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Professor Alexandra Solomon teaches the most popular course at Northwestern University — Building Loving and Lasting Relationships: Marriage 101. The class and the wait list fill up on the first day of registration and the course receives media attention from around the world. Here, Solomon shares a few of the essential points she teaches.
We live in a culture full of hypersexualized images and fairy tale romances, but most of us are woefully unprepared to do what it takes to create a loving and lasting real world love story. When I talk with people, old and young, single and married, about the Marriage 101 course, what I hear over and over again is some version of, “I wish I had been able to take a course like that!”
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I am passionate about sharing with the world what we do in the Marriage 101 course. Here are seven secrets from the classroom:
1. Become what you are seeking.
One of the exercises in our course goes like this:
- Make a list of the qualities, traits and characteristics that you desire and value in a romantic partner.
- Look at the list and reflect upon the degree to which you embody each of these qualities.
In this era of swiping left and right in search of a soulmate, it’s all too easy to leave ourselves out of the equation. We think that love is simply about finding the right partner, and we lose sight of the important work of becoming the right partner. Real love starts with you. The more you know and understand what makes you tick, the better prepared you will be to invite a partner into your life with whom you can create an amazing relationship.
2. Understand your past.
Our early experiences profoundly impact how we love as adults. As children, we are basically “students” in the “classroom” of our family system, absorbing powerful lessons about closeness, affection, trust, emotions, power, gender and how to handle differences between people.
When we explore how those early lessons from the past affect us today, we are able to shed the old patterns that we don’t want to repeat and embrace the wonderful traditions that we want to continue.
3. Honor the golden equation of love.
This is: My “stuff” + your “stuff” = our “stuff.” The central task of any intimate relationship is the management of difference. Conflict will happen. The only question is how you will respond when tempers flare. In Marriage 101, the students learn what I call the golden equation of love.
Every conflict is composed of my “stuff” (my personality quirks, my childhood wounds and/or my emotional triggers) clashing with your “stuff” (your personality quirks, your childhood wounds, and/or your emotional triggers) in order to create our couple-level “stuff.”
Keeping this in mind will prevent you from getting lost in the dead-end roads of blame and shame so that you can face moments of conflict together as a team.
4. Say you’re sorry.
In order to make love last, you will need to swap out the motto, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” for this one: “Love means being willing to say you’re sorry a lot!”
If you find yourself resisting this new motto, start by reflecting on about how your family “did” apologies when you were growing up. Many of us were taught that apologies were tantamount to weakness or losing face. However, being able to offer a heartfelt “I’m sorry” (even if you didn’t mean to hurt the other person and even if you don’t think you’d be hurt if the tables were turned) is an essential tool for tending to and nurturing loving connection.
5. Put your phone down.
Phone snubbing (or phubbing, when one or both of you are scrolling through your phone instead of listening) is harmful to our intimate relationships. We might feel as if we are present with our partner while we check our phones, but we really aren’t. Sometimes I really do think that I’m listening to my husband while casually scrolling my Facebook feed, but if you were to give me a quiz on what he had said, I’d fail for sure!
When you are looking at your phone and your partner makes a bid for your attention, you have only two choices: Put your phone down, make eye contact, and listen. Or say, “What you’re saying is important. Can you wait a minute while I finish this up?”
6. Have self-aware sex.
Sex is simple and profound at the very same time, and understanding our sexual selves is the work of a lifetime. Research indicates that couples who can talk about sex are the ones who most enjoy the sex they have, but in order to have those conversations, you need to know and understand who you are sexually.
We spend a week on this topic in the Marriage 101 course exploring questions like:
- What did you learn about sex growing up in your family?
- What is your relationship to your own sexual pleasure?
- What are the ingredients that help create a positive sexual experience for you?
7. Stay curious.
If I had to choose one word that captures the heart of a happy and healthy romantic relationship that word would be curiosity. Staying curious about your internal world and your partner's internal world sets the stage for the kind of emotional and sexual intimacy that romantic relationships need in order to feel enriching and worthwhile.
Remember that you are, at the very same time, connected to and separate from your romantic partner. When you are willing to be a student of love, you are signing up for a curriculum rich with opportunities for growth, intimacy and connection.