Jo Piazza was 35 when she married the love of her life. She was excited but also felt uncertainty about how to adjust to her new role of wife. "As a card-carrying, independent feminist I had no idea how to live in tandem with another person," she says. "I wanted to be a good partner, but I was also terrified." She looked around for advice, but couldn't find resources she felt tackled the subject of marriage in an authentic way. "We live in a world where everyone Instagrams and Facebooks the perfect parts of their relationship, but we never talk about the struggles and our fears," she says. As for books, Piazza found "they were mostly filled with sound bites from experts who tell you what you want to hear."
So, Piazza set out to gather her own collection of advice for the real experts—married couples—traveling to 12 countries over the course of a year gather insight from more than 1,000 men and women on how to successfully stay hitched. The result is her new book, How to Be Married: What I Learned from Real Women on Five Continents About Surviving My First (Really Hard) Year of Marriage a touching collection of marital wisdom from around the globe, as well as insight gained from her own first year of marriage ("It's complicated and wonderful and scary as well as being the best thing that ever happened to me," she says). Here is a preview of some of the advice contained in its pages.
Chile: Give Your Husband-to-Be an Engagement Ring
It might sound silly (because most American men hate jewelry), but it's also a way to start a marriage off on equal footing. I loved my engagement ring, a simple diamond infinity band, but I also saw it as my fiancé essentially marking his territory. So when I found out that men in South America wear their own engagement rings given to them by their fiancées, I jumped at the idea. To me, both of us having rings made the engagement feel more like a mutual understanding than a unilateral property exchange. I bought the coolest ring I could find in San Pedro in the Atacama desert in Chile. I dropped to one knee along an empty dirt road until a half moon of light and nearly cried when I asked my husband to marry me.
France: Be Your Husband's Mistress
I went to Paris believing that the French had a much more laissez faire attitude about infidelity. I was wrong. None of the French women I spoke with wanted their husbands to cheat on them. But they did say something that stuck with me: Be your husband's mistress. But what does that mean? It means never stop flirting, maintaining a sense of mystery in a marriage, or as the French told me, "You American women need to stop going to the bathroom with the door open." It means being careful with complaints so that when something is actually wrong your voice is truly heard. It means walking around the house naked instead of in sweatpants. The French women I spoke to reminded me about the importance of putting in the same amount of effort I put into attracting my life partner into maintaining my life partnership.
Kenya: Build a Strong Community
We always hear, it takes a village to raise a child, but what we don't hear enough is that it also takes a village to grow a happy marriage. Many American couples move far away from their families, their close friends and their support systems for their next big job opportunity. The closely-knit (and polygamist) Maasai tribes of Kenya emphasized the importance of having a strong community to support your marriage, to teach you how to make it work. In family units with up to six wives, the older wives act as mentors and guides to the younger women. I'm not saying I want to share my husband with another woman, but since we have mentors for every other aspect of our lives from work to working out, shouldn't we also have them for our marriage—men and women who have been through it before and are willing to share their advice, the journeys and their support when times get tough.
Israel: Have Less Sex to Have Better Sex
During my visit to Jerusalem to meet with Orthodox Jewish women I learned there are certain times during the month (namely, the five days of menstruation, and seven days after) when you aren't allowed to touch your spouse. At first I thought this sounded nearly masochistic. But I was promised by the many women I spoke with that these breaks ensure that sex is better for the woman, that taking a break can even lead to better orgasms. It actually worked for me. Taking breaks makes sex more intentional and less routine.
India: Bake Gratitude Rituals Into Your Marriage
The concept of gratitude is easy to forget during the highs and lows of a real marriage—the small fights, the big fights, the unreplaced rolls of toilet paper, the dirty socks littering the foot of the bed, lost jobs, ill parents, scary health diagnoses. We went through all of these during our first year of marriage. Sometimes I was so beaten down I couldn't even muster a simple thanks when my husband brought me a piece of pie I didn't ask for.
The concept of gratitude weaves its ways into almost every facet of Indian culture and relationships. This doesn't mean that Indians go around thanking everyone for everything all the time (like yoga instructors in San Francisco). Rather, the concept of gratitude in many Indian traditions is about giving earnest thanks, expressing humility towards someone and letting go of your own ego in order to cultivate more bliss and joy in our own life and in the lives of others. It's about feeling grateful instead of talking about it.
The best advice I got in India came from a woman who lived in a tiny village along the Brahmaputra River, a town that was frequently washed away by violent floods, a place where gratitude should be more difficult than it is for me in the States: "You westerners make marriage too complicated. Be happy for the things marriage gives you," she told me. "We have our husbands. I trust my husband. We have our pigs and our goats. We have our children. We are happy. You want too much. Be thankful, because you never know what tomorrow will bring."
Denmark: Keep Your Phones and Computers Out of the Bedroom
The Danish have a wonderful word for creating a cozy lifestyle —hygge. Its pronunciation involves an enthusiastic clearing of one's throat and it has practically no equivalent in English. The Danish idea of hygge has been gaining traction in the United States, primarily in the form of encouraging us to buy more fancy throw pillows and scented candles to make our homes warm and inviting. But the idea translates into a relationship too. How do you make your relationship feel more comfortable and safe? One of the answers the Danes gave me was to put away your phones and screens in order to focus on real quality time. Our constant attachment to our cell phones in every room from the bedroom to the bathroom takes our attention away from our spouse and the present moment leading to a real degradation of quality time.
Sweden: Equality Doesn't Mean 50/50
The Swedes know a little something about equality. The country has gotten the nickname, The Land of the Stay at Home Dad, for their progressive government funded paternity policies. But that sense of equality between men and women goes much deeper than just diaper duty. I interviewed dozens of Swedish stay-at-home dads who said that too many Americans often think of equality in a marriage like a spreadsheet, splitting duties right now the middle. But real equality is just doing what needs to get done when it needs to get done without complaining about it, just stepping up and not bothering with a check list.