The First Lesson of Marriage 101: There Are No Soul Mates

A course at Northwestern University teaches students about what makes a healthy relationship.
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Research shows that practically every dimension of life happiness is influenced by the quality of one’s marriage, while divorce is the second most stressful life event one can ever experience.

Yet nearly half of all married couples are likely to divorce, and many couples report feeling unhappy in their relationships. Instructors of Northwestern University’s Marriage 101 class want to change that. The goal of their course is to help students have more fulfilling love relationships during their lives. In Marriage 101 popular books such as Mating in Captivity and For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage are interspersed with meaty academic studies. Students attend one lecture a week and then meet in smaller breakout groups to discuss the weekly topics, which range from infidelity to addiction, childrearing to sexuality in long-term relationships.

At first glance this class may seem a tad too frivolous for a major research university. But the instructors say it’s not an easy A and its reputation as a meaningful, relevant, and enlightening course has grown steadily over the 14 years it’s been offered. In fact, teachers are forced to turn away eager prospective students every year. This spring, the enrollment will be capped at 100. The class is kept to a manageable size so that students can grapple at a deeply personal level with the material during their discussion sessions.

The Marriage 101 professors believe college is the perfect time for students to learn about relationships. “Developmentally, this is what the college years are all about: Students are thinking about who they are as people, how they love, who they love, and who they want as a partner,” says Alexandra Solomon, a professor and family therapist who will be teaching the course along with a team of four other faculty, all affiliated with Northwestern University’s Family Institute, and 11 teaching assistants. “We’re all really passionate about talking about what makes a healthy relationship.” The professors see the course—which requires journaling exercises, interviews with married couples, and several term papers—as a kind of inoculation against potential life trauma.

Historians tell us that marriage education in America began as a way to keep women’s sexuality in check. “Marriage education has been for hundreds of years aimed at women. It was considered their responsibility to keep the marriage going,” Stephanie Coontz, co-chairwoman of the Council on Contemporary Families and author of Marriage: A History, tells me. During the 1920s and 1930s, Coontz explains in her book, fears about sexual liberation and the future of marriage led eugenics proponents like Paul Popenoe to become enthusiastic about marriage counseling. “If we were going to promote a sound population, we would not have to get the right kind of people married, but we would have to keep them married,” Popenoe wrote. 

College-level marriage courses became even more popular during the post-World War II period, when marriage rates were at an all-time high and women were encouraged to embrace a new role as happy homemakers. Marriage education during that time, Coontz explains, was similarly driven by a strong emphasis on stereotypical gender, race, and class ideas about how a marriage should ideally be conducted. “The received wisdom of the day was that the only way to have a happy marriage was for the woman to give up any aspirations that might threaten the man’s sense of superiority, to make his interests hers, and to never ask for help around the house.” In one case, cited in Rebecca Davis’s book More Perfect Unions, a young wife became convinced, after a series of sessions at Ohio State University’s marriage clinic, that her husband’s straying was a result of her failing to do her duty by taking care of her looks and keeping a proper home. And New York University’s College of Engineering presented “Good Wife Awards” to women who put their spouses first, providing the domestic support that allowed their husbands to concentrate on their studies.

There was another resurgence of interest in marriage education a decade ago when the George W. Bush administration undertook an initiative, with bipartisan Congressional support, to promote marriage. The Healthy Marriage Initiative was met with mixed reception; criticism was leveled at the lack of evidence that the proposed marriage-promotion strategies even worked, as well as the possibility that low-income women would feel pressured to remain in abusive or dysfunctional marriages. “We did not know if the existing scientific literature on predicting successful marriages would apply to poor families because it was mostly conducted on middle-class families,” Matthew Johnson, Director of the Marriage and Family Studies Laboratory at Binghamton University, told Forbes in an interview.*  “Some in the scientific community were trying to point out that we did not know whether investing [large amounts of money] in marriage education for poor couples would work, but our voices were drowned out by those who felt that it was worth the gamble.”

Nowadays, when colleges and universities offer courses on the topic of marriage, rather than explicitly offering practical marriage advice, they often survey the institution of marriage from a historical point of view or look at larger sociological trends.

Today’s marriage education classes are most often aimed at high-school students, usually as part of a home economics or health class, where teens are taught how family structure affects child well-being, learn basic relationship and communication skills, or are required to carry around a sack filled with flour for a week so they can learn what is entailed in being responsible for a baby 24 hours a day. Other courses are taught at specifically religious colleges, or are meant for engaged couples, like Pre-Cana, a marriage prep course required of all couples desiring to marry in a Catholic church.

Northwestern’s Marriage 101 is unique among liberal arts universities in offering a course that is comprehensively and directly focused on the experiential, on self-exploration: on walking students through the actual practice of learning to love well.

While popular culture often depicts love as a matter of luck and meeting the right person, after which everything effortlessly falls into place, learning how to love another person well, Solomon explains, is anything but intuitive. Among the larger lessons students learn in this class are:

Self-understanding is the first step to having a good relationship

“The foundation of our course is based on correcting a misconception: that to make a marriage work, you have to find the right person. The fact is, you have to be the right person,” Solomon declares. “Our message is countercultural: Our focus is on whether you are the right person. Given that we’re dealing with 19-, 20-, 21-year olds, we think the best thing to do at this stage in the game, rather than look for the right partner, is do the work they need to understand who they are, where they are, where they came from, so they can then invite in a compatible suitable partner.”

