Why I Crowd-Sourced Marriage Advice From Around the World
I set out to write this book before I even got married. I was in the middle of planning my wedding and after months of receiving unsolicited advice about “the big day,” I realized I had no idea what happened when the wedding was over. I had no idea how to be married.
Sure, there are plenty of books about fixing a bad marriage, but mine wasn’t broken yet—it hadn’t even started. Besides, none of them spoke to me. With their pastel covers emblazoned with flowers, sunrises, and couples who had perfect hair, those books were talking to someone more mature, someone more refined, someone who already owned napkin rings and didn’t kill houseplants.
As my friend Jessica put it, “There are lots of books on how to be married, but they’re awful.” Speaking at a conference in 2011, the Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told the crowd that the most important career choice a woman can make is to marry well. But there was no guidebook on how to be well married.
Nearly every romantic comedy ever made ends with the wedding and leaves out the most interesting part—the marriage.
As a culture, we’re less interested in the machinery of a marriage, the quotidian challenges, the joys, pitfalls, irritations, surprises, and intimacies. No one would click on the headline: “Beyoncé Annoyed Jay Finished Watching Game of Thrones Without Her” or “Kanye Wishes Kim Would Stop Texting at the Dinner Table” or “Justin HATES That Jen Forgets to Put the Cap Back on the Shampoo.” Although all of these things are definitely true.
If the wedding is the fairy-tale ending then what is the marriage? A sequel? What do we actually do after “I do”?
Once I got my movie-perfect happy ending, I projected the face of a happy and confident bride-to‑be, but on the inside I was terrified. I was terrified I’d lose my identity and my independence by joining my life to another person. I was terrified I would fail—that Nick and I wouldn’t work and I would lose him. This made it all the more important not to lose myself in the process. The media tells us over and over again that half of all marriages in America end in failure. No matter how special and unique I believed my bond with Nick to be, I knew the road ahead was going to be difficult to navigate.
My parents had a long but miserable marriage, the kind where they fought and screamed and threatened to leave each other every day during my formative years but didn’t, out of a sense of obligation to me and a misguided notion that staying in an unhappy marriage equalled success and divorce equalled failure. Women used to be able to model how to behave in their marriage on their mothers, but that just isn’t the case for many of us. I couldn’t do that.
For most of human history there have been real economic and societal imperatives for a woman to find a husband. Marriage was both destiny and social imperative for my grandmother Carolyn, who met her husband Merwin as a fourteen-year-old farm girl in Rockford, Illinois, desperate for a better life. When he got a football scholarship to the University of Colorado she told him to put a ring on it and get her the hell out of there. She was barely sixteen. When he graduated she became a Mad Men–era housewife. Around the time Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out in 1963, Carolyn was the dissatisfied woman who “made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies,” and was “afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’ ” Three decades later, once my grandfather passed away, she traded in her Marilyn Monroe bottle-blond hair for a chic brown bob, began collecting abstract art, and never married again.
My own mother, who came of age during the second wave of feminism, told me she went to college with the intention of marrying a doctor or a lawyer. She wanted her “MRS.” She met my law-student father on her first night of college and married him when she was twenty-one years old. For her and many of her peers in 1976 this was not unusual.
I was the first woman in my family who didn’t feel like she had to get married.
I talked about this evolution of marriage with the academic and author Stephanie Coontz, who wrote the book on modern marriage, literally, in Marriage, a History.
“Marriage is no longer about making alliances to further your parents’ interest or about linking a dependent female to a dominant male. Now both women and men can say they want to marry someone with similar ideals, talents, aspirations, and qualities. We want equals,” Coontz told me. Of course, that comes with its own downsides.
“It creates new tensions when each person in a marriage has the ability to just walk away,” Coontz added.
I could walk away from my marriage at any time. I could support 10 myself, protect myself, feed myself, buy my own property, and even make a baby alone with the help of a very expensive doctor and a turkey baster. I also asked Erica Jong, the inimitable feminist writer of Fear of Flying, why she still believed in marriage in a world where women no longer need to be married. Erica’s been married four times, the last time for twenty- seven years and they’re still going strong. Three failed marriages didn’t scare her away from tying the knot a fourth time. “It’s both essential and nice to have one best friend in a hostile world,” she told me. When I told Erica I was working on a book about marriage, I didn’t know what she’d say, and I was a little surprised that she was all for it. “Good! It’s up to us to create a new form of marriage, a new way of being married, one where both partners feel fulfilled, one where nobody’s work is more important than the other’s, one where you are both caretakers. The template doesn’t exist yet.”
