San Francisco-based author Jo Piazza was elated to finally meet the man of her dreams on a work trip to the Galapagos Islands, and even more so to get engaged just three months later. Until she realized one thing: she had absolutely no idea how to actually be married. Luckily, as a travel writer and editor, Jo had a plan. On trips around the globe both with and without her now-husband, she sought advice from anyone who would give it about what, exactly, makes a marriage work. Her resulting book, How to Be Married, is a thoughtful, touching, and hilarious look at what people can learn from each other about love and marriage if they just ask.
While Jo is quick to point out that no culture is a monolith or can be boiled down to just a few sage snippets of advice, the vast array of perspectives taught her invaluable lessons she still carries with her long after the suitcases were unpacked. Here, Jo shares some of the best advice she got, sourced from over twenty countries.
1. Yes, you can go to bed angry. The worst advice I got before getting married was that you shouldn’t go to bed angry. You know what helps sooth a ridiculous argument that is going nowhere? Sleep, and an Ambien, and coffee in the morning. Nothing good comes out of fighting until you are exhausted. I heard this advice over and over again from my conservative Muslim male tour guide in Qatar to a half-drunk Scottish cab driver. Get some sleep. Deal with it in the morning.
2. Have less sex to have better sex. My favorite married sex advice came from Orthodox Jewish women in Jerusalem. Many Orthodox couples only have sex during specific times of the month. Husbands and wives don’t even touch one another for about two weeks out of the month (namely, the five days of menstruation, and seven days after). The rest of the month is fair game. An Orthodox woman around my age (who had been married for over a decade) told me, “Quality over quantity. The two of us move apart for part of the month in order to get to know ourselves better and then come back to each other more complete. It keeps the passion stoked.”
Married sex only gets boring when you make it boring, when you make it habitual instead of something special and exciting. Don’t just do it because it’s Sunday night and you’re out of things to watch on Netflix. Stay intentional about how you get down.
3. Keep all screens out of the bedroom. Making the bedroom a welcoming, relaxed place free of computer screens, phones, and distractions from work just naturally lends to a better married sex life. “If both of you are staring at your phones and your computers in bed all of the time you might as well just be looking at porn,” one Danish woman told me in her very practical Danish manner when we discussed how the Danish concept of hygge, creating a cozy home and life could be applied to creating a happy and sane marriage where you still want to have sex with the person you pledged to spend the rest of your life with.
4. Let go of your insecurities and baggage early in a marriage. You’re married. This person chose you. They stood up in front of everyone you care about said “Hey I want to be with you for a very long time.” Now is the time to let go of your old relationship baggage and insecurities. During a visit to Mexico while reporting the book, my new husband did this through a cleansing temezcal ceremony (essentially sweating our asses off in a very hot hut with someone who told me he was a shaman, but could have just been a guy with a sweat lodge and a loin cloth). It’s just as easy to actually let go of all of your emotional crap. Forget about his ex-girlfriends and your hang-ups about your love handles. Stop worrying that you’re going to repeat all of your parents’ marriage mistakes. Your new marriage is a clean slate. Enjoy it and start fresh after the “I dos.”
5. Money does not have to equal power. When I was reporting on marriage in northeastern India I ended up interviewing women and men from one of the few remaining matrilineal tribes in the world. In the Khasi and Jaintia hill tribes of Meghalaya, property and assets are passed down through the youngest daughter in a family. All of the children take the mother’s name instead of the father’s. The husband moves into his wife’s home, often bringing with him just a single suitcase of his things. It’s the women who run the households and are largely in control of the finances. Yet even though women technically had more earning power the women insisted that all major financial and household decisions be made through compromise rather than control. This is an important lesson in a world where men still typically out-earn their wives, particularly when a woman needs to take time off to have kids. Money shouldn’t mean that someone can make important decisions without consulting you.
6. Marriage is not a rom-com. In America we act like the marriage is the end goal, rather than the beginning of a new adventure. Every romantic comedy ever ends with the engagement or the wedding and just stops. The French advised me that both parties in a marriage need to work hard to keep the other one interested. “It’s work,” one Parisian woman told me. “…. I need to put in the effort – and here’s what’s important: I want to do the work.”
Other tips from the French: Walk around the house naked, nag your co-workers instead of your spouse, be the most interesting person at the party and even flirt with other people. Yes, flirt with other people! “…When you know that other men still want you then you become even more confident, which makes you much sexier,” they told me.
7. Take care of yourself first. Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do you. In fact, prioritize you. You know that thing flight attendants tell you in the airplane safety instructions that no one ever listens to? “Secure your own oxygen mask first before helping others.” It’s true in life too. If you don’t make sure to keep taking care of yourself, there’s no way you can take care of another person. The most sage advice I got about this came from the women in Jerusalem, a city constantly roiled by political turmoil and violence. “It’s easy to lose yourself in a marriage,” one Israeli woman told me. “It’s easy to nurture your husband and your relationship and forget about nurturing yourself. Take the time off to reset and your marriage will be better for it.”
8. A marriage takes a village. “Do you want a co-wife?” This was the first thing I was asked when I sat down with a group of Maasai women in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. My first answer was, No f*cking way. But then I learned that Maasai polygamy is nothing like San Francisco’s polyamory. Polygamy in this culture is about division of labor, about allowing someone else to do the heavy lifting once in a while. Maybe your husband’s friends can take on the burden of his constant complaining about work or take those camping trips he loves and you hate. Tribal polygamy builds a village to help nurture a marriage. There is always someone to ask for advice and help. Americans are often afraid to ask for advice and help about our marriages until something goes really wrong. And we don’t like to share the parts of our marriage that are hard; we prefer to post wildly photo-shopped pictures of our relationship on social media instead. If I learned anything on this journey it’s that you need to ask for help before you really need it.
9. No one has a perfect marriage. Don’t beat yourself up. I started this book believing that somewhere, someone has figured out the secret to the perfect marriage. Now I know everyone struggles to make it work. If you visited my Instagram in my first year of our marriage, you’d see a cute couple with a ridiculously good-looking dog traveling to exotic locations together, climbing mountains, strolling along Dutch canals, eating too much delicious food. You’d have no idea that I lost my job, that I had a shitty medical diagnosis, that the doctors told me my dad was close to dying three times, or that my mother had a nervous breakdown. You wouldn’t know about all the times I fought with my husband or drank too much wine and cried myself to sleep, confused about whether I’d made any of the right decisions in my life. That’s what the first year of marriage is really like. Yeah, it’s hard. But it’s also an amazing adventure.