To that end, students keep a journal, interview friends about their own weaknesses, and discuss what triggers their own reactions and behaviors in order to understand their own issues, hot buttons, and values. “Being blind to these causes people to experience problems as due to someone else—not to themselves,” Solomon explains. “We all have triggers, blind spots, growing edges, vulnerabilities. The best thing we can do is be aware of them, take responsibility for them, and learn how to work with them effectively.”

You can’t avoid marital conflict, but you can learn how to handle it better

The instructors teach that self-discovery is impossible without knowing where you came from. “Understanding your past and the family you grew up in helps you to understand who you are now and what you value,” Solomon says. To help students recognize what has shaped their views on love, she and her colleagues have students extensively interview their own parents about their own relationship. Many find this to be the most demanding and yet the most rewarding assignment of the course. Maddy Bloch, who took the course two years ago along with her boyfriend at the time, learned a lot when she interviewed her own parents about their own marriage, despite the fact that they are divorced. “I learned that in an intimate relationship each person holds a tremendous amount of power that you can easily turn on someone,” she says. “This is why relationships require a lot of mutual trust and vulnerability.”

Once you have a sound, objective sense of why you behave the way you do, you are better equipped to deal with conflicts—inevitable in any long-term relationship—with the appropriate tincture of self-awareness so that you avoid behaving in ways that make your partner defensive. The class instructors teach their students that blaming, oversimplifying, and seeing themselves as victims are all common traits of unhappy couples and failed marriages. They aim to teach students that rather than viewing conflicts from a zero-sum position, where one wins and one loses, they would benefit from a paradigm shift that allows them to see a couple as “two people standing shoulder to shoulder looking together at the problem.”

Thus, one of many concrete conflict-resolution skills that they teach is to frame statements as “X, Y, Z” statements, rather than finger pointing: When you did X, in situation Y, I felt Z. In other words, calmly telling my husband that when he left his clothes on the bathroom floor in the morning because he was late for a meeting, I felt resentful because I felt he didn’t notice that I was busy too, would lead to a better outcome than if I were to reactively lash out and accuse him of being a messy and careless slob. “‘You’ statements,” Solomon explains, “invite the other partner’s defensiveness, inviting them to put their walls up.” So too do words (tempting though they may sound in the moment) such as “always” or “never.”

A good marriage takes skill  

There’s no doubt that the largest takeaway from the course is that fostering good relationships takes skills. “We’re a very romantic culture,” Solomon says, “and it seems a little unromantic to talk about skill building and communication skills. But it’s important.” One of our more beloved cultural myths about marriage is that it should be easy. The reality is that most of us don’t have adequate communication skills going into marriage. That’s why Marriage 101 students are required to interview another couple in addition to their own parents: a mentor couple (typically a local couple who has been married anywhere from several years to several decades). The professors hand out a list of more than 80 suggested questions and tell their students to think of the interview as a sort of lab experiment, a chance to observe the theoretical concepts they’ve been learning in a real-life context. During a 90-minute interview, a pair of students asks each couple questions such as what most attracted them to the other at the start of their relationship, which moments stand out as the best ones of their marriage, how they’ve weathered severe stresses, whether they ever thought about divorce, and what their sex life has been like over time. They watch the couple interact and engage in good couple skills: bringing a spouse a glass of water, for instance, as an unspoken gesture of caretaking. The interview is itself also a chance to observe a couple doing something that research shows is good for marriage: reminisce together as they look back on their relationship.

You and your partner need a similar worldview

Yet, despite how often we hear about the importance of good communication, even the best communication skills won’t help a couple that sees the world completely differently. One of the texts used in the course, Will Our Love Last? by Sam R. Hamburg, argues that people can be incredibly proficient communicators, yet never see eye to eye because they simply can’t understand how their partner can hold a position they see as untenable. “For people to be happy in their marriage they must be able to understand not just what their partner is saying, but the experience behind the words,” writes Hamburg. If partners are unable to do that, “they cannot understand what it’s like to be their partner—to understand their partner empathically—and the best communication in the world won’t help.”

The instructors teach students that once they learn to identify what is important to them, what values they hold, what they like to do on a daily basis, and what their sexual preferences are—in other words, once they know who they are—they will then be in a much stronger position to be able to recognize when they are with a partner who is compatible and shares their worldview. 

Ben Eisenberg, who majored in learning and organizational change at Northwestern, took the course last year as a senior, right after the breakup of a long-term relationship. He found it enlightening as he looked back at his past and towards his future. “Pairing up with a partner is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make in life, more important than some of the other things you’ll learn in college,” he mused. Among other things, he learned to recognize that the more aligned you are on certain crucial dimensions—such as day-to-day compatibility, or whether you are on the same wavelength about larger issues—the better off you’ll be as a couple. He learned that all the communication skills in the world won’t help if you haven’t learned how to recognize and invite in a compatible partner. “How similarly you spend your day, your money, how you view the world, greatly affects that day-to-day happiness with your partner, more than whether you have initial attraction.”

The greatest lesson Eisenberg learned from Marriage 101? “I learned that the modern idea about love at first sight is a myth. Love is a lot of work, but it’s worth it if you put the work in.”


* This post originally identified Matthew Johnson’s affiliation as being with SUNY Buffalo. We regret the error.

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Christine Gross-Loh is the author of Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us (Avery, 2013)

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