"You married for better or worse, didn't you?" An analysis of changing attitudes to love, marriage and divorce in the "New Zealand Woman's Weekly", 1950 and 1980
Brewer, Rosemary Louise
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Any cohabiting couple, married or unmarried, may at some stage find their relationship has deteriorated to such an extent that one or both partners contemplate abandoning it. This study examines the factors around that decision at two points in New Zealand’s history: 1950, when the country was settling back into peacetime life after World War II (WWII), and 1980, when romantic relationships and the family itself had been subjected to critique by the liberalising tides of social change in the West of the 1960s and 1970s, and by which time the divorce rate had increased significantly. It examines the agony aunt columns in the widely-read New Zealand Woman’s Weekly in both years to detect the nature of those changes, on the assumption that these relatively unedited voices from the past, discussing their relationships with the ‘expert’ – but actually amateur – advisor, the agony aunt, can reveal how troubled individuals thought about these matters and how underlying values and beliefs about love, marriage and divorce may have changed in the thirty years between. The study revealed that, although references to traditional expectations of love and marriage were more numerous in the 1950 columns than in the 1980 ones, traces of traditional attitudes could be found in the latter and of more liberal and more feminist attitudes in the former. In 1980 a higher standard of behaviour appears to have been expected than in 1950 within both de facto and de jure marriages; in 1950 the agony aunt was more likely to advise the correspondents to remain in unsatisfactory marriages. Where the 1950 columns encouraged women into a stoical acceptance of inequalities in their marriages and advised the use of coquetry and other artful ploys to ‘manage’ husbands ¬– who were characterised as ‘vain’ – the 1980 columns encouraged correspondents to practise ‘open communication’, and in particular not to put up with physical violence – a subject which could now be discussed (deplored) in public as it could not in 1950. Along with this sub-text of attempting to attain more equitable romantic relationships, the 1980 agony aunt could also refer her correspondents to the ‘experts’ at Marriage Guidance – a network of counselling services which had arisen in the interim. This study has been limited by its time frames and use of a single genre. Research into later data sets (for example, the columns in 2010, a further 30 years into the future) could reveal how attitudes to love, marriage and divorce have continued to change in New Zealand. In addition, the advent in the 1980 columns of letters from older children and teenagers seeking advice about their custody arrangements suggests the need for further research into the historical lived experiences of some children of divorce.