Marriage 101

I recommend Christine Gross-Loh's Atlantic article about the “Marriage 101” course at Northwestern University. Christine interviewed Alexandra Solomon, one of the professors teaching the class. Though my only qualifications for speaking to these issues are having read several books about marriage and experience from my own marriage, now in its 30th year, here are some of the passages that resonated for me.

  • “The foundation of our course 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,” Solomon declares. “Our message is countercultural: Our focus is on whether you are the right person. …
  • … students keep a journal, interview friends about their own weaknesses, and discuss what triggers their own reactions and behaviors in order to understand their own issues, hot buttons, and values. “Being blind to these causes people to experience problems as due to someone else—not to themselves,” Solomon explains. “We all have triggers, blind spots, growing edges, vulnerabilities. The best thing we can do is be aware of them, take responsibility for them, and learn how to work with them effectively.”
  • Maddy Bloch, who took the course two years ago [:] “… in an intimate relationship each person holds a tremendous amount of power that you can easily turn on someone,” she says. “This is why relationships require a lot of mutual trust and vulnerability.”
  • … blaming, oversimplifying, and seeing themselves as victims are all common traits of unhappy couples and failed marriages. They aim to teach students that rather than viewing conflicts from a zero-sum position, where one wins and one loses, they would benefit from a paradigm shift that allows them to see a couple as “two people standing shoulder to shoulder looking together at the problem.”
  • … one of many concrete conflict-resolution skills that they teach is to frame statements as “X, Y, Z” statements, rather than finger pointing: When you did X, in situation Y, I felt Z. In other words, calmly telling my husband that when he left his clothes on the bathroom floor in the morning because he was late for a meeting, I felt resentful because I felt he didn’t notice that I was busy too, would lead to a better outcome than if I were to reactively lash out and accuse him of being a messy and careless slob. “‘You’ statements,” Solomon explains, “invite the other partner’s defensiveness, inviting them to put their walls up.” So too do words (tempting though they may sound in the moment) such as “always” or “never.”

Here are a few of my own thoughts on marriage:

  1. There are a huge number of dimensions on which one might wish to be well-matched with one’s spouse. There is no way you are going to be well-matched on all of those dimensions. When you get annoyed at some dimension of incompatibility, remind yourself of the many other dimensions on which you are compatible. And when choosing a spouse, try to make sure that you are compatible on the very most important dimensions–and realize that dimensions in which you are relative incompatible to begin with are likely to stay that way. One of the key dimensions on which my wife Gail and I are well-matched is in both being on a constant quest for self-improvement, including self-improvement in ways that can help our relationship. We are also well-matched on conscientiousness. A dimension on which we will never be well-matched is that I love economics, while Gail’s enthusiasm for economics is limited to the fact that it makes me happy.
  2. The reputation you have built up with your partner for telling the truth about objective facts is a precious asset in any relationship. If you are clever enough, there is bound to be some way to tell the truth. (If you can’t think straight, say "I can’t talk about this right now,” rather than lying.) The more subjective realm of revealing what is in your heart is trickier; seize moments when you will be able to express yourself well and be well understood. It is worth working toward being known.
  3. In an argument, if each partner comes back with 101% of the irate heat the other just gave, things will explode. But if each partner ratchets down the intensity to 99% of the intensity of the last remark, things will eventually calm down.* So a small difference in reaction pattern can be the difference between an explosion and something that simmers down.

* Math note: To pursue the logic a bit more, if your partner is coming back with 125% intensity on each round, you are going to have to return less than 80% intensity on each round to avoid an explosive chain reaction. (The two numbers have to multiply to less than 1, with % treated as just another name for 1/100. In this example, 125% =1.25, 80% = .8, and 125% * 80% = 1.25 * .8 = 1.)  


Of the books I have read about marriage, the ones I recommend most are