Inspiring Women: Meet the Author Who Crowdsourced Marriage Advice From Around the World
Jo Piazza's new book holds the keys to surviving the first year of marriage (and beyond).
Here's a not-so-fun fact: In the two minutes it takes for you to recite your vows on your wedding day, four other couples in America are divorcing. That's right, statistics show there's a divorce in the US nearly every 36 seconds. That's not exactly what you want to think about on your wedding day, obviously, but clearly the whole "'til death do us part" thing can be kind of a joke — especially in the trying first year. Getting married is great, but staying married takes work, which is why award-winning journalist and author Jo Piazza spent her own first year of marriage crowdsourcing advice from people all over the world.
On their epic journey, Piazza and her new husband Nick learned about interesting global customs and gained insight into what a thriving, modern marriage looks like outside of the US. They interviewed hundreds of men and women from other countries and cultures while at the same time navigating through their own personal hardships — like a scary health diagnosis, caring for sick parents, and losing a job. The culmination of their work is Piazza's witty and fascinating memoir, HOW TO BE MARRIED: What I Learned from Real Women on Five Continents About Surviving My First (Really Hard) Year of Marriage.
If you're engaged, thinking about getting engaged, newly married, or, heck, have even been married for 50 years, How to Be Married will get you thinking about how and why marriage works and why it matters.
In celebration of How to Be Married's release, we asked Piazza about the surprising things she learned during her travels, why the first year of marriage matters, and how having a baby may or may not change their relationship.
Livingly: What made you want to set out on this journey?
Jo Piazza: When I got engaged my engagement got more likes on Facebook than the time I published a book or got a big job promotion. The world clearly thought this was the most important thing I'd ever done. And while everyone wanted to talk to me about the wedding, no one really gave me any advice about what comes after.
Most marriage advice is terrible. Most books about marriage are dismal and only useful if you already have a really bad marriage. There are no books out there for normal women who are usually pretty happy, who are psyched about their new marriage who just want to talk about staying happy, satisfied and fulfilled after they get married.
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 crowdsource it.
We crowdsource everything else in our lives from what to wear in the morning, to what to eat for dinner, why not crowdsource how to have a happy marriage? The book is real, no bull shit advice from real women around the world from different cultures and different economic backgrounds.
A few months after Nick and I got married, we found out that I have a rare form of muscular dystrophy that might start to affect my muscles and ability to walk in a few years, maybe five, maybe ten, maybe twenty. This made me want to get things right early on.
How did the journey + writing your book help your own marriage?
It was a little like attending marriage boot camp during our first year of marriage. We were forced to talk about what really makes a marriage work and last right from day one. I reported and wrote the book in real time during my own first year of marriage so that the reader would be able to take that journey right along with us.
How does a relationship change when you get married?
It definitely changes. Something shifts when you stand up and make a vow in front of your friends, family and loved ones. It just does. It's different than a regular relationship where it's really easy to run away. Trust me, I've run away from plenty of relationships.
But I also think it is better. I love being married. It's the best even when it is the worst. I interviewed the writer Erica Jong for the book and she put it really nicely...marriage works because it is nice to have one person to always hold your hand in a hostile world. I think that is more true now than ever.
Before your research, what did you think was the key to a lasting marriage?
Not getting divorced. That's what my parents thought. They stayed married for forty years and couldn't stand each other, but they didn't get divorced so in their mind their marriage was a success. I wanted something more.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while crowdsourcing during your travels?
America is failing at marriage and partnership. 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.
How is the first year of marriage unique and how does it change in year two and beyond?
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. I think year two is like version 2.0, you work out the kinks and smooth around the rough edges and keep building on the foundation.
You're having a baby! How does starting a family change your marriage?
Having a baby was a big part of our first year of marriage. I was 35 when we got married. We couldn't ignore my biological clock. It isn't always politically correct to say that but it is the truth. Plus, now I am actually seven months pregnant.
We learned that everything in our marriage will definitely change when we have this little boy in a few months. But that change doesn't have to be the cataclysm so many other parents tend to warn you about. I actually think the doom and gloom around parenting is pretty awful. We only ever hear horror stories starting from the process of childbirth. Life changes, but it doesn't have to be worse. Other cultures don't believe it has to be worse. It is a very uniquely American thing. One of the things we learned is to figure out what equality means in our marriage and how we want to divide up childrearing duties well before the baby comes. I spent a lot of time with Swedish stay-at-home dads talking about this. We also learned how important it was to be really happy with ourselves and with one another before we decided to have this kid. It's important to both of us to maintain our own identities and not just become mommy and daddy.
Who should read How to Be Married?
I won't lie this is a great book for newlyweds and folks who are recently engaged. But I've had readers who were five years in, ten years in, even thirty years in tell me that it gave them an entirely new perspective on their marriage. None of us are marriage experts. I'm not...I'm just someone who wanted to start a conversation about what marriage is really like and how we can maybe be a little better at it.
I started this book believing that somewhere, someone has figured out the secret to the perfect marriage. Now I know that everyone, no matter how good their relationship, 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. I hope this book shows some of that. Because that’s what the first year of marriage is really like. Yeah, it’s hard. But it’s also an amazing adventure.
What's next for you?
I have to finish cooking this baby and finish my new novel, a political satire about a woman running for Senate in the mid-term elections. We have a bit of a due date for both big projects.
At Livingly, our motto is "Live life beautifully." What does living beautifully mean to you?
It means waking up every day and choosing to make it what we want it to be. It means choosing our spouse every day and choosing gratitude over remorse and happiness over stress. I learned a lot about living beautifully from the Danes while researching the book. They get most things in life right. They truly embrace the concept of creating a happy and cozy physical environment in order to create a happy and cozy internal environment. It just makes good sense.