Bestselling author and journalist Jo Piazza traveled to 20 countries on five continents during her first year of marriage to interview hundreds of men and women from different cultures about what it takes to create a happy and healthy relationship right from the start. The result is the hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking travel memoir How to Be Married. Her in-depth reporting is interwoven with a candid, raw and honest portrait of her own first year of marriage written in real time. She kicks off the book by admitting something very few of us want to talk about—her honeymoon was terrible.
Some time ago the kinds of people who decide such things decreed that the honeymoon should be the most special, most romantic, and ultimately most instagrammable vacation of a woman’s life.
Mine wasn’t like that. Mine was awful.
We’d been married less than forty-eight hours when we landed at the Cancún airport—the only airport in the world, I should tell you, that has a giant Corona bottle on the air traffic control tower. The start of my honeymoon should have been one of the happiest times of my life. Except absolutely everything was going wrong.
Wicked food poisoning hit me soon after we landed in Mexico. And only an hour off the plane, my belly began to convulse in the rental car.
“Do you need me to pull over?” Nick, my new husband, looked over at me in alarm. I nodded weakly as he maneuvered our cheap rental vehicle onto the side of the highway on the way to Tulum. Nick’s back pats were reassuring but timid. Meanwhile, I hung my head between my knees and moaned that I was almost certainly about to die.
I stared at footprints in the gravel that included toes. Who would walk here without shoes? Inches from my face a used condom sat atop a broken beer bottle. Heat rose from the cement and I doubled over again.
Long before people admitted to having premarital sex, one of the reasons newlyweds went away on a honeymoon was to get to know each other’s bodies. Now my body was betraying me, right in front of my brand-new husband, in the worst way possible. I’d assumed marriage would free me of my anxiety about trying to look and act perfect all the time, but I still felt terrible that Nick was seeing me in this state.
We continued to the village of Tulum, a slice of Mexican paradise famous for bathwater-warm, crystalline water and sand as soft and white as confectioners’ sugar. Once the purview of yogis and hippies with just enough money to catch a flight to Cancún, Tulum’s beach shacks have been replaced by hipster hotels that serve $14 margaritas and $20 avocado toast.
What I didn’t know when I planned our dream honeymoon was that in Tulum, September is the most off part of the off-season. When we arrived, the beach stank of decaying fish and the town’s sewer system hadn’t been cleaned in weeks.
The first night we spent in Mexico, Nick snored next to me while I sweated out my illness, fended off mosquitoes, and attacked a colony of sand fleas I believed were breeding in my right foot. A tight panic began to squat in my stomach like a recalcitrant troll. I couldn’t imagine being able to have sex. No one could possibly have had sex in the shape I was in. I’d always thought you were supposed to do it like monkeys on your honeymoon. I felt bad that we weren’t doing it like monkeys.
I traced the moles on my new husband’s back with my index finger and began to feel a strange melancholy. Could it be possible that I had some form of post-wedding depression?
Was that even a thing? Google “unhappy” and “honeymoon” and you’re presented with a catalog of stories telling you your marriage is doomed. Google “miserable” and “honeymoon” and you learn Kim Kardashian and Kanye West were miserable on their Irish honeymoon. I took little comfort in this fact.
In 1886 the Reverend Edward John Hardy wrote a suspiciously titled treatise, How to Be Happy, Though Married (an alternate title was Still Happy, Though Married). In it he emphasized that a good start to a marriage was imperative for future marital happiness. “In matrimony, as in so many other things, a good beginning is half the battle,” Hardy wrote. He went on to note the importance of the honeymoon. “The honeymoon certainly ought to be the happiest month in our lives; but it may, like every other good thing, be spoiled by mismanagement.”
Starting in the nineteenth century, fancy couples began embarking on what they called the “bridal tour,” during which they visited family and friends who couldn’t attend the actual wedding.
Afterward, the couple would take time for themselves, usually on the French Riviera or in the Tuscan countryside, to rest, recoup, and try to make a baby. From there the honeymoon became one of the first institutionalized forms of mass tourism. By the turn of the twentieth century, even the lower classes were starting to take a mini break after they got hitched.
