The first recorded evidence of marriage ceremonies dates back to around 2350 BC, in Mesopotamia. And I would suspect that for just as long, spouses have sought relationship help. Historically that guidance came from family members, doctors and religious leaders.
Modern marital therapy as we think of it typically takes place in a closed-door room with the therapist and client(s) engaged in dialogue unique to the couple’s experiences and challenges. However, as our modes of communication have advanced, so have the ways in which people seek help with their marriage. That closed door has opened, allowing both professional therapists and untrained self-proclaimed experts to speak to the masses via advice columns, podcasts, videos, webinars, apps and more.
Pioneers of Mass Audience Therapy
In the 1940s, Paul Popenoe aka Mr. Marriage was known as the “father of marriage counseling.” Incredibly, his monthly feature article entitled, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” still runs today in Ladies’ Home Journal. For decades the stories featured came from Popenoe’s American Institute of Family Relations based in Los Angeles, which at the time was considered the country’s leading marriage clinic. At the height of its popularity in the 1950s, Popenoe’s domain also included volumes of marriage manuals, a syndicated newspaper column called “Modern Marriage,” and a radio program called “Love and Marriage.” Popenoe even did a stint as a judge on a television show called “Divorce Hearing.”
In the late 1960s, on the coattails of the women’s liberation movement, marriage therapy became an increasingly specific discipline. A notable shift at this time was to involve the couple in marriage therapy, whereas previously therapists typically worked with the individual who was having issues with the marriage. “As soon as the new standard of concurrent treatment was set, it mutated and scaled. Couples therapists took to the airwaves for a live-action version of the advice column, from the interactive dial-a-shrink radio call-in shows of the 1970s and ’80s to the endless daytime television shows anchored by these celebrity doctors that brought couples in to discuss their most private problems on live television,” says author Hannah Zeavin, a researcher of the intimate histories of technology, media and communication, in her essay, “Behind Closed Doors: America’s Couple Therapy Entertainment Complex,” published in 2021.¹
Reality TV Therapy
As the daytime shows morphed into couples’ reality TV in the mid 1980s, viewers were exposed to some degree of legitimate therapy without actually being in therapy themselves. Zeavin states, “The (TV) couples are typically not patients, but pairs of applicants who are actively recruited. Not only are the couples and therapists performing for each other, but for the implied viewership at home.” So whether or not the guidance the TV couples receive is of any benefit to the viewers’ personal challenges is a roll of the dice.
Podcasts, the next evolution of unconventional marital therapy started popping up around 2005. A quick Google search for “couples therapy podcasts” returns over 50 options for marital guidance podcasts. These podcasts typically use the same or a similar formula used in couples’ reality TV – a therapist host and a couple in need of counseling. Topics covered in the podcasts run the gamut, including how to effectively communicate with your spouse, how to resolve conflict, how to improve your love life, how to rebuild trust after infidelity, how to overcome financial challenges and how to compromise.
One of the most notable is Where Should We Begin, hosted by psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author Esther Perel. Perel believes the key to healthy couples being an integral part of modern society is finding balance within the many expectations our social system expects. Listeners of Perel’s podcast hear, “real couples in search of help bare the raw, intimate, and profound details of their stories.”² She welcomes listeners to, “come for a glimpse into another’s world and stay for what you’ll learn about your own.”
The Newest Form of Self-Help: Couples Relationship Apps
The newest form of relationship help – “at-home, do-it-yourself” apps – made their debut in the early 2010s. For those who find all of the above easily consumable forms of public therapy too overwhelming or too generic – meaning, not tailored to their specific needs – there are a bevy of self-help relationship therapy apps. These often playful or light-hearted apps are fairly customizable, allowing couples to input their personal challenges and goals, along with choosing options offered within the apps.
Broadly speaking, the premise of these apps is for couples to develop long-lasting habit-forming behaviors. Frequent notifications, quizzes, tracking logs and other tools are intended to help couples get to know (or re-know) each other better so they can cater to their partner’s wants and desires while having their own fulfilled. For example, if one party enters into the app that they enjoy hand holding, their partner will receive prompts asking if they’ve held their partner’s hand that day. Emphasis is also placed on positive communication, both within the app and outside in the real world. Following are a few such apps found in the Apple App Store along with their descriptions.
AskBae: For Couples – “AskBae is a couples quiz with 300+ curated questions to get closer with your partner and (re-)discover your relationship. Get to know each other with a romantic, funny or unusual question a day. Love is a partnership. Play and build your love-story with your partner by getting to know them better.”
Love Nudge – “You and your loved one can learn each other’s love languages, exchange encouraging and playful nudges, set and track activity goals, and monitor the levels of each other’s love tanks for better communication and intimacy. It’s like having a personal assistant… for your relationship.”
Evergreen: Relationship Growth – “Grow together and build a healthy, loving, and lasting relationship. Evergreen is for couples who want to connect more deeply, communicate more effectively, and improve intimacy. In just a few minutes a day, you can learn new things about your partner, laugh together, get relationship tips from experts, and find new reasons to fall in love again every day. Daily questions help you and your partner celebrate the moments that matter most, while quizzes and check-ins help you understand strengths and areas for improvement in your relationship.”
Official, The Relationship App – “Congrats, you are in a relationship! And you want to stay in this relationship of yours, correct? Lucky for you, Official is built to help couples stay together. Official can be used as an outlet for advice to deepen your relationship and help you create life-lasting experiences with the ones you love most. Keep your partner happy, your friends jealous of your relationship, and look like a love expert when you #GetOfficial.”
When Therapy Options Have Been Exhausted
While some find the varied marital therapy resources useful or essential, unfortunately divorce rates are still lingering around 50%. Therefore, it is no surprise that divorce-themed podcasts, webinars, apps, etc. can also be found across all forms of media.
When marriage do fails, attorneys and their clients can count on my nine years of exclusively practicing family mediations following my 18-year career in litigation, to focus on the very specific and personal needs and wants of both parties until an amicable outcome is achieved.