Scott Hall wants to spark a discussion, so he asks his students something bound to provoke a reaction: Do women want more out of marriage...

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MUNCIE, Ind. — Scott Hall wants to spark a discussion, so he asks his students something bound to provoke a reaction: Do women want more out of marriage than men?

It’s just the sort of conversation starter that’s heard more often in college classrooms these days. Affairs of the heart — love, relationships and marriage — have gone from being an obsession outside class to the reason for class.

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.

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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!”

Over the past 30 years, academics have been developing the study of “close relationships,” as they call it, forming the International Association for Relationship Research to share data and resources.

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, part of the State University of New York.

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. It’s a concept that has proved wildly popular on campuses across the country.

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. He and his wife, Emily Scott-Lowe, teach a freshman seminar called “Developing Healthy Relationships.”

Among other things, students in the Lowes’ class practice giving another person a chance to speak his or her mind without interruption.

Leslie Parrott, of Seattle Pacific University, says surveys 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.

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 has co-authored a textbook on relationships with her husband.

Parrott says that some academics question whether classes such as 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. “It’s hard enough to figure out yourself, let alone another person.”

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