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Photo: © Grace Chang
JO PIAZZA is an award-winning reporter and editor who has written for the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the New York Daily News, New York magazine, Glamour, Marie Claire, Elle and Salon. She has appeared on CNN, NPR, Fox News, the BBC, and MSNBC. She received an MA in Journalism from Columbia, a MA in Religious Studies from NYU and a BA in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of the critically acclaimed If Nuns Ruled the World and Celebrity Inc: How Famous People Make Money. She currently lives in San Francisco with her husband and their giant dog.
Depending on which dictionary you consult, the word “hitch” can mean a number of different things: to fasten or tie, to hike up, to move or draw something with a jerk. Americans were the first to use it to signify marriage. As of the mid-1800s, two people didn’t just say their vows or unite in holy matrimony—they got hitched, like two horses harnessed together, probably to pull a heavy load.
Almost 200 years later, we’re still using this phrase, and judging by the plethora of Pinterest wedding boards featuring barn doors, hay bales, and Mason jars, its bucolic appeal is timeless. Indeed, according to The Knot, one of 2017’s hot wedding trends is incorporating animals, especially if you’re “hosting a rustic soiree or celebrating in a picturesque barn.”
But as statistics have long told us, not everyone who gets married makes it to happily ever after. According to Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research, in the U.S. in 2015 there were nearly 2.3 million marriages and more than 1.1 million divorces. For every two knots freshly tied, somewhere in America a third unravels.
To add insult to injury, in 2016 the average American couple spent $35,329 on their wedding. That’s an awful lot of money to bet on a union that might wind up like a different definition of “hitch”: to hobble or limp.
So why, when we put so much thought and energy into planning the big day, do we devote so little to ensuring our success in the long haul? Where are all the Pinterest boards about how to combat the banality of marriage and set ourselves up for long-term happiness? To learn how to be yoked to another person through good times and bad?
Enter Jo Piazza and 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.
Having met the man of her dreams and gotten engaged three months later, Piazza noticed that there weren’t many resources for couples just starting out in married life. “There’s nothing out there about how to have a happy, healthy marriage until someone cheats, until you hate each other and you’re ready to get divorced and you’re calling a divorce lawyer,” she says. To show her audience what marriage is really like from the start—“the no-bullshit version,” Piazza says—she wrote the book in real time, from two weeks before the wedding to their first anniversary. In that time, she left New York to join her husband in San Francisco, she was laid off from her job at Yahoo!, and she learned she had inherited the same disease that crippled and would ultimately kill her father, muscular dystrophy. As if that weren’t enough, she also traveled to twenty countries—from Chile, Mexico, and Denmark to Israel, Kenya, and Holland—often with her husband, to find out what different cultures could teach us about how to be married.
Piazza recently spoke with Penguin Random House about what she learned from women around the world and her thoughts on the state of relationships today.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: We’ve long been told that couples have a better chance of success if they have a few key things in common: socioeconomic background, religion, level of education. Are those criteria as crucial as ever? Or are other factors more important now?
JO PIAZZA: I actually think it’s even more important now than it used to be. My husband and I, when it comes to things in common, we’re probably eighty percent/twenty percent: eighty percent things in common, twenty percent not in common. And it’s the core stuff that we do [share]. We have the same values. We want the same things for our children. We have the same attitudes about money, which I think is probably the most important thing to have—about how you spend, about how you save, and how you feel about money generally, how you define success in terms of money. And I think that now more than ever when we’re living in this world, it’s really hard. You want someone that has those same core values as you do.
The most successful marriages that I found around the world and some of the highest satisfaction rates for marriage are with arranged marriage, and there’s a reason for that. The reason is that when your family is arranging a marriage, they are looking out for those things instead of just passion. They’re looking out for the things that make a marriage last in the long term. I don’t want to say you have to have the same socioeconomic level or you have to have the same level of college education—that stuff doesn’t particularly matter. But you have to agree on the big things in life. You have to have the same kind of attitude. Just because someone went to college doesn’t mean they believe in education, it just means they could afford college. So looking at it in that kind of bigger picture when it comes to similarities and differences is really important, and thinking about what those similarities and differences actually mean.
