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Relationship rhetoric: Representations of intimacy in contemporary self-help literature

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Thesis type
(Dissertation) Ph.D.
Date created
Western culture is infatuated by stories and images of romance at the same time that it is alarmed by a perceived disintegration of the institution of marriage. Relationship guides (self-help books on relationships) play a role in reflecting and reinforcing both the infatuation and the alarm. This discourse analysis of ten popular relationship guides, along with interviews of 21 readers, provides an in-depth analysis of how the genre works at the rhetorical level. Although authors employ various methods to assert their credibility, interviews with readers suggest what is most important is the ability to persuade the reader that the author genuinely cares about improving relationships. Readers seem to have a somewhat ambiguous relationship with the books, sometimes treating them as true advice manuals and sometimes treating them more like novels. They are skeptical of the genre (and of authors’ motives) at the same time that they maintain hope that the next book will provide the answer they are looking for. Authors use various metaphors that allow for descriptions of marital issues as minor problems (e.g., bumps in the road) as well as providing for alluring and captivating descriptions of marital bliss. Several common terministic screens filter perceptions of marriage in a way that highlights individual responsibility and obscures any notions of social or political responsibility. Ultimately, relationship guides are a rhetorical response to a situation of failure. They provide consolation and comfort (an aspect that readers identified as very important) as well as compensation (techniques for reconciling the failure and pointing readers in directions that will make them feel more successful). Relationship guides both reflect and reinforce the discourse of the good wife – a discourse that naturalizes the unequal gender division of responsibility for maintaining a good marriage. This is seen particularly in the genre’s major godterm acceptance, which, through rhetorical methods that may not be consciously used by authors, deflects attention from expectations of change by husbands or society. Thus, although the reader may obtain comfort and a sense of shared misery from reading the books, she remains isolated in her problems.
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Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Coe, Richard M.
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