Even after years of marriage, having babies, losing jobs, French husbands still gaze at their wives with an intense mixture of passion and curiosity.
Journalist and best-selling author Jo Piazza travelled to 20 countries on five continents to discover the secrets of a happy and fulfilling marriage. The result is her hilarious and thought-provoking new memoir How to Be Married, which hit shelves earlier this month.
French women both terrify and intrigue me. They always have.
Long before everyone was crowing over the wisdom in French Women Don’t Get Fat, I was already keenly aware of French women’s talents at imparting advice to non-French women. One of the most invaluable things I learned in my twenties came from an incredibly chic editor for French Vogue whom I once sat next to during a fashion show in New York. She looked at me, disheveled, barefaced, and smelling of last night’s cheap martinis early in the morning, and said, “Always wear red lipstick. No one will know you are hungover.”
For the past 10 years, I’ve carried a tube of Chanel Rouge with me at all times—and it has served me well.
And so when I embarked on a year-long mission to gather advice from women around the world on how to be happily married, the French were at the top of my list. Next time you find yourself in Paris, notice the way French women’s husbands look at them. Even after years of marriage, having babies, losing jobs, losing elasticity in all the body parts that matter, flirtations with other people, failures and successes, husbands still gaze at their wives with an intense mixture of passion and curiosity.
I sat down with dozens of French women in Paris to figure out why this is. Their number-one piece of advice? Behave like your husband’s mistress.
It sounds vaguely icky the first time you hear it.
“I don’t understand,” I said over and over again like a small child who isn’t terribly bright trying to wrap their head around the mysteries of the universe or why they cannot have another cherry popsicle. This made the chic and sophisticated Parisian women speak more slowly, enunciate more, and pour me another glass of red wine.
“It’s about confidence,” one woman told me. “The more you love yourself, the more your husband will love you. Your husband needs to know that you are comfortable in your own skin. Then he will be comfortable. None of the whining, ‘Ooohhhh, I look fat in this dress. My face has spots. I look old!’ He will believe what you tell him to believe about you. You tell him you feel beautiful and thin and young and sexy and that is what he will think of you.”
How many times had I bemoaned my love handles to my husband or talked about a giant blotchy zit on my face or said that the wrinkles on my forehead were beginning to make me resemble Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude?
“What else?” I asked them. The closest I’d ever come to being someone’s mistress was a bumbling flirtation with a middle-aged grad school professor that never went beyond a few embarrassing text messages.
“Quit peeing with the door open. Try to maintain some mystery in your marriage.”
“Choose to be interesting and engaging. Speak about things that are interesting, but leave the nagging to his coworkers. Don’t pick small fights; don’t speak of small things. And above all else, never be boring.”
“When you go out to dinner, put down your goddamn phone and don’t talk about the home things. Don’t talk about work or the laundry or the broken toilet. Would a man talk about a broken toilet with his mistress?”
“Walk around naked or in beautiful underwear, but do not let him see you in sweatpants,” another said. She said “sweatpants” the way some people say “toenail clippings.” I don’t think these women understood how much money I’d invested in cute yoga clothes.
When we returned home to the States I tried to put their advice into action—exude confidence, don’t cut myself down, quit nagging, engage in interesting conversation, put my damn phone away, throw away the really shitty sweatpants, walk around naked, but keep the bathroom door closed when I peed.
It all seemed like a lot of work. And yet I tried to remain conscious of the checklist.
“I feel fat,” I was about whine after a particularly decadent dinner out one Friday evening. Why couldn’t I just say, “that was delicious,” and be done with it.
“We should eat like this every night,” I said instead. “That was delicious.”
“We should.” My husband leaned in to kiss me on the lips. It was a small thing, a small shift, but I felt the difference. I could have complained, instead I expressed joy.
I was about to bring up an irritating thing my co-worker just emailed me. I had managed to keep my phone off of the table for the entire dinner, checking my email only when I went to the bathroom. But I kept my mouth shut. Why complain? Why now? We were having such a lovely night.
And it continued to be lovely well after we got home.
I tried to count how many times I complained in a single day, about my spouse or to my spouse and I lost track at about 25.
It made me think about how often we really do treat our spouses like both punching bags and receptacles for all of our mental bullsh*t and baggage. Sometimes, without meaning to be, we treat them worse than we treat our enemies, or our annoying coworkers.
I tried to be conscious of it, to pause, to think before I spoke. Each time I was about to bitch and moan I replaced it with a question about his day.
I don't actually know if it made my husband happier. But the difference was that it made me happier! By eliminating the reflexive habit of complaining and bitching and moaning, I felt a little lighter.
While I couldn’t bring myself to chuck a single pair of Lululemon yoga pants, I did manage to toss several pairs of ratty lacrosse shorts from high school that has become my go-to sleeping attire. And then, one night before my husband came home from work, I decided to prance around the house completely naked. I never walk around naked. It didn’t feel liberating or sexy, in fact just the opposite, I felt awkward and exposed. I tried putting on music, but when I danced alone to a Taylor Swift song our giant dog was so enthused she wanted to dance along, her talon-like claws scratching down my thigh.
That was how my husband found me, wounded and vulnerable, breasts and ass bare to the world and screaming at the dog that she was very bad and should be sent away to live in the countryside.
He laughed and found the hydrogen peroxide to nurse my wounds.
If there was one thing I could quit doing it was peeing with the door open. No matter how small our bathroom, I could still keep the door shut, maintain that small moment of mystery. But it’s much easier said than done. I don’t think I realized just how much I talk to my husband while I am in the bathroom, and I would frequently catch myself cracking the door to shout out a news headline or reminder about something we needed to pick up from the grocery store.
And so I took a new tactic. I began texting my husband from the bathroom.
Did you see this article?
Do you think we should clip the dog's nails?
I think we're out of conditioner.
At the end of the week I asked my husband if he thought life was better with the bathroom door being closed, the phone off the dinner table, the compliments, the lower frequency of nagging.
“Honestly?” he asked. I nodded. He shrugged. “I didn’t notice.”