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What happens when research gets real
By Kathleen Greif Berken ’71

Carol Bruess
Carol ’90 and Brian ’90 Bruess, at home in St. Paul, Minn., and communicating well at the breakfast table with daughter Gracie (left), and Fred.

What do happy couples do to stay happy?
“It’s the little things.”
“Talk, chat, converse, develop a private code.”
“Be stubborn about making your marriage strong, healthy and
happy. Then do whatever it takes to keep it that way.”

Web extra
Read Carol Bruess’ thoughts on rituals in relationships. >>MORE
This advice comes from “What Happy Couples Do” by Carol (Sessler) Bruess ’90. It took more than luck for her to create a successful 19-year marriage to St. Norbert classmate Brian Bruess ’90, one that began in 1991 on Friday the 13th.They work as hard at making their marriage successful as they do at their vocations in higher education.

The couple combined relationship-making with graduate school at Ohio University, both with full scholarships and teaching assistantships, and then found jobs in higher education central to their shared passion. Carol landed at the University of St. Thomas and Brian at St. Catherine University: two schools no more than a mile apart in St. Paul, Minn.

With master’s and doctorate degrees in interpersonal communication from Ohio, Carol is a professor in St. Thomas’ department of communication and journalism. Brian’s master’s and doctorate degrees in college student personnel from Ohio led him to a position as vice president for enrollment management and student affairs at St. Kate’s.

Their years of study and research, along with their passion for the energy of higher education, infused their dream jobs. Working at Catholic liberal arts colleges in the Twin Cities is ideal. St. Norbert mentors like their communication professor Carol Cortez (Communication and Media Studies) and the late Thomas Faase (Sociology, Emeritus) guided them to creatively forge their professions, and they have followed that advice.

Carol credits her teachers with showing her how to create good learning environments and loves “how human interaction works to create meaning, how you can develop a relational culture.” Brian commends St. Norbert’s former vice president for student life Richard Rankin for involving him in the college community-relations hearing board, awakening a vocation in higher education.

Brian and Carol share common experiences that help them work in tandem to foster creative educational spaces for student growth. They enjoy the comfort of participating in both institutions’ opening Masses and instilling Catholic social teachings. The challenge for both is to “create ethical and wise communicators, moral leaders with an eye toward the common good,” Carol says.

“There is something palpably different here that is more attractive to us,” Brian says of St. Kate’s and St. Thomas. “Liberal arts values and mission drive the educational experience.”

The two universities are not as competitive as some think, Carol notes. They have similar missions and visions, but are distinctive with their own niches. Brian says, “They need each other to flourish. We have a shared community. We’re living our dream.”

Sharing intimate rituals
Embracing the cliché that little things do count is crucial to the Bruesses’ successful relationship. For example, in order for Carol to get sufficient sleep, they purchased a memory-foam bed, keeping Brian from disturbing “Mama Bear.” He grinds the coffee beans in the bathroom where it’s quieter and cleans the kitchen counter before she comes downstairs; she makes sure they read the paper together over coffee, sharing moments of intimacy to stay connected.

The title of Carol’s dissertation, “ ‘Bare-Chested Hugs’ and ‘Tough-Guy’s Night’: An inductive examination of the form and function of interpersonal rituals in marriage and adult friendship,” indicates that her qualitative and quantitative academic research, involving endless interviews and piles of in-depth questionnaires, leads to practical applications.

“How to create meaning together in that moment of intimacy is the point of rituals,” Carol says.

While Brian thinks globally and sees the big picture, what he loves about Carol is her ability to constantly translate her research into accessible life messages. “I love to listen to the rich narratives of these couples,” she says.

Carol’s family communication classes at St. Thomas reflect her passion for connecting academic research to real life.

“When I learn something new, I pass that along to my students. It might be about friendship or using nicknames. My students love my classes. They want to be there. They want to be close to what’s real to them.”

