he did have an honorary degree in sociology.

Before he opened the American Institute of Family Relations, his marriage counseling center in Los Angeles, he led a successful campaign to sterilize the mentally ill. It spawned a forced-sterilization law in California, which inspired two-thirds of other US states to do the same. He continued to follow his interest in only breeding the best by studying eugenics — the practice of selective breeding applied to humans — but after it was made unpopular by the Nazis he talked less of it and more of saving marriage (only those worth saving, of course). In 1949 his popularity peaked when Ladies Home Journal published an excerpt of his book Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Here's some of his advice, courtesy of The New Yorker.

  • On birth control: “If charity begins at home, birth control should begin abroad. Continued limitation of offspring in the white race simply invites the black, brown, and yellow races to finish the work already begun by birth control."
  • On the about-to-stray husband: Dick is about to leave his wife, Andrea, for another woman. He is bored with Andrea. “Living with her is like being aboard that ship that cruised forever between the ports of Tedium and Monotony,” he says. Can this marriage be saved? You bet. At Popenoe’s clinic, Andrea is urged to make herself more interesting. She learns how to make better conversation, goes on a strict diet, and loses eight pounds. The affair is averted.

Read more after the jump.

  • On the trouble with college-educated women: “Many a college girl of the finest innate qualities, who sincerely desires to enter matrimony, is unable to find a husband of her own class, simply because she has been rendered so cold and unattractive, so overstuffed intellectually and starved emotionally, that a typical man does not desire to spend the rest of his life in her company.”
  • On which marriages aren't worth saving: “Divorcees are on the whole biologically inferior to the happily married.”

Though marriage counseling endured, Popenoe's particular brand of it went out of style, not surprisingly, in the '60s.

Photo courtesy of HBO

Latest