In almost every aspect of life and living, the quality of your marriage will influence your happiness. Interestingly, divorce is the second most stressful life event anyone can ever experience, second only to the death of a spouse. Sadly, nearly half of all married couples are likely to divorce, and many couples report feeling unhappy in their relationships.
Experts believe that college is the perfect time for young people 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 at Northwestern University.
Historians have shown that marriage education in the United States 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,” according to Stephanie Coontz, co-chairwoman of the Council on Contemporary Families and the author of Marriage: A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. 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 gained popularity 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: The American Search for Marital Bliss, 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.
In recent times, when colleges and universities offer courses on marriage, rather than explicitly offering practical marriage advice, they often survey the institution of marriage from a historical point of view or examine much broader 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 it means to be 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.
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. Here are some of the key lessons about marriage and relationships that are necessary for young people to learn at an early age:
Knowing and understanding yourself is the first step to having a good relationship
According to Dr. Solomon, “The foundation…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. Our message is countercultural: Our focus is on whether you are the right person.”
You can’t avoid marital conflicts, but you can learn how to handle them better
“Understanding your past and the family you grew up in helps you to understand who you are now and what you value,” Dr. Solomon says. In an intimate relationship each person holds a tremendous amount of power that can be easily turned on their partner, hence the reason why relationships require a lot of mutual trust and vulnerability.
Once you have a sound, objective sense of why you behave the way you do, you are better equipped to deal with conflicts —which are inevitable in any long-term relationship — with the right amount of self-awareness so that you avoid behaving in ways that make your partner defensive. Blaming, oversimplifying, and seeing themselves as victims are all common traits of unhappy couples and failed marriages. Rather than viewing conflicts as a zero-sum game, where one person wins and the other person loses, young people are more likely to benefit from a paradigm shift that allows them to see a couple as two people standing shoulder to shoulder looking together at whatever problem is in front of them.
You and your partner need a similar worldview
Despite how often we hear about the importance of good communication, even the best communication skills won’t help a couple that sees the world completely differently. One of the texts used in the course, Will Our Love Last?by Sam R. Hamburg, argues that. People can be incredibly proficient communicators, yet never see eye to eye because they simply can’t understand how their partner can hold a position they see as untenable. According to Sam Hamburg, the author of Will Our Love Last: A Couple’s Road Map, “For people to be happy in their marriage they must be able to understand not just what their partner is saying, but the experience behind those words. If partners are unable to do that, they cannot understand what it’s like to be their partner — to understand their partner empathically — and the best communication in the world won’t help.”
When young people are better able to identify fundamental things such as what is important to them, what values they hold, what they like to do on a daily basis, and what their sexual preferences are — in other words, once they know who they are — they will then be in a much stronger position to be able to recognize when they are with a partner who is compatible with them and shares their worldview. Approaching the issue of marriage from this self-understanding perspective effectively raises questions about the element of tribe, race or spirituality that most people focus solely on.
Pairing up with a partner is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make in life, definitely more important than most of the other things you’ll learn in college. The more aligned you are with your partner on certain crucial dimensions — such as day-to-day compatibility, or whether you are on the same wavelength about broader issues — the better off you’ll be as a couple. All the communication skills in the world won’t help if you haven’t learned how to recognize and invite in a compatible partner. How similarly you spend your day, your money, how you view the world, greatly affects that day-to-day happiness with your partner, more than whether you have initial attraction/chemistry.
It is safe to say that the modern idea about love at first sight is a myth. True love, and meaningful/fulfilling relationships require a lot of hard work, just like maintaining good grades, having a successful career, staying in good shape, keeping a clean car/house, even raising kids, but all of these are worth it if you are willing and ready to put the work in.
By Bidemi Ologunde
Therapist Dr. Jan Martin Dunn, PLLC, LMFT-S, LPC-S, LCDC offers Couples Counseling Dallas Individual Counseling, Couples Counseling, Family & Group Counseling.