In the months leading up to my own wedding, my job as a travel editor had me constantly on the move, regularly waking up in a strange new hotel and opening the curtains to remember where I was. I found myself asking all strangers with wedding rings what makes a successful marriage. Not for any assignment, but for me. I asked Jamaican hairdressers, Malaysian street food vendors, Maldiv-ian scuba guides, and even the conservative Muslim Qatari who took me on a 4×4 off- road adventure near the border with Saudi Arabia. “Marriage is very, very hard,” my guide grumbled as he steered our Land Rover into a giant mountain of sand at speeds that seemed above one hundred miles an hour. He was wearing a white thobe, a loose robe that reminded me how much I missed wearing caftans, and a red- checked ghutrah around his head. His enthusiastic mus-tache reminded me of an early Tom Selleck.
With few exceptions, the answers I got about how to be married were strikingly similar. I made lists of them on napkins and the backs of boarding passes.
Never stop talking
Talk about things that make you feel uncomfortable and itchy and happy and sad and strange
Talk in person, on the phone, over text, via emoji; just keep talking
Shut the door when you pee
You do you
Complaining is contagious; don’t start the complaining or you’ll never stop
Buy sexy new underwear once a month
As my ramblings grew to ten pages and then twenty, I realized I was sitting on a treasure trove of wisdom from around the world. I had no idea how to be married, but what if, like Lin Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton, I could write my way out of my conundrum.
Marriage experts call the first year of marriage “the wet cement year,” because it’s the time when both members of a couple are figuring out how to exist as partners without getting stuck in the murk, without being trapped by bad habits. It’s a time to set and test boundaries and create good habits that will continue for the rest of your marriage.
What if Nick and I could spend our wet cement year searching the globe for insight into marriage, love, and partnership and trying to implement it in our own marriage? Growing pains grow faster on the road and hard conversations can’t be avoided. Research suggests that couples who travel together end up more satisfied with their partnership. It leads to better sex, pushes your buttons, and takes you out of your comfort zone. There’s this TED talk by the psychotherapist and relationship guru Esther Perel about sustaining desire and passion in a long- term relationship. I must have listened to it a dozen times while I researched this book, particularly the part where she explains that both men and women have a strong need “for adventure, for novelty, for mystery, for risk, for danger, for the unknown, for the unexpected, surprise, for journey, for travel.” Nick and I could spend the first twelve months of our marriage binge-watching Netflix, or we could take a journey into the unknown, getting into and out of uncomfortable situations together while we figured out how to be married.
In the months leading up to our wedding, as we pored over venues and catering details, we spent as many nights looking at maps and airline routes. There were so many interesting models for marriage—polygamy in Kenya, arranged marriage in India, open marriage in France. And there were so many questions to be answered. Why were marriages on the decline in northern Europe? Did French marriages succeed because everyone was having an affair? I found a couples’ therapist running a practice in the middle of the Mexican jungle who was said to be able to save any marriage worth saving. We needed to meet that guy!
I lined up reporting trips, and even our honeymoon, to take us to cultures that would have interesting things to say about marriage and commitment. Nick runs his own Web site, so he was often able to come with me and work from the road. My husband is also a hoarder of frequent-flier miles, which subsidized what should have been a cost-prohibitive endeavor.
In researching this book I’ve interviewed hundreds of men and women around the world—ordinary people as well as experts—to find out what makes a modern, and sometimes not so modern, marriage work. Many of the things I learned were surprising. The truth is that marriage is evolving everywhere and most people our age, from cosmopolitan Paris to rural India, are also trying to figure out how to be a husband or a wife in wildly changing times.
I didn’t find the answer, but I did get plenty of remedies, suggestions, and advice. There were some key things I heard over and over again: patience, good communication, a healthy sex life, teamwork, having a strong community of peers, gratitude, equality, 14 having similar views on raising kids, being on the same page about personal finance, keeping a sense of adventure, compromise. I slowly began to form a portrait of what it meant to be a good partner. This book also traces our own wet cement year from start to finish— the wonderful, the bad, the strange, and the sometimes sur-prising. As I share stories of my travels, both alone and with my new husband, I’m also telling the story of how I dug into my heart, my guts, and my fears to figure out how to make this marriage thing work.