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What Makes a Happier Marriage?

One writer gleaned marriage advice from around the world.

When she decided to get married, author and journalist Jo Piazza pulled out all the stops. She researched marriage at home and around the world, interviewing hundreds of women in 20 countries on five continents about what makes a happy and successful marriage in the year 2017. Unique and unexpected advice can be found in her hilarious and hard hitting new book, How to Be Married, and right here in this Q& A with Jo.

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Who is getting marriage right, and who is getting it wrong?

America gets marriage wrong. It’s sad to me that we live in a country that likes to talk a lot about promoting family values and honoring the family, but doesn’t do too much to make sure married couples are actually happy.

We’ve seen a major erosion of strong community ties here. Older generations rarely pass down advice about marriage and partnership to younger generations.

During a couple’s most fragile time — having a baby and young children — there is zero government support for parental leave or childcare, which puts enormous stress on a marriage.

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology followed 218 couples over eight years and found that most were less happy with their marriages after becoming parents. Only 15 percent of fathers and 7 percent of mothers were more satisfied with their marriage after having a child.

When researchers looked at the happiness levels of parents versus non-parents in countries with more flexible work options, generous parental leave policies, and subsidies for daycare — parents tended to be happier than non-parents. “The negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations. And this was true for both mothers and fathers,” wrote Jennifer Glass, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and coauthor of the study.

And we work too damn much. We let our jobs dictate where we live and how we live, instead of putting our marriages first. But many of us have to do this just to survive.

Marriage is flawed everywhere in the world; it’s a complicated institution. But couples tend to be a lot more satisfied in different countries. Northern Europe is a great example. Married couples tend to be much happier when they have more support in the form of social services, which leads to less constant worry about getting by. They also have less of a stigma attached to divorce. They don’t consider it a failure or something shameful. There’s something to be said about knowing how to end a marriage gracefully.

You said you wrote this book because you didn’t have a good role model for a happy marriage. Tell me about that.

My parents were married for 40 years, and they couldn’t stand one another. It was the kind of marriage where arguments were the norm for communication. I didn’t want that for my own marriage, but I also didn’t know how to be in a marriage. I thought I could report and write my way out of it.

You hadn’t even gotten married when you started reporting the book. Why not wait until after your first year of marriage?

Every marriage therapist and psychologist I talked to told me that the first year of marriage is the most important. Many of them called it the “wet cement year,” since it is the time when we set our habits in stone. But most couples just cruise through that year without thinking about it — without realizing that they could be creating patterns for the next 50 years. I wanted to really think about it and be intentional about it.

Which cultures surprised you the most?

I think I learned the most about monogamy from the polygamist tribes in Kenya and Tanzania. The first thing I tell people is that polygamy in most of the tribal cultures has nothing to do with sex. I spoke to so many Maasai wives who told me that it was their decision to ask for a second wife. It was about a division of labor. These women do so much work in a day that it will break your heart. They get to a point where they need a second set of hands. But what I was interested in was the takeaway for monogamists. We expect our spouse to be our everything and to do everything, and that’s absurd. We could all benefit from a division of labor in a relationship. For example, let your spouse’s friends do the heavy lifting with all of their complaining about work. Let their brother be the person they go on ski vacations with if you hate skiing.

Which advice will get people mad?

I talk a lot in the first chapter about the idea of submission in a marriage. I went into this book believing that any form of submission took power away from women and handed it right on over to men. And the women I spoke to in South America did their best to convince me the opposite was true.

They consistently told me that men’s fragile egos demand a sense of control, and sometimes a wife needs to let her husband think he’s the one calling the shots — even though she’s influencing his behavior and decisions in more subtle ways.

These women are astute anthropologists of male behavior, and they long ago learned how to operate within the constraints of a historically patriarchal society. They chose to behave in certain ways to preserve their self-worth in a system that was often stacked against them. And maybe “submission” is the wrong word to use here; it’s more about reading cues and managing egos, regardless of gender, and there isn’t a great word for that. It’s more about control.

I also tell young women to wait until after age 30 to even think about marriage. A woman over the age of 30 has a lower chance of her marriage ending in divorce than a woman who married just a few years earlier, between the ages of 27 and 29.

You set out to write the book to help sort through what comes after “I do” but knowing what you know now, if you could give one piece of marriage advice to individuals planning on tying the knot, what would it be?

Get rid of your expectations. Too many good relationships suffer because one spouse has extreme expectations for what they’ll get out of a relationship, or how it’ll look. At one point while reporting this book, I was spending time with women in a small village on the Brahmaputra River in India, a river that regularly floods and washes away entire villages. I told them that Americans think marriage is such hard work. They laughed and laughed. They said we were just silly. Why couldn’t we be grateful for the things we did have? Their entire lives could be uprooted in a flash flood. They had a better perspective than most of my overly privileged friends and family members.

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What’s one thing you can do every day to make a marriage better?

Say "thank you." Scientists at the University of Georgia once surveyed 468 married people and found that gratitude could consistently predict how happy someone was in their marriage. “Even if a couple is experiencing distress and difficulty in other areas, gratitude in the relationship can help promote positive marital outcomes,” said the study’s lead author, Allen Barton, a post­doctoral research associate at UGA’s Center for Family Research.