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Marriage 101

Two seniors take a practical class on relationships and learn a lot about themselves and the ingredients for a good marriage.

by Ryan Haggerty and Lisa Wayland

Taking a class called Marriage 101 can be daunting enough for a college-age couple, but taking a class called Marriage 101 and then writing a magazine article about the experience is practically asking for a messy breakup.

Despite the risks, however, we took the class, wrote this article and lived to tell the tale. The idea to take the class and write the story came from the editors at Northwestern magazine, who wanted a student perspective on Marriage 101, a course designed to provide an in-depth look at the inner workings of close relationships.

The class is open to all undergraduates and requires that students enroll as a pair with either a significant other or a friend. Because the class is designed to provide practical advice for current and future relationships, students have to interview both their own parents and a volunteer couple and keep a confidential journal related to the course. Weekly lectures focus on various aspects of relationships, from intimacy to fighting fair, and are followed by discussion groups of eight to 10 students led by marital therapists from Northwestern's Family Institute.

Now that we've taken the course, it's clear from both our personal lives and the conversation below -- recorded a few months after the final lecture -- that the class achieved its goals. It required us to think and talk about the issues we face as individuals and as a couple in ways that we never had before. Even though we are far from being experts on marriage, we did learn an incredible amount about relationships, society and ourselves, just in time for our arrival in the "real world."

Crazy for You

Ryan: "I didn't know what to think the day my editors asked me to do the story. I called you while you were at work to see if you were onboard."

Lisa: "First of all, you never call me at work. And your tone on the phone made it sound like something terrible had happened -- like someone had died. Once I realized that you were just calling about this story, then I was onboard, even though I was nervous about what the end result would be."

Ryan: "After you agreed, all I could think was, 'What the hell did I just get myself into?' I'm a journalism and history major, and I have no problem writing about murders and fires and other awful, bloody disasters. But I did not want to write about myself or us. And you're a psychology major, so you were already way ahead of me."

Lisa: "I knew that Marriage 101 would be a review of a lot of things I already knew from my psychology classes. But I was nervous that it would force me to share personal details in a group setting. I was also nervous about how you would react to the class, too."

Ryan: "I knew how I would react to it from the start. I was..."

Lisa: "Like a fish out of water?"

Ryan: "Yeah, like a fish out of water. But at least I wouldn't be taking the class alone -- we could both be humiliated together."

Lisa: "If anything, I was worried that you would start to learn more about relationships and, well, dump me because you would find out about all the things that I do wrong!"

Ryan: "I was terrified that I would be in a discussion section and have to respond to a prompt like 'Talk about your feelings' in front of a bunch of sorority girls."

I Love You Just the Way You Are

Ryan: "The instructors kept emphasizing that 70 percent of all arguments in a relationship or marriage are basically unsolvable, so the best way to deal with them is to work around the edges at the bigger issues and learn to live with some of those problems."

Lisa: "What they mean by 'unsolvable' are things like your family, your background, your beliefs -- things that aren't going to change. They talked a lot about the effect of your family on a relationship. They even said that in any relationship, there are six people involved -- the two of you and both sets of parents. I thought that was a really interesting statement."

Ryan: "Their point about unsolvable arguments made sense. If you keep butting heads over the same issue, you can either continue to fight over it or just accept that certain things aren't going to change and try to work around it by coming to some kind of compromise. And if you can't do that with someone you're dating or married to, then you're definitely in for trouble."

Lisa: "Something that the professors mentioned over and over in class is that you should never expect that you can change a person. You shouldn't marry someone if you hate 10 things about him but think, 'Oh, when we're married, I'll be able to change him.' That's not going to happen."

Ryan: "Another thing they tried to disprove is that opposites attract. They said it's OK to be different in some ways, but it's best to have a lot of common ground or else it's going to be very hard. That makes sense, too, although it does go against a lot of what you see in pop culture or Hollywood or in romanticized versions of relationships."

Lisa: "That's the main idea of that book Will Our Love Last?: A Couple's Road Map [by Sam R. Hamburg, Fireside, 2001] that everyone really liked. Successful relationships are not built on communication or hard work, even though those have something to do with it. It's all about compatibility, he says. And when it gets down to values and beliefs, I feel like that's where it's really important to be compatible, and I feel like that's where we are compatible."

Ryan: "The instructors also stressed the importance of having realistic expectations and worked to refute the notion of romanticized relationships, where two people meet each other, fall in love, get married and live happily ever after. They stressed that it never, ever works like that."

