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.

Presented by

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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