PRH: In the chapter about India, you pose the question of whether we as American women, as American wives, ask too much of our husbands. We want them to be everything to us.
JP: We do. I think that as American women, we have these very high expectations that are set for us culturally because the creation of the word “soulmate,” which is terrible. We talk about our husband having to be our soulmate, our best friend, our therapist, our absolute everything. It sets up these expectations that when that person can’t meet that—and they inevitably will not, because one person cannot be your everything—we feel like our marriage has failed or we feel unsatisfied in our marriage, and I think that is a real shame.
One of the other things that I learned is that a marriage takes a village. It takes a community. It takes other people to support you. It can’t just be about a couple going off in a tribe of two. You need other people to help you, and almost everywhere else that I was in the world, they don’t have the expectation that their spouse is going to be their everything, to solve all their problems, because it’s not possible. I think Americans really need to let that go.
PRH: Speaking of how it takes a village, you wrote about how hard it was for you to find your community after you moved across the country. As thirty-something adults, do you think it’s harder for women or men to make new friends and find community?
JP: I think it’s hard for everyone to make friends after the age of thirty-five, or even after the age of thirty. Making friends in your thirties, making friends as a grownup, is really difficult. I think it’s much easier to bond over those moments of crisis in your twenties when you have no money, when you’re going out to the bar every night, where you’re talking about terrible breakups, and you’re scared of life generally, than it is once you’re already established in your career and your schedules and you have a spouse.
And I think finding community is really hard for couples that are our age these days as well, because we leave home to go to these urban centers where there are the really good jobs and then we don’t have our family around us. And less and less people are going to church these days so we don’t have a community through church. And more people are spending all of their time staring at their phones rather than actually talking to other human beings. I don’t even know how you would make friends these days. It’s really hard.
PRH: What effect is social media is having on relationships?
JP: I think social media is helping to slowly unravel the fabric of marriage in American society. It’s a problem because people post only the most beautiful, the most Photoshopped, most filtered photographs of their relationship, and no matter how rational you are, it makes you believe that everyone else has a better marriage than you do.
And again, no matter how rational you are, if you think that everyone else is doing something better, you inevitably feel bad about yourself, and that trickles over into how you feel about your spouse, and it sucks. I mean, I get it, you don’t want to Instagram a toilet seat that’s been left up or toenail clippings left in the sink, which is just gross, but at the same time we’re not talking about the real things that are happening in our relationships.
PRH: Let’s talk about infidelity. In America, many people regard infidelity as the unforgivable sin. Is that sentiment proportional to the crime? Or should we try to accept infidelity as something that happens and doesn’t have to be the end of the world?
JP: I don’t think we should regard anything in a marriage as the end of the world. I think that Americans love to talk about failure within a marriage and failure from a marriage, that divorce is the worst thing that can possibly happen to you. That sucks because it makes you feel that even if you’ve grown out of each other and you’re ready to move on, that the marriage didn’t count somehow because you got divorced. Most other cultures don’t believe that. It’s like a zero sum game for a marriage: Either you stayed in it and that’s a successful marriage, or you got divorced and that was a failure. I don’t think that anything should be immediately be considered a deal-breaker. I think we have these rigid, very Puritanical thoughts about what success in a marriage looks like. Success is buying a house, having kids, and no one ever cheating, and staying monogamous for fifty years. And that’s not fair, it’s not true, it’s not accurate. I also don’t think we should say everyone’s going to cheat, because not everyone’s going to cheat. Some people might cheat—that could be the evolution of their marriage, and if it happens, it happens, and if they feel that they can both grow out of that, that’s fine. That’s right for them.
