MUNCIE, Ind. – Over the last 30 years, academics have been developing the study of "close relationships," as they call it, forming the International Association for Relationship Research (search) to share resources and data. In recent years, though, some professors have moved beyond theory, making the discussion more personal to students by teaching relationship skills they can use outside the classroom.
Some call it Relationships 101 — a concept that has proven wildly popular on campuses across the country.
Such research is "not just about what makes people happy but how relationships can affect other things — for instance, someone's health," says Lisa Baker, an assistant professor of psychology at Purchase College (search), part of the State University of New York (search).
When Scott Hall wants to spark a discussion, he asks his students something bound to provoke a reaction: Do women want more out of marriage than men?
The students in Hall's course on marriage at Ball State University — many of them women — laugh and nod at his question. Most of them agree with research he cites stating that men are most interested in a partner who's attractive and good in bed.
But not Mike Toscano, a 21-year-old senior: "It's not 'Oh she looks cute and she cooked a pot pie,'" he says. "I want to be held once in a while, too, y'all."
The comment draws more laughter, as Toscano blushes and smiles.
"I'm glad he feels that way," Anitra Montgomery, a 22-year-old junior, responds to the class. "But he is rare!"
Toscano says he and his girlfriend, Bethany Ringrose, decided to take the class together this term to see if they want to take their relationship to the next level.
"It helps me understand my actions and his, too," says Ringrose, a 20-year-old junior at the school in central Indiana.
With divorce as common as it is in this country, experts say young couples are wise to do their marriage homework.
"The thinking is, the earlier people learn those skills, the better off they'll be," says Dennis Lowe, psychology professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., who team teaches a freshman seminar called "Developing Healthy Relationships" with his wife, Emily Scott-Lowe.
Among other things, students in the Lowes' classes practice listening — namely giving the other person a chance to speak his or her mind without interruption. And if students are considering long-term, committed relationships, they're asked to consider questions such as whose job it would be to buy a car, discipline a child or cook dinner.
Leslie Parrott, a professor at Seattle Pacific University, says surveys at her university and others regularly show that relationships are a priority for students.
"They're often more focused on relationship quality than their careers," says Parrott, a marriage and family therapist who teaches relationships courses with her husband, Les Parrott.
Lecture topics include "Falling in Love Without Losing Your Mind" and "How to Break Up Without Falling Apart." The latter class includes discussion on how to end a relationship cleanly and taking time after a breakup to avoid a rebound relationship: Parrott says that session regularly draws students who aren't even enrolled in the class.
"Breaking up is a real rite of passage for people their age — they're just dying and they have no real guidance," says Parrott, who's co-authored a textbook on relationships with her husband.
Parrott says that some academics question whether classes like these belong in a college setting. But others — from economists to theologians — say there's no reason love should be ignored.
"The longer I live, the more I realize that the hardest thing is just relationships," says Robert Brancatelli, an assistant professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University in California's Silicon Valley. "It's hard enough to figure out yourself, let alone another person."
His course, "The Theology of Marriage," challenges students to go beyond notions of romantic fantasy to ultimately view love as "a mature self, capable of offering oneself to another person freely."
"And in doing so, you become more of your true self," says Brancatelli, who requires students to spend time with married couples to see what a life of commitment is really all about.
"I tell them to try to get invited over for dinner," Brancatelli says, "to see what the couples are like after a couple glasses of wine."