Lisa: "In almost every psych class I've ever taken, they say that having realistic expectations is a key to keeping a relationship going. A fact I've learned is that after about two years, romantic love seems to fade. Maybe it doesn't disappear completely, but it definitely starts to weaken at about that point. I think that a lot of people might not know that, and that's why a lot of relationships break up after about two years. That's when it starts to take a little bit more work to keep things alive."

Ryan: "Well, we're just past the two-year mark ... ."

Impact of the Class

Ryan: "One thing I noticed is that practically every time we left the class, we would walk across campus and talk about things that came up in class and the discussion section, almost as if we were continuing the conversation ourselves. A lot of the material related to us."

Lisa: "I feel like we both learned a lot through discussion, but I think everyone in our group had major personal breakthroughs. I'm thinking of the guy whose estranged parents began talking to each other after he conducted his parent interviews. Now they're sitting together at his graduation. I think the parent interview was a big turning point for a lot of us."

Ryan: "I didn't know what to expect from the interview, and neither did my parents. But it turns out that the interview was one of the highlights of the class for me. My parents and I talked about their past and deeper issues than would usually come up in day-to-day conversations. I learned significant things about their lives that I either didn't know or didn't pick up on. The conversations were especially interesting to me because I'm at a similar point to where they were when they graduated from college while dating each other. In some ways, they've been where I am now."

Lisa: "I wasn't really looking forward to the parent interview, because I was in a unique situation since my father had passed away about two years ago. I knew I would have to tailor the questions to my mom, and I knew that she might not be responsive to a lot of them, so I felt a little nervous going into it, but it turned out to be OK. I did learn a lot. I never knew where my parents had even met before the interview, so it was really helpful to learn what the early stages of their relationship were like. And I think my mom actually enjoyed it, too."

Ryan: "I never knew that my parents were engaged and had set a wedding date and then had to call it all off because my dad lost his job and had to move back home. It threw their plans off, and they said that it was an extremely stressful time for them. That was something I didn't even know about, not because they kept it from me, but just because it had never come up in conversation before."

Lisa: "That's especially interesting, because it involves something unforeseen happening, like losing a job. That was another thing that came up a lot in class. You never know when someone will get a chronic illness, develop an addiction or encounter millions of other unexpected problems. A lot of bad things are going to happen in the future, whether you like it or not."

Ryan: "In the first class, a student asked if a couple should wait a certain period of time before seriously considering marriage. Basically, all the professors agreed that there is no set time. They stressed making sure that you've been through bad times, not just good times. That doesn't mean going through some traumatic event. They were talking more about having some serious fights or rough times in the relationship."

Lisa: "And, according to our instructors, a lot of people who go in for premarital counseling or marital counseling haven't really had their first fight or still haven't accepted that their partner isn't perfect."

Ryan: "What encouraged me about hearing this is that we've had our share of disagreements, and we have a certain amount of uncertainty approaching us in the next few months as school ends, but the fact that we've been through a lot and are still together is a good sign. It shows that our relationship is strong and that we are doing things the right way, even if sometimes when we're in the middle of a fight or disagreement, it's easy to assume that there's something wrong with the relationship. That's just part of life. We've also had our share of traumatic experiences, too. When your dad passed away, we had been friends for almost two years, and not too long after that we started dating. And we talked a lot about it together, and that built trust between us. You've been to the emergency room, I've had my teeth knocked out, and we've both received a mountain of rejection letters from potential employers."

Lisa: "The important thing is we've always been there to help each other out and to laugh with each other. Even if it's scary at the time, usually we can laugh about it later and, in a weird sort of way, those situations do bring us a little bit closer. We've seen each other at our best, but we've also seen each other at our most vulnerable or weakest points, too."

Real-life Lessons

Ryan: "I think we would both say that Marriage 101 is one of the most practical classes we've taken at Northwestern -- probably the most practical class. As the professors said many times, you get training for many other major life steps, whether it's for a new job or going to college, but there is barely any formal training for marriage, which is something that can almost completely determine your happiness in life."

Lisa: "One important point that I've learned through my classes at Northwestern is that a good relationship is the single most important factor in determining satisfaction with your life and overall happiness. Shouldn't relationships be something that everyone learns about and works at, if they're really one of the most important things in life? Sure, math and English and science are all important, but when it comes down to it, shouldn't you be learning how to be happier in life?"

Tell us what you think. If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail the editors at

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Marriage - Hands
Photo by Andrew Campbell
Marriage - Couple
Ryan Haggerty and Lisa Wayland on campusPhoto by Andrew Campbell