The French women I talked to were really interesting because they didn’t tolerate infidelity in their spouses the way that I thought they would, but they tolerated it in other people’s. They didn’t care. And that’s the thing: I don’t think that we should care as much as we do about other people’s relationships. I think tabloid culture has really screwed us for our ideas around marriage, and I know this because I was a celebrity magazine editor for a long time and I’m guilty of creating this world. The bestselling magazine covers are the ones that have a wedding or the ones that have a divorce, particularly a divorce that involved a cheating scandal. And our obsession with that is really, really dangerous because we’re so quick to pass judgment on other people. What I enjoyed about the French is that they didn’t judge anyone else’s marriage. They did tell me that Americans are terrible at marriage, but they tell you that Americans are terrible at everything. They’re like, if someone else’s husband wants to cheat, that’s between them, it’s not between us. They don’t want to devour stories about it. So I don’t think monogamy is impossible. I don’t think infidelity is inevitable. I think it’s a conversation we should be more comfortable having.
PRH: You also wrote about how the French see flirting as natural and even healthy for a marriage. That’s a very different mindset than we have in America. Do you think Americans will ever be able to adopt a more French mindset in this area?
JP: I hope so. I think the generation below ours is finding new ways to disrupt relationships and marriage generally. We’re also the first generation of women in America that has the ability to take care of ourselves; we don’t need a husband. So we should try to play around with these antiquated notions of what a marriage means, one of which is that it’s not ok to flirt! It’s like when you get married, [it’s as if] you become a nonsexual being to all other humans. I’m not saying it’s ok to shove your tongue down someone’s throat next to you at a dinner party that’s not your spouse. That’s gross for so many different reasons. But I think it’s still ok to embrace the fact that you’re a woman, and men are men, and to flirt a little bit and have fun with it. Americans are so Puritanical. We just saw that happen with Mike Pence. He said that he won’t have dinner with any woman that’s not his wife. I mean, that’s crazy talk, right? To not have dinner with another gender because you’re not married to them?
I played around with this flirting-with-other-people thing. We love jealousy in America, and I think it’s nice for your spouse to recognize that other people still find you attractive and interesting. One of the hardest things about marriage is that you’re together so often, you sometimes forget that your spouse is attractive and interesting, and it’s nice to see that people recognize that. I love that advice from the French. It was some of my favorite.
PRH: In the book you examine some old-school ideas, like how women in relationships should try to preserve some mystery. As a feminist and a modern independent woman, you clearly felt some resistance to that as being old fashioned.
JP: But now I believe it, that’s the thing. I do believe it. There were a lot of things about marriage that made me uncomfortable, or old adages about marriage that I felt like I would have to hand in my feminist card and be a failure if I started to believe them. But I think some advice is passed down because it does work, and I think maintaining some mystery in your marriage is something that really does make sense. One of the things the French women kept saying to me is, “You have to stop peeing with the door open.” And I’m like, “But my bathroom is really small and I want to talk to my husband while I go to the bathroom.” And they’re like, “That’s disgusting.” I don’t know if it’s disgusting, but maybe there’s something to that. Maybe there’s something to maintaining a little bit of mystery.
We try so hard when we’re dating. We try so hard to make this person fall in love with us. Why aren’t we trying that hard once we’ve already gotten married? Once we’ve already chosen this person? And I think that’s the answer to it.
The other thing I keep saying that’s a little controversial that some people are getting pissed about is that the male ego is real, and everyone needs to feel needed, and men in particular need to feel needed. I came into this marriage being like, “I can make my own money. I can make my own decisions … [I can] spend $10,000 more on our mortgage—whatever, I’ve got this.” Yeah, I’ve got this, I can do it, but at the same time my husband wants to feel like he’s a part of my life and wants to feel like he’s a part of our life. He wants to feel like he can take care of me, and I think sometimes we forget that that’s important, and if it’s important to the person that you married, you should remember it. And at the end of the day too, it’s kind of nice to be taken care of. That’s not a thing that we’re supposed to say as strong independent women. It is nice to have someone make the travel plans. It is nice to have someone who wants to drive all the time. And sometimes it’s nice to just take a back seat and let your husband lead and that’s ok. I don’t think we need to feel guilty for that.
