How Polygamy, Role-Playing, and Less Sex Can Improve Your Marriage

Photo: Navaneethan Viswanathan/Getty Images

My husband did not kneel when he proposed. He didn’t carry me over the threshold after we had said our vows. I asked for a ruby instead of a diamond engagement ring. And instead of a ceremony surrounded by our families at church, we got married onstage at a live comedy show in Manhattan.

And honestly? I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I’ve never been big on marriage traditions, but recently I’ve realized that’s because I’ve been looking at the wrong ones. It turns out there are several awesome customs observed throughout the world that are far more appealing than the usual shower of white rice or aggressively thrown bouquet that go hand-in-hand with American weddings. Jo Piazza, author of the forthcoming book How to Be Married, traveled to 12 countries over the course of 12 months to get the best possible advice from more than 1,000 men and women on how to successfully stay hitched. For example, she opened my mind to the benefits of a Mexican shamanic sweat tent to rid you of your psychic baggage.

Here are my six favorite traditions:

1. In Chile: Give your guy his own “man-gagement ring.”

Piazza, like many women I know, hated the idea of a traditional engagement ring.

“I saw it as my fiancé essentially marking his territory,” she says. “So when I found out that men in South America wear their own engagement rings given to them by their fiancées, putting them on more equal footing, I seized on the idea.”

And I don’t mean she just talked or tweeted it about it. During a trip to Chile just three weeks before her wedding, Piazza actually selected the perfect gorgeous ring — silver with three intricate braids of copper inside — to surprise her partner with and propose. “To me, both of us having rings made the engagement feel more like a mutual understanding than a unilateral property exchange,” Piazza says. “It also helped me see why men get so excited about proposing. It was a thrilling moment to the start of a thrilling time together.”

Not only did being the one to propose make her feel more bonded to her husband, Piazza says, but it also made her feel more empowered.

2. In France: Pretend you’re your husband’s mistress.

“I went to Paris with the idea that everyone was having an affair, and that was the secret to a happy marriage,” Piazza says of her trip with her husband soon after their wedding. “I couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Rather, she was schooled in the importance of maintaining mystery and excitement in a long-term partnership — or acting like your husband’s mistress. This meant: Never stop flirting with him. Lingerie is essential. And be private the same way you would before marriage.

“The women whom I interviewed had advice including taking your guy lingerie shopping with you, sleeping apart one night a week, and to stop peeing with the door open. How did they know I did that all the time, I wondered?” she asks. “They reminded me about the importance of putting in the same amount of effort I put into attracting a life partner into maintaining my life partnership.”

So did she do it?

“I took in a lot of it,” Piazza says. “Although I still wear a lot of shitty sweatpants.”

3. In Israel: Less sex leads to better sex.

“I was hesitant to talk about the purity laws followed by members of the Orthodox Jewish faith,” Piazza says. “Then I sat down with Orthodox women in Jerusalem and we had the kind of straight talk that would have made a Cosmopolitan editor blush.”

What she learned during her visit to Jerusalem: There are certain times during the month (namely, the five days of menstruation, and seven days after) when you aren’t allowed to touch your spouse. Not just sex, but certain times when you can’t even kiss and cuddle.

“At first I thought it sounded horrible,” Piazza says. “But I was promised by the many women I spoke with that these breaks ensure that sex is better for the woman and it makes the orgasm grow stronger. And more than that, taking some time for yourself each month is just good self-care.”

So what happened when she tested it out? Indeed, she says, the sex was spectacular.

“Taking breaks,” she says, “makes it more intentional and less routine.”

4. In India: Gratitude rituals are essential.

Traveling to India while reporting the book last year, Piazza discovered the far-reaching effect of various gratitude ceremonies. These included lighting candles to show thanks for your spouse, painting your body in henna in appreciation of your good marriage, and making an annual pilgrimage to a sacrificial temple high in the hills to ask the gods to remind you how lucky you are to have all of the blessings in her life. Piazza was directed to specifically offer thanks for her husband at the Kamakhya Devi temple in Guwahati.

A holy person in the temple told her to light one stick of incense while thinking of both herself and her husband. “Light one and think of two,” she was told, and she watched as the flame spread from a single wick to two tiny flickering flames.

But for those who can’t make it out to the temple in India, Piazza says, gratitude rituals needn’t be so elaborate.

“Making it a daily habit,” she says, like keeping a gratitude journal and finding new and inventive ways to express love and appreciation. “It just makes life and marriage better in so many ways.”

5. In Kenya: Polygamy helps with sharing the “emotional division of labor.”

Piazza talks in the book about how in marrying her husband, she sometimes feels like she also “married his harem of very sweet, platonic, sometimes annoyingly helpful ex-girlfriends.”

So visiting the Maasai and Samburu women in Kenya, where men can have anywhere from 2 to 12 wives, helped her come to terms with her husband’s still very friendly exes. One woman who practiced polygamy told her, “When I’m sick of his complaining, I just hand him off to another wife.”

Piazza had never considered the advantages before.

“Taking on another human’s emotional baggage is a heavy burden,” she says. “Having other women to share that with is a blessing. Let my husband complain and worry to one of them while I go to yoga or get my nails done.”

6. In Denmark: Coziness, or hygge, is everything.

During her trip to Denmark, Piazza learned about the concept of hygge. There is no exact English translation, but it encompasses “concepts of coziness, contentment, comfort, and companionship all in one word.”

“It’s about taking pleasure in gentle and soothing things,” explained Helen Russell, the author of The Year of Living Danishly, to Piazza. “Dinner with close friends is hygge. Large family dinners are hygge. It just plays into every aspect of Danish life. It’s about being kind to yourself and those close to you, which makes you a better partner.”

Piazza quickly found that the way she had been living with her new husband — in a two-bedroom condo with no furniture they had just purchased right after they got married — was the anti-hygge.

Hygge is the Danish code for a happier way of being that involves creating a wonderful and inviting living space so that you have a more wonderful and inviting relationship — one where you more easily leave grievances at the door,” Piazza says.

But it doesn’t mean you need to be toasting marshmallows by a crackling fire. “Shut your damn cell phone off. Savor well-cooked meals with good conversation and wine. Don’t rush to get back on your damn computer.”

Hygge may be my favorite tradition of them all.

In fact, reading Piazza’s book felt a little hygge to me. And it made me realize that the one universal — and international — tradition of marriage is that it’s never easy for anyone.

6 Inspiring Marital Traditions From Around the Globe