The Marriage 101 Course at Northwestern University

Every spring, I have the pleasure of teaching a course that truly is my passion, the course that lights me up year after year– Building loving and lasting relationships: Marriage 101. It is an undergraduate course offered through the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) at Northwestern University.

The course was created almost 20 years ago by Dr. Bill Pinsof and Dr. Art Neilsen. As couples therapists and researchers, they had spent years witnessing the pain and suffering that arise when intimate relationships are in trouble. They wondered: What would happen if we gave young adults time and space to learn what it takes to be successful in love? I was a doctoral student at the time and had the privilege of being with them as they built this course from scratch. I worked as a discussion group leader and a lecturer, and then five years ago, I took over the leadership of the course.

Every year the course grows and changes, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot, but the heart of the course remains clear. It sits at the intersection of academic and experiential learning and is designed to help students increase knowledge about intimate relationships including marriage, grow self-awareness, and improve communication skills with the ultimate goal of increasing students’ chances of creating happy and successful intimate relationships.

The course has been dubbed “the most popular course on campus.” Enrollment fills within a matter of hours, and there has been lots of local, national, and international media attention over the years. This past June, I was elected by the Northwestern University Class of 2015 to deliver their Last Lecture—the culminating event of Senior Week. I think this honor reflects the value of the course in students’ lives. What is clear to me year after year is that young adults are craving time and space to learn about intimate relationships. The quality of their intimate relationships deeply shapes how they feel about themselves and the world around them. This is true for all of us! We are a culture obsessed with love, sex, and marriage, yet for all of that obsession, we do not place much value on relationship education. I love this quote from Leo Buscaglia (gender stereotypes, heteronormativity, and all):

If he desired to know about automobiles, he would, without question, study diligently about automobiles. If his wife desired to be a gourmet cook, she’d certainly study the art of cooking, perhaps even attending a cooking class. Yet, it never seems as obvious to him that if he wants to live in love, he must spend at least as much time as the auto mechanic or the gourmet in studying love.

Marriage 101 is an opportunity to study love! The class involves a weekly lecture on an aspect of sex, love, and marriage—for example, healthy dating, conflict management, the impact of culture on intimate relationships. There is also a weekly discussion section where small groups of students meet with a pair of graduate teaching assistants in order to apply course concepts more deeply to their own lives. In addition to traditional coursework like readings, papers, and quizzes, students also undertake experiential assignments. They keep a weekly self-reflection journal, and they interview the person or people who raised them in order to learn more about their love templates.

Students tell me that they leave the course feeling less anxious and better prepared to be in an intimate relationship. They know themselves more deeply—the impact of their past, their values, their beliefs– and they leave the class with tools to continue the work of relational self-awareness, which is at the heart of any healthy intimate relationship. I love it when former students share with me how the work of the course stays with them. Here’s an example:

On the last day of class in spring 2014, I came up to you to thank you for how much I learned about myself and my vulnerabilities/survival strategies in my relationship (still going strong). I was blessed with a very patient man because as much as I learned, I still had a lot to grow. But today my family had an intense family meeting and because of what I learned in your class about how are behaviors are filtered through our fears and past experiences, I was able to provide more productivity, understanding, and healing to the conversation. I can’t imagine how it would have gone if we all took the class! I just wish there was a better way to say thank you, because my children will have better, and more happy and stable lives because of what I learned in that quarter, and for providing that security, I’m eternally grateful.

This course has always been valuable, but I think our fast-paced digital age makes it more important than ever! Today’s college students have been online and plugged since their early adolescence, and there is no doubt that who we are relationally is deeply impacted by our interactions with our technology. More than ever, it is vital that we carve out space and time to teach essential relationship skills– introspection, emotion regulation, dialog, empathy, and compassion– in the service of love.


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