Margaret Sanger, "Lasting Peace for the War Marriage," July 1944.
Source: "Records of PPFA, Sophia Smith Collection Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections S72:411."
Sanger hand wrote two alternate titles, "When Johnny Comes Back Home" and "Will that War Romance End in Divorce?" at the top of the first page.
Several people have said in horrified tones to me lately. “Have you heard how many of these hasty war marriages are cracking up? They say hundreds and thousands of applications for divorces have been filed, that the only reason they haven’t gone through yet is that one can’t divorce a man in the armed forces!”
I have heard ominous overtones of discontent, of what will happen when the soldier gone these many months and years comes home to his waiting wife, with whom he’s had only a V-mail relation for so long. I know that the last war was followed by a tragically high number of divorces and that all of us sincerely hope it won’t be as bad this time.
On the side of the dire predictors of high divorce rates we have the fact that many more young people married in haste during this war and that because it is a much longer war, the mental, emotional and physical strains have far surpassed those of the last.
On the brighter side we may hope for more scientific treatment and solution of marital problems. Although sex enlightenment has been slow and persistently blocked by a few of the more conservative religious factions, some steps forward have been taken since the last war period. Sex education has advanced along with marriage counseling, both privately and in the schools, child spacing knowledge has been more widely accepted.
The easiest way to face a problem is through the human beings involved, and all of us have been involved in this war either through our own personal problems or those of ones near and dear to us.
I would like to estimate the chances for future happiness of several young couples whom I know well, and who are faced with the same problems as other young people who have married in war times.
Bill had to leave Sadie with two babies, quite close together because Sadie wanted it that way and Bill knew that he could leave her in the care of his relatives. They were carefully planned babies, hence their chances for health and happiness even during this period of world tragedy were good, for Sadie understood her obligation to be both mother and father to them during Bill’s absence.
Sadie knew more than that. She sensed from Bill’s letters that war, besides being the horror that it is, was a great adventure for Bill, that he was meeting new and interesting people, having experiences that would never have come to him in the living of an ordinary life. She read between the lines Bill’s growth, and knew that he wouldn’t want to return to find her merely the girl he’s left behind whose outlook was no broader than the space between the constant string of diapers on the line and the living room radio.
So in spite of the fact that it took effort, and time and she was often much too tired to have her heart in it, she began taking music lessons again. Bill had often said he wished she hadn’t neglected her music, that it was a shame the way the babies had spoiled it for her. She has kept at it persistently since Bill went away and he is going to have a pleasant surprise when he comes home. Another thing, she’s diligently studying Spanish because she knows Bill isn’t going to be happy at his old auto salesman’s job when he returns even if autos are being sold again by that time. He’s talked of openings in South America, of exploring new country, beating new tracks; he won’t be the old Bill when she returns and she won’t try to fit him back into the old mold. She will take pride in his new ambitions and skills and try to progress with him. I think that marriage is headed for permanent success, even though a new Bill will come home to meet a new Sadie.
With the Martins it is different. James Martin has already been demobilized, one of the 70 thousand being demobilized daily. For him the war is over, yet it isn’t really over and this makes things difficult for James. For two years in the mud and foxholes of the South Pacific he’s dreamed of this homecoming to his wife Helen. He didn’t dream he’d return before the war’s end or that constant fighting would shatter his nerves almost to the point of exhaustion. The doctors and psychiatrists have dismissed James as cured. That he is cured of being a soldier. It was a difficult job turning the hundreds of thousands of Jameses into soldiers in the first place. They’d been taught from infancy, love, and kindness, not to hurt others needlessly. The army had to teach them that sometimes it is necessary to be ruthless killers, they had to be reconditioned for war, taught group thinking, group emotions. Then came the end of the war for James Martin. Again he had to be re-educated back to peace-time emotions. It isn’t easy for him. Fortunately Helen realizes this. She’s had a difficult time too. She and James chose to defer having a baby until the war would be over and the child could have both a mother and father. She waited and worked and led a very dull life during James’ absence. His return would be glorious, the end of loneliness and frustration. But it wasn’t.
