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The 411 on Northwestern’s Marriage 101

This spring, the School of Education and Social Policy will offer the twelfth season of Marriage 101 taught by Dr. Arthur Nielsen. Her Campus staff brings you a courseguide of our own to help readers decide if the academic approach is for you, whether you’re a Gender Studies geek or a Say Yes to the Dress fiend.

Nielsen, a psychiatrist from Winnetka, Ill., founded the course to help students.  “I do a lot of couples therapy and I was really shocked by how clueless some were about how to make their relationships work,” he said. “If you can get to people before their marriages are in great distress, that would be a great thing.”

Hopeful pupils don’t register without a buddy of the opposite sex. Nielsen keeps this policy, the only one of its kind at NU because his course tends to attract a female-heavy population. It is beneficial for everyone if there is an equal number of men and women, Nielsen said.  The pairs don’t have to be romantically-involved, though. Those who are considering a serious future together are encouraged to give the learning experience a try. For LGBTQ students, an option to sign up with a same-sex partner is available.

SESP sophomore Dahlia Gruen, 20, and a friend from her PA group decided to take the course together during spring quarter 2011. “We both had room in our schedule and were interested in it. Most of your discussions are with your partner, and there’s a paper together too. You get a lot closer,” she said.

In class, students can expect a healthy blend of lectures, projects, and varied assignments designed “to make students more likely to succeed in all relationships,” said Nielsen.

“A lot of the exercises have to do with getting to know yourself better; marriage works better when you know who you are,” he said.

Based on the weekly topic, the students journal about their own experiences with their topic.  These personal reflections range from critically thinking about conflict to analyzing their own intimacy.

One week sends students into the real-world jungle, interviewing couples in the community who have been married for a while, known as “mentor couples.”

“They were really sweet, very open – we had a lot of fun in our time with them,” said Gruen of her couple.
While many women may dream of wedding dresses and waking up next to someone you love, the nitty-gritties have a role in the course, too.

The professor explained conflict as “the biggest stumbling block” in relationships if partners aren’t ready to deal with the “inevitable differences” between individuals.  Other issues reviewed include spicy sex lives, having little ones, and dealing with in-laws. In ten weeks, Nielsen finds time for serious stuff too: be prepared to think about mental illnesses, types of abuse, and cheating on one another.  

Gruen found the course material extended into her own relationship reality. “I got in a huge fight with my boyfriend and I went through the step-by-step argument material that we studied. It really helped us through our discussion, working out the problem,” she said.

The course also helps students with relationships beyond the self and the partner. One assignment challenges students to talk with their own parents about marriage.

Michelle Herzog, 25, a TA for the course who will reprise her role this spring, decided to do this assignment on her own. “I learned a lot from it.  Things that I hadn’t known about and always had questions about, I was finally kind of given an excuse to ask about them,” said Herzog, a graduate student at Northwestern’s Family Institute.
Every week the students break out into a small group of fewer than ten students and talk with their TA. The group develops a “cohesiveness and intimacy,” said Nielsen.
Northwestern offers such a diverse breadth of courses between six schools with more than 100 major options. Students may struggle to make room for Marriage 101 but the content is worth the choice, according to both students and educators.
“I think it’s a unique opportunity to be able to sit with a group of students every week and have an open and fluid discussion about marriage and what it means and looks like,” said Herzog.
Outside of class, Gruen says the skill development has application – that can’t necessarily be said for some of those more esoteric electives you’ve been considering.

“I’ve found I’m a better friend, a better listener, in all kinds of relationships I already had,” she said.
Nielsen does not see his role as an explicit matchmaker, but more of a personal coach to each of his students. His course complements the nerdy with the functional.
“I don’t want people who are highly educated and successful like Northwestern students to be so uneducated and not know how to make one of the most important things in their lives, their relationship with their partner, work,” Nielsen said.  
“How to be a good wife? I’m not really sure what I went it to it thinking I’d learn,” said Gruen. “It’s hard to take a course on something you have no familiarity with at all, but once you start applying it to your own life, you see the effects.”