*Ever wonder what the French can teach you about marriage? Us too! Luckily, author Jo Piazza did the research for you. In her new book, How to Be Married, Piazza traveled five continents gathering bits of marriage advice from every corner of the globe. The results? Well, everyone does it a little differently and most important, they keep things in perspective. We chatted with Piazza about everything she learned on her quest for marriage knowledge. *
Why did you set out to crowd-source a book about marriage?
Everyone from the checkout clerk at Trader Joe’s to your great-aunt to Oscar-winning celebrities likes to tell you marriage is hard, but no one tells you how it is hard or what to do about it. My engagement got more likes on Facebook than any job promotion or book publication. It was clear that the world thought this was the most important thing I’d ever done. That freaked me out, and it also made me a little sad.
I didn’t have good parental role models. My parents were married for 40 years and hated one another. And as for books on how to be a good feminist while being a good wife? Forget about it. They don’t exist. There’s also no modern feminist’s guide to marriage.
As a journalist I tend to report my way out of confusing situations. So, that’s what I decided to do with my marriage. I would crowd-source it. I ended up asking hundreds of people around the world what makes a good marriage.
Experts call the first year of marriage the “wet cement” year because it’s the year when a couple sets habits and patterns that can last for the rest of their lives. I knew that if we spent the first year traveling the world and mixing up our cement until we found what works we’d be happier in the long run.
Who thinks they know the most about marriage?
The French. The French women I interviewed told me over and over again that American women didn’t understand men and that we were getting marriage all wrong. They were terrifying. But they did have some good bits of advice.
“Stop peeing with the bathroom door open,” a very sophisticated French woman with very sophisticated short-cropped bangs told me. “Maintain some mystery in your marriage.” I was also informed to stop walking around the house in dirty sweatpants. “Walk around naked instead. Much sexier,” the French ladies told me. And “spend a night a week apart and never sit next to one another at a dinner party. Don’t complain about the small things and keep the conversations interesting.” The French told me to behave as if I were my husband’s mistress (which to be honest sounded exhausting). But there was something to maintaining that sense of allure and mystery that existed in the days before we got married to keep from falling into a rut and taking one another for granted.
You argue that, as a culture here in the United States, we are not getting marriage right. Can you expand on that? What are we doing wrong?
We aren’t set up for success here. Too many of us move far away from our families, communities, and support system, which puts an awful lot of pressure on a spouse to be a person’s absolute everything.
The Kenyan Samburu and Maasai tribes told me they felt very bad for Americans who tried to juggle marriage, family, and work without the support of elders, cousins, brothers, and sisters in close proximity. “All of the children call all of us mama,” one Samburu woman told me. That seemed idyllic for me. Nick and I live thousands of miles from our families in San Francisco, so the arrival of my first baby will bring a $3,000 a month day care bill we can’t afford. I’m a freelance contractor without paid maternity leave.
Nick owns his own business. If he doesn’t work, he doesn’t get paid. Just thinking about having a baby and how we would pay for it put a strain on our marriage. Lack of community plus lack of government support makes a perfect storm of shittiness for young couples looking to have children.
On top of that, too many Americans are working more hours than ever before. We stare at our screens when we aren’t at work and ignore our spouses. Quality time equals binge-watching mediocre television. We claim we want a work-life balance, but we don’t do enough to make that actually happen.
The paradox is that American culture still celebrates marriage as one of the most important things a woman will ever do. That’s a lot of pressure without a lot of support.
Where do they get marriage right, in your opinion?
Northern Europe, without a doubt. Their divorce rate is about the same as ours but they just have a more relaxed outlook on partnership that puts less pressure on a marriage to be a certain way.
Equality is deeply ingrained in their cultures and it feels like much less of a struggle to find a balance. They also have a strong government safety net that helps protect a marriage. Knowing you have healthcare and paid time off make a huge difference.
I’m also in love with the Danes' attitudes about how creating a cozy home can lead to a happier and more satisfied marriage.
We spent a lot of time in Denmark learning about the concept of hygge, the idea of cultivating warmth, happiness, and coziness in all aspects of your life, and figuring out how this applies to a marriage. The Danes believe in creating a cozy and happy home in order to have the kind of space you want to nest in with your new spouse. When I first got married I was working 80-hour weeks. We’d just bought our first home and had no furniture (because we used our entire savings to buy the house). The Danes taught us to take the time to make our home a place where we wanted to be, where we could have dinners just the two of us, and completely let go of the stress of the outside world to truly connect and enjoy ourselves.
What was the most important piece of relationship advice you gleaned from your travels?
You need to stay your own person. I heard this over and over again in every single culture, even the more conservative ones. You have to maintain your own life outside of the marriage or your marriage is much more likely to fail.
I spent a lot of time talking to Orthodox Jewish women in Jerusalem. I wanted to know how they kept their marriages strong and their families safe in the face of constant political and social upheaval. What we talked about the most was self-care, taking the time to take care of yourself before you try to take care of a partner or your family so that you can stay strong and centered.
If you could give one piece of marriage advice to newly-engaged couples, what would it be?
Get rid of your expectations. Too many good relationships suffer because one spouse has extreme expectations for what they’ll get out of a relationship or how it’ll look. At one point while reporting this book, I was spending time with women in a small village on the Brahmaputra River in India, a river that regularly floods and washes away entire villages. I told them that Americans think marriage is such hard work. They laughed and laughed. They said we were just silly. Why couldn’t we be grateful for the things we did have? Their entire lives could be uprooted in a flash flood. They had a better perspective than most of my incredibly privileged friends and family members.