James found to his horror that the happiness he needed and had yearned for most with his wife was denied him partly by his eagerness for it. He was impotent. At first this made him impatient with his wife, angry with her as well as with himself. How many young wives could have remained calm as Helen did, explaining that this condition would be temporary, telling James that the horrors he’d gone through couldn’t be erased immediately. Helen had the sense to seek expert advice of a good marriage counsellor; she has been willing to wait patiently until James returns fully to the cycle of his normal living, from civilian, to solider, back to civilian. It involves much more, Helen has learned, as so many others will, than just putting on and then taking off the uniform.
These are only two examples; I could cite hundreds and each couple will have their own problems of personal adjustment. Some of the problems may seem insurmountable; many will give up and rush to the divorce courts, or back home to mother. Some husbands will find in their haste that they have truly married the wrong girl, and some girls will discover to their horror that the dream man in the uniform is quite another thing back in civilian life. There will inevitably be many divorces. We must expect them. It is the needless ones, the ones that can be avoided with a little mutual understanding and patience that we want to obviate.
I wish there could be cut and dried rules for how to be a good husband and how to be a good wife. There aren’t but there are a few precepts that should be followed.
First of all, remember that marriage is both a concession and a demand; a living thing, never static, even during absence. There must be constant growth, constant consideration for the other partner. Don’t be shocked by change but go along with it, encourage it, build with your husband or your wife. A recent survey shows that among the soldiers already demobilized only about one third want to return to their old jobs. The wives must be ready to understand this and help the husbands to find new work better suited to new talents.
Second, if your problems of adjustment seem too much for you, seek expert advice. The Red Cross will help you, so will the USO-YMCA and YWCA. The Planned Parenthood Federation in New York City will give you sources of information on the sound planning of your family. That is if your problem is fear of having a child or another child before you are quite ready and have learned to know each other again and made proper adjustments, go to a child spacing clinic. If you want a child and feel that you can’t have one, this Federation will refer you to a doctor or service to help discover and correct this difficulty. Remember there is a solution for all your problems and nine times out of ten it need not be the divorce courts. Take advantage of the many services existing to aid you in your present crises.
Finally, a little advice to husbands. So far I have laid the emphasis on understanding wives. You husbands have a duty too and it is just as important for you to be patient and understanding in the difficult situation of becoming reacquainted with your wife and family. Remember, she has romanticized you, idealized you; don’t be too great a shock to her. Don’t forget her side of this union by your urgency, your too sudden demands on her. In some cases you may need the counsel of a wise person to help you appreciate your wife’s viewpoint. Don’t be afraid to seek help. She has spent months, perhaps years of loneliness and worry. She has remained faithful to you having often a pretty dull time doing this. Perhaps she’s been tied down by your babies. Now she expects romance and consideration. She wants appreciation for her waiting part in the war. Perhaps she’s found the task of being both father and mother to your children almost more than her strength or courage could bear. She expects not just a husband to return to her but a lover.
The husband’s responsibility in marriage hasn’t been stressed much until recently. Now it is quite obvious that it is as much to his advantage as to his wife’s that he help in planning the family. The increasing recognition of the father’s active part in the home can be seen in the new maternity center classes for fathers. I believe a School for Husbands should be started to give young husbands valuable lessons in how to make their wives happy. Let the husband look to himself when his wife seems shrewish and nags. Maybe she is frustrated. Maybe he is taking romance for granted or feeling that their relationship should be beyond that stage. Maybe he’s minimizing the pent-up emotions of his wife, the loneliness of his long absence. Husbands should realize now that problems of the home, including that most important one of spacing the children belong to him, provide for his comfort and happiness just as much as for his wife’s.
Marriage is a two-way contract. When both parties realize its seriousness and try to see the marriage from the viewpoint of one another rather than just as an individual problem, there is a chance to stop some of those menacing “post-war divorces”. Otherwise we’ll have too many of the sudden war marriages ending in sudden divorce, and too many of our fine large crop of war babies growing up in the tragedy of split homes.
Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project