The World’s Best Advice for a Happy Marriage

What one writer learned from traveling the globe.

piazza-married
Photo by Penguin Random House

It’s not enough to commit to the love of your life before family, friends and social media. The hard work of a marriage starts after the honeymoon. Newly married for the first time at age 35, writer Jo Piazza journeyed around the world to find out how people in other countries make the first year of marriage a success. She compiled the results into 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 (to buy: $17, amazon.com). Here, a few highlights everyone—from the newly engaged to marriage veterans—can learn from.

You traveled to 20 different countries. Who has it toughest in the first year of marriage?

The first year is difficult for everyone universally. But Americans make it a lot­ harder than it has to be. We’ve seen so many romantic comedies where the wedding is the happy ending. We don’t talk about what’s next. But after you get married, you have to figure out how to exist with another human being all of the time. It’s a lot, even if you’ve been living with someone. Around the globe people say Americans complain about marriage. We think it’s harder. It is harder. There’s not a lot of community support for marriage here.

I learned from the polygamist tribes of Africa that it takes a village to give a married couple advice. We go off in tribes of two in America. But you can’t be someone’s everything… their therapist, their support system and the greatest sex they’ve ever had.

Is marriage harder today than it was historically? What makes it so hard?

Well, for one thing we are looking at everyone’s social media. But more importantly: In most countries you don’t move as far away from your family as we do here. Age also has a lot to do with it. We marry so young we don’t know ourselves. The happiest marriages in most western cultures are when the woman is older than 30 and the man is over 35. In Scandinavia, marriages are later and people seem to have happier unions by virtue of the fact that they have lived a life before they live a life with another person.

What was the most memorable, useful piece of marriage advice you got?

In India we talked a lot about gratitude: It’s baked into the culture. They are really careful about expressing gratitude for the things their spouse does. Simply saying thank you. And I think we in the U.S. take each other for granted.

What country does marriage best?

Denmark does marriage really well. People in Denmark leave their office at 4:30 every day. They prioritize being home for dinner and having time for a run or a yoga class beforehand. Taking care of themselves. Practicing hygge. Creating a cozy home so you want to spend time together. That’s in contrast to the United States where we talk about family values but we don’t do anything to support marriage.

When a couple goes through the hardest thing, having kids, the U.S. leaves them to flounder. Contrast that with Sweden where you get 18 months of parental leave. In the U.S. we don’t yet have a culture where it’s truly cool for a dad to stay home with his kids. Even my husband, the most feminist man I know, had a hard time with the idea of dropping out of the work force to care for our son (I’m due in June). I’m taking a year off to be a mom. That was a decision I came to after writing the book.

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Your husband brought lots of homemaking skills to the marriage. You both are breadwinners. The old ideal of marriage where he is always the earner and she is the homemaker is certainly dead. Is marriage itself obsolete?

I don’t think the idea of marriage is out of date. The question is how do you exist in a marriage when you can theoretically say goodbye to one another and both be fine tomorrow? Women don’t have to be married for economic or personal security. I interviewed Erica Jong. She’s been married four times and she has the best quote. “It’s nice to have one best friend in a hostile world.” In my first year of marriage I lost my job. Both my parents got sick and my dad passed away. I found out I have a gene for muscular dystrophy and right now I’m ridiculously healthy but one day my husband might have to push me in a wheelchair. My husband was great—he was amazing through it. Marriage still matters.