A few hours of sleep did nothing to improve my situation. Clearly nervous his new wife was about to take her last breath in the Mexican jungle, Nick did his very best to nurse me back to health the next morning: He mopped the sweat off my forehead, force-fed me tortilla chips, and made me drink as much bottled fizzy water as my body could handle. I encouraged him to get out of our overpriced beach shack and into the water, to snorkel, to dive into a cenote, to drink margaritas. He did, but quickly returned to being my nursemaid.
I e‑mailed an actual authority on marital neuroses, clinical psychologist, and marriage counselor Laurie Sanford, the mother-in-law of Nick’s best friend and the only person I didn’t feel weird asking about how weird I felt.
“I’m so f*cked . . . ” I started to write in my e‑mail, then deleted it. Don’t start with something negative. Just ask if what is happening is normal. I half expected Laurie to write back and tell me I was indeed fucked. She didn’t.
“Of course there is such a thing as post-wedding blues, honey,” Sanford wrote back right away. She lives in Hawaii, so the time difference was in my favor. “There’s a letdown after all the buildup, after all the expectations, focused effort, work, excitement, and stress. It’s kind of like the way ocean waves work. The bigger the wave, the flatter the water is after the wave passes.
There has to be a flattening out after such a huge buildup of emotion. This occurs despite the happiness you know you should feel. It’s the way emotions work. It’s normal to feel a depression, a sense of fatigue on the honeymoon. It’s a natural emotional slump.”
So even though I was itching and sweating and puking and crying, what I felt was normal (well, not the food poisoning). Post-wedding depression is a thing, and no one talks about it because no one wants to seem like an ungrateful twit right after everyone just shelled out a lot of money for those rustic barn benches and snacks on tiny toast and the band who looked like Mumford and Sons at your wedding. I discovered that research has even shown that one in ten spouses experiences what experts now refer to as “post-wedding depression.”
Maybe having the perfect honeymoon is too much to live up to. What are modern honeymoons anyway, besides the creation of clever marketing by resorts, cruise lines, and countries with beautiful beaches?
Right before we got married I found a dusty old hardcover in a used-book store called The Happy Family. It was a prescriptive book written by medical doctor John Levy and his wife, Ruth, a psychologist, about how to create a happy marriage and family unit in 1938.
Even though it was written during a time when most women weren’t allowed to pursue higher education and most men didn’t know how to find a clitoris, lots of things in The Happy Family are weirdly progressive. One bit I kept returning to was the chapter on the chimpanzee experiment.
The chimpanzee in said experiment is a perfectly happy primate who has a healthy, if boring, diet of lettuce. He likes lettuce, eats it all the time. He thinks lettuce is a good thing. One day the chimpanzee is sitting there scratching his bum and he sees the researcher place a banana under the box in front of him. This is new and exciting and different from lettuce. The chimpanzee is then led away and the banana is secretly replaced by lettuce. When the chimp returns and lifts up the box, he is furious. He expected that banana. He tears the lettuce into little pieces, throws it on the ground, and stomps on it to make his point clear. He was promised bananas and will not settle for lettuce!
According to the authors of The Happy Family, this has a lot to do with marriage. Married people “reject the good marriage we have because it is not the perfect marriage which, consciously or unconsciously, we are told we could be having. Our unconscious expectations are more dangerous than the naïve idealism we express. . . . The first step, then, toward permanent and satisfying marriage is disillusionment, the willingness to accept one’s self and one’s partner on the level of everyday living, to take the worse along with the better."
A better interpretation is that you should always expect lettuce and then you will be extra delighted when your marriage, or your honeymoon, gives you a banana. It also explains why looking at other people’s happy-seeming marriages on social media can make some people feel so anxious and confused. I expected my honeymoon to be all banana and was depressed when there was a little bit of wilted lettuce. In his twilight years the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it well when he said, “Love is something ideal. Marriage is something real; and never with impunity do we exchange the ideal for the real.” It doesn’t get more real than being ill for two days straight while your new husband holds back your hair.
Maybe, like rain on a wedding day or birds doing their business on your shoulder, a terrible honeymoon actually portends a wonderful marriage. So far, 18 months in, mine is pretty great. In fact, it’s been great since that fateful trip to Mexico. We may have lost at the honeymoon, but I think we’re winning the marriage