One of Carol’s passions is the pedagogy of service learning, or connecting academic scholarship with practical experience. She co-led a panel last year at the Central States Communication Association Conference in Cincinnati. Her topic was “Service-Learning in the Study Abroad/Away-From-Campus Communication Context,” focusing on projects in Hawaiian schools.

In July 2010 Carol also presented the peer-reviewed paper, “What do social and citizen responsibility ‘look like’ on our campus?” This was given at the Vatican-sponsored conference “Power to Transform the World: Media and Communication Programs in Catholic Higher Education.”

Melding learning and values
For the Bruesses, creating environments that encourage learning in college is a measure of success and, Brian says, “our relationship is a constant conversation on what we are doing, what we can do, to achieve that kind of success.”

Brian’s demanding job keeps him at St. Kate’s some nights and weekends to help settle disputes or attend student talent shows, sports events, picnics and church services. “The challenge is, how do you live the missions of these two universities in our complex world?” he says. “That’s what is so compelling in value-based education.”

He said in an article in the November issue of “The Catholic Spirit” that the goal of Catholic institutions of higher learning goes beyond merely the maintenance of one’s Catholicity. “Both our institutions have shaped a curriculum that is integrated with the Catholic intellectual tradition and the principles of Catholic social teaching. Our goal is something much more beautiful than just keeping someone Catholic. Our goal is to deepen and enrich.”

That goal plays out in their family life, as everyone works together to make the family strong, Carol says. That involves son Tony, 14, and daughter Gracie, 10.

Sometimes, Brian admits, Carol gets too academic at home, and so “we have to throw the penalty flag.” When Carol says, “Research shows ...” someone will invariably interrupt, ending the sentence with something funny such as, “that eating Cheerios is good for you.” They use this tactic to encourage their children. Playfully telling son Tony “research shows that eating dinner together makes for a happier family” often gets him to the table faster.

The Bruesses often turn to others for advice. “John Gottman is a researcher who inspires me,” Carol says, noting his rule that a couple needs five positive interactions for every negative one. Conflicts arise in all intimate relationships, the Bruesses admit, but they resolve theirs as adults, assuring that each ultimately feels valued.

Surprisingly, Brian does not buy Carol gifts or bring her flowers. Instead, Carol says, she prefers he wash the car or clean the bathroom to show his love. Besides, Brian laughs, he seldom gets it right anyway, and finds more joy in seeing what Carol buys for herself. They call this “relational currency.” To Brian, the baseline of a marriage is three-fold: 1) amplify the other person, 2) know that no relationship is perfect, and 3) know you are never finished.

At the threshold of midlife, they want different ways of being, of slowing down after chasing their dreams for 20 years since leaving St. Norbert. “I’d like to be more reflective, to be more in the moment, and to have been in that mode sooner,” Brian says.

Spring 2011 magazine

Web extraLook here for web-exclusive content that expands on topics presented in the current
St. Norbert College Magazine.

VideoMaterials from Minahan Stadium find new expression
Bill Bohné (Art) transforms reclaimed materials into pieces that speak to many storied decades.

VideoIt’s a question of football, and a question of history
Kevin Quinn (Economics) interviews the Green Bay Packers’ former general manager Ron Wolf.

VideoA Day to Celebrate
Each spring research partners on campus share their work at an event that is abuzz with scholarly achievement.

Text ExtraPaired offerings
The college’s partnerships with other institutions expand options and academic opportunity.

Text ExtraIce cubed
Blogging about their research in Antarctica gives St. Norbert geologists a way to share their findings – and their experiences.

Text ExtraRitual in relationships
University of St. Thomas professor Carol Bruess ’90 makes the study of interpersonal communication her scholarly business.

GalleryFarm work, personified
A photography project by Elizabeth Groshek ’11 stands as testimony to the work of her family’s farming community.

VideoSisters in learning
Norbertine sisters from Slovakia join student singers to enrich worship at St. Norbert Abbey.

Story ideas? Your ideas for future magazine stories are most welcome. Write to the editor with any suggestions or comments.

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