Eat Pray Love was published in 2007, and ten years later its basic methodological premise—a woman travels the world looking for wisdom in unlikely places—remains powerfully commercially viable. But in the decade since Elizabeth Gilbert picked herself up off her bathroom floor and left her husband, writers (and, presumably, readers) seem to have gotten more anxious. Gilbert went on a quest for joy. Many of today’s writers in the self-help oeuvre are on a quest to avoid failure. What animates this dread of failure? As the American economy keeps on staggering toward the mirage of perpetual growth, and middle class life becomes ever-more precarious, failure in one’s love life or career can appear to foreshadow or invite failures that are harder to recover from.
Jo Piazza’s recent book How to Be Married: What I Learned from Real Women on Five Continents About Surviving My First (Really Hard) Year of Marriage follows the Eat Pray Love method to the letter, and is animated by the author’s intense anxiety about “failing” at marriage. Piazza is a longtime travel writer, formerly at the helm of Yahoo’s travel vertical, which had her working 80-hour weeks and racking up air miles. The setting for this, her fifth book, reads much like the first act of a mid-oughts rom-com (which Piazza has acknowledged): A long-time New Yorker, perennially single and fiercely independent, meets a laid-back sweetheart named Nick on a work trip. She drives across the country with her best friend in a yellow car to marry Nick and live with him in San Francisco, and-–record scratch sound—now what?
What ensues is where the rom-com comparisons end; a few months after getting married, Piazza is diagnosed with the genetic mutation that causes Muscular Dystrophy, a congenital disease that has confined her father to his bed, and her mother to the role of full-time caregiver. Piazza’s devastation at this news is partly what compels her to set forth on a year of travel with Nick in tow, to find out how people around the world approach the challenge of nurturing a happy marriage.
Piazza’s anguish over her diagnosis gives rise to her urgent need to build a strong foundation for her marriage during its first year, but this is an urgency that most people can relate to, regardless of health. Her fear of fucking it all up is much more interesting than the notion that the first year of one’s marriage is somehow more significant than any subsequent year; it’s an arbitrary marker of time that makes for a catchy subtitle but a flimsy premise. It is Piazza’s anxiety about her future, her health, and the high stakes of marriage that distinguish this book. Her writing contains a strong dose of Carrie Bradshaw (right down to the use of “I couldn’t help but wonder”), reminding us that before her marriage and diagnosis, she loved her life.
But as she faces down the reality of sharing a future with someone while coping with her father’s failing health, her mother’s isolation, her jacked-up work habits, the financial burden of new homeownership and possibility of having a child, her confidence is replaced with frank and open anxiousness. “A tight panic began to squat in my stomach like a recalcitrant troll,” she writes about her spending the first night of their Yucatan honeymoon doubled over with dysentery. That feeling doesn’t seem to let up until midway down the last page of the book.
But firstly, this book is a travelogue. Piazza travels all over the world—to the world’s last matriarchal society on the border of India and Bangladesh, to the almost-summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, to a Parisian bespoke lingerie atelier, to the annoyingly figured-it-all-outness of frigging Denmark (zip it about the damn DANES, American Media, this is my ardent plea!), asking advice on how to be married from all kinds of people along the way. If you are recently married and feeling anxious about making it work in the long term, I am sure you will find something in here to hang your hat on. The French women predictably remind Piazza to keep the sexiness alive and pee with the door closed. Swedish stay-at-home dads remind Piazza not to monopolize the child-care. A group of women in a small village in India’s Assam province advise Piazza to maintain reasonable expectations for marital bliss and to incorporate a practice of gratitude in her daily life. A woman in Holland advises Piazza to work fewer hours and take her self-actualization into her own hands—excellent, highly evolved advice for anyone who has access to affordable health care and a reasonably priced housing market. Considering Piazza’s pre-existing condition and zip code, I’m guessing she stashed that bit of advice in the back of her filing cabinet for retrieval in some future reality when the United States isn’t one of the most punishing labor markets in the developed world.
All of this globe-trotting and advice-gathering made for nice reading, but it was not what I came away from this book thinking about. Piazza’s account reminded me that today’s 30-somethings are not entering marriages with the same romantic abandon as baby-boomers did. There is a contemporary need to nervously manage outcomes that is setting a tone for upper-middle-class family and romantic life. How to Be Married is ostensibly a book about approaches to making marriage last, but there’s something else going on here that Piazza doesn’t acknowledge: A successful marriage is a crucial dimension of upper-middle-class tribalism.
Even for ambitious UPenn grads like Piazza, securing a place at the upper-middle-class table requires constant hard work and vigilance. Buying your way into a neighborhood with good schools for your kids, and maintaining the income to pay for everyone’s health care and requisite status identifiers—not to mention planning for some kind of retirement—takes more money than it ever has. Studies show that upper-middle class Americans are getting married at higher rates than low-income Americans, and that this discrepancy is widening an already massive income gap. Basically, staying married when you’re on the wealthier end of the spectrum is a way to ensure that you don’t tumble into the precarious middle. There is broad evidence that married couples have higher earned income and more savings that last later into life. Piazza may be familiar with these stats, or she might just have good instincts. Regardless, rarely throughout the history of humanity has marriage been only about love. That’s no less true today than it was a century ago.
Baby boomers may have been the first and last humans to feel free to marry for love only. They married, divorced and remarried amid a period of unprecedented prosperity, but those economic conditions have evaporated. The divorce rate among milliennials is staying significantly lower than it was when the Boomers, bless them and their maximalist tendencies, ushered in peak divorce in 1979. Researchers tend to use the rise of premarital cohabitation to explain the low divorce rate, but I suspect that’s only part of the story.
Economic precariousness makes divorce more costly. When kids are involved, it’s even dicier; many middle-class workers are forced to relocate for work, and if your family is already broken up, that can mean losing custody of your kids. In the 1970s, middle-class dads left the picture for years at a time as a matter of course; half the 40-somethings I know didn’t really see their dads for many years after their parents’ divorce. But for many middle-class millennial men, that is not an acceptable outcome. Sticking with a marriage is often a matter of economic necessity if you want to keep parenting your own kids.
Jo Piazza’s background is somewhat different; her parents have stuck with an unhappy marriage for decades, and it’s the only model for marriage that she knows. Afraid of repeating their mistakes, she is desperate for a better way forward. The resulting sense of gravity is the same, though: She doesn’t seem to see marriage as an unfurling series of possibilities but rather as a series of obstacles to be conscientiously overcome. In this sense, I think Piazza speaks on behalf of many people in their 30s who crave the emotional comfort of family life but fear the precipitous consequences of failure.
Thirteen years ago, when I was 22, I got married. I received very little advice about marriage beforehand. None of my friends were married, and my parents had broken up when I was nine. My husband’s parents had broken up when he was two. The only piece of advice I remember receiving before I got married came from my mother: People don’t tend to change much, she said. If there’s something that bothers you about your partner early on, you might as well accept it, because it’s probably going to keep bothering you forever if you don’t.
She was right. I believe that people can change when they want to, but many of our qualities are pretty much baked in by the time we reach adulthood. Anticipating failure and trying to avoid it seems common-sensical in 2017, but we are all bound to fail each other a little bit at the bare minimum. Perhaps the only way to anticipate the failures that are surely to come is to hope that when we are facing them, we don’t turn and run.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton lives in Montreal with her husband and two sons. Find her on Twitter @KJezerMorton.