I am a certified therapist who helps expats facing difficulties in everyday life abroad. I graduated...
Expat couples: Partners from different countries29 October 2013, by Somesh Valentino Curti
After writing about long-distant relationships and migrant couples, I dedicate the third chapter of the "Expat Couples" series to mixed couples, where the two partners do not come from the same country.
Mixed couples are one of the outcomes of the global process of shortening physical distance, thanks to faster and cheaper transportation, and virtual distance, thanks to the widespread use of social media on the internet.
Our lives are becoming more and more global and dynamic in this modern world. One just needs to consider, for example, the EU's Erasmus and Leonardo projects, which promote international student exchange, and the economic crisis that is pushing many workers to leave their own country.
All these phenomena have a central role in influencing our moving around the world and, accordingly, our love relationships.
The rules of attraction
As humans, we are attracted by what is not usual or familiar. It is predictable that, when we move to a new country, we are fascinated by those who have a different skin colour, body, culture and different behaviours. Each couple is the outcome of a first date and each first date is the outcome of physical attraction.
When two people start dating, cultural differences quickly become the central theme of their conversations. They laugh about them, they are surprised by them, they discuss what is better or worse and, if everything goes in the right direction, they end up being part of a new mixed couple.
What happens after some time?
The greater the difference between the partners, the greater the attraction: but what brings two people together and fascinates them at the beginning could later become the cause of fights and, eventually, separation.
For example, the use of a neutral language (often English) or of the native language of one of the partners can create misunderstandings and make it sometimes difficult to express oneself properly.
Another challenging moment can occur when the two get to the stage that I call "Shall we stay or shall we go?" That is, when the couple consider whether to continue living in the same place, to move to one of the partners' country or to a neutral one.
Obviously, their jobs play a central role in this, together with the level of integration of the foreign partner or of the couple (if they are both foreigners) in the country they are in. In short, the couple evaluate the economic sustainability and context in which they live.
Beyond practical issues
Beyond the practical issues, when does a mixed couple have trouble? Why do they struggle? According to my experience as psychologist in Amsterdam, the root of relationship problems can be found in the expectations that partners project on each other.
In the case of a mixed couple, troubles can be even greater because there are not only individual but also socio-cultural expectations in the picture.
Culture is the source of our way of thinking and relating: the historical period and place in which we grew up, family, childhood experiences, school and educators.
All of these elements determine who we are now, who we find attractive and who we don't, how we behave in social life, what and how we think, etc. Basically, they create our individual and group mind.
Travelling and, especially, expatriating challenge our minds. This process goes even deeper if we are part of a mixed couple. When we are in a relationship, our emotional world goes into turmoil and our deepest conditionings are brought to the surface.
Vulnerability reveals where we come from
Being intimate with someone is not easy, as it makes us vulnerable in so many different ways. We often live moments in which we feel misunderstood and lonely.
These experiences open the door to our wounds, the outcome of our past: moments where we felt that our emotional needs (like being loved, respected or just feeling free) were unfulfilled. In these moments of vulnerability with a partner, in order not to feel pain and to protect ourselves, we often close off or react against him/her.
Essentially, we start to behave unconsciously and let our conditioning dominate us, often in those patterns we were trying to leave behind when we expatriated:
› "I'll never be like my mother/father!"
› "I don’t feel part of this society and culture, I am different!"
› "I am looking for people whose way of thinking is different from mine!"
The big misunderstanding
Getting close to a partner can be more complicated when your cultural backgrounds are different: there can be many moments where you feel unappreciated and misunderstood.
We often try to avoid intimacy by using these differences as an excuse to hold on to our past, because it feels safer. In these moments, it is important to be patient, swallow our pride and be ready to let go of our resistance, allowing ourselves to feel unsafe and vulnerable.
It is essential to give less importance to our culture and mother country, and more to our basic individual needs to love, be loved and be intimate with someone. It is a very deep and beautiful healing process that, of course, makes us feel shaky... but it is necessary, if we want our relationship to grow.
The need for intimacy is fundamental and it is much more important than holding onto our cultural system of beliefs and values.
It offers us a very good opportunity to change this system and make it much more flexible and open: "I let go of my past conditioning and my expectations about the future in order to be open to my present needs."
In order to open up, don’t wait for the other to change first: maintain your focus on yourself.
It is important to accept your partner for who he/she is (within the limits of self-respect) and, at the same time, to express your disappointment in a constructive and open way:
› "When you behave like that, I don’t understand you because..."
› "I don’t agree with you, because..."
› "I have a different opinion because..."
If your partner's behaviour hurts you, you have the right to express your feelings and what you need from him/her:
› "You hurt me when you speak like this. I need you to be more sensitive towards me. For example, you could..."
› "I feel anger towards you. I wish you started respecting me more..."
And, at the same time, you can integrate your requests with direct questions:
› "How can I help you when you're feeling bad?"
› "Is there something in the way I behave that hurts you?"
› "What do you suggest could solve this situation?"
Don’t go into the "I am right, you are wrong" dynamic. Let it go and share how the situation makes you feel, always with the intention to give space for your partner to open up as well.
How to deal with conflicts: some suggestions
Here you have some suggestions that may help you in your relationship:
› Accept your partner, open up with honesty and innocence and take the risk of becoming more intimate.
› Accept your and your partner’s negativity. Do not hide it, share it, so that together you can go beyond it. Your partner doesn’t have the same conditioning you have, so he/she can help you see it from a more objective point of view. This will allow you to become freer, because you learn that nothing is unchangeable.
› Your negativity comes from unfulfilled needs, which create open wounds. If you allow yourself to express them to your partner, you can become more aware, open and free.
› Train yourself to be watchful and take some distance from your "automatic" conditioning. It is just old heritage, more like an old dress often worn and discarded. Life is always new and fresh in each moment and it requires you to approach it with the same freshness and innocence.
› Overcome your hardness and let your expectations be frustrated: in short, get rid of what makes you unhappy.
› If you accept your partner for who he/she is, you start learning what it means to love.
› The most important lessons in a relationship come from observing how you handle your biggest fights. The more your expectations are frustrated, the greater the chance is for you to grow as individual and as a couple.
› Feeling misunderstood and lonely are universal experiences: they are part of life, we all go through them. Even if they hurt, it's good to experience them all the way, instead of denying them.
› Culture provides us with a "survival kit" that tells us how to relate to each other, but life is dynamic and expresses itself just in the present. It's up to us to be able to use our present experiences to modify this "kit" and get rid of what we don’t really need.
› The goal is not to act passively because of our culture and personal events, but to act consciously according to our own spontaneity, intelligence and naturalness.
Putting all these suggestions into practice requires a lot of effort and determination at the beginning; but, according to my experience, it is a good way to learn how to be open in a relationship.
Therapy can help because with the support of a professional you can go deeper into your specific situation, activate a de-conditioning process and become more aware of your story and of how you can let go of your old "automatic" reactions.
A mixed couple is a priceless treasure, because it challenges personal and cultural history, forcing the individual to see how much one is conditioned by his or her past, and leads individuals to constantly change their point of view.
The more the partners are different, the bigger the opportunity is for them to become free from their past and open to the present.
Are you (of have you been) part of a mixed couple? What is (was) your experience?