PRH: What do you think are some of the most destructive habits of people in relationships?
JP: Complaining about your spouse in a nonconstructive way. I’m all for talking to your friends about marriage and asking for advice, but just complaining about them for the sake of complaining about them—I think you’re not honoring that person that you chose to spend your life with. I think we just like to complain sometimes.
One of the biggest things—and I kept hearing this all over the world and it’s a very modern problem—is to put away your goddamn phone. I see too many couples just staring at their phones when they’re sitting at dinner together. It’s a problem that’s only started happening in the past five years, but it’s really, really eroding how we interact with each other, our conversation. I see it in myself. Sometimes I have a hard time making conversation with my husband, and I’m like, it shouldn’t be this hard, because for some reason I want to check Instagram right now and I don’t want to feel that way. I push myself to not feel that way. I’ve been pushing myself to keep screens out of the bedroom entirely and to keep screens off the dinner table. And especially now that I’m about to have a baby, it’s really important for me, for the two of us, to model how we deal with technology in our life so that our kid watches us do that.
PRH: In the chapter on Holland, you talk about a struggle that many individuals and couples are facing: finding work-life balance. You also addressed this in a recent article in Forbes. You’re a busy professional female, and you’re married, and you’re about to have a baby. So how’s that going?
JP: It’s hard. It’s really, really hard, and I’m trying to figure out what it looks like for the course of the next year too. I keep saying I’m actually going to try to take a year of self-imposed, self-financed maternity leave—because the American government does not pay for maternity leave—to actually check out for a little while to take care of my child, which I’m also being criticized about as not being a feminist choice. I’m like, no, that’s my feminist choice.
PRH: It’s shocking that people feel they have a right to criticize you for that.
JP: That they have a right to criticize me that if I’m not trying to be the CEO of the next great tech startup that I’ve failed as a feminist, and that makes me sad. I think it is part of this American culture—and it has to change culturally—that we think busy equals important, that we think busy equals better.
Because frankly we could work six hours a day and get just as much done, but we think having butts in seats and answering emails twenty-four hours a day equals success, and it’s something that has to change. None of us are brain surgeons. We work in media. I say that to my friends in tech all the time too. I’m like, “You’re not saving lives, you’re building an app.” And there’s absolutely no reason that you need to be on call at night. People were not on call who were not doctors, or perhaps ambulance-chasing attorneys, until about ten years ago. We were not glued to our phones, we were not glued to our computers.
What’s happening right now with technology and having people be on all the time, it’s eroding our relationships, it’s eroding our marriages, and it’s going to erode the way that we parent. I think that this is one of the big problems with relationships these days. People that think that they have to be working twenty-four seven.
PRH: We seem to fear missing out, like if we say no to this opportunity, next time we won’t get asked back.
JP: The truth is, you will get asked back, and the next one is going to come, and the next career move is going to happen if you’re the kind of person that wants it to happen. Everyone thinks that if you’re not constantly striving, like kicking your own ass, that you’re going to end up a failure, and it’s not true. It’s not true! And so many other cultures do not believe it.
I watched people in Denmark leave the office at four o’clock and run successful companies. They got there, and they got their work done, and then they went home. There’s no prize for being the last person to stay in the office, but no one wants to stand up and be like, “I’m the person that’s going to leave.” Also I watched so many of my friends be on the so-called “mommy track” because they wanted to leave to pick their kids up at 5:30. It’s stupid and it’s absurd to me. I think something has to change, and we need to not feel bad about prioritizing our marriage the same way that we prioritize our jobs.
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