Nowadays, when colleges and universities offer courses on the topic of marriage, rather than explicitly offering practical marriage advice, they typically survey the institution of marriage from a historical point of view or look at larger sociological trends.
Today most marriage-education classes are aimed at high-school students, usually as part of a home-economics or health course, 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, such as 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 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 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.”