The cross-cultural love puzzle

The cross-cultural love puzzle

Two people falling in love and maintaining a relationship is already hard work. When you fall in love with a person from another country and face culture differences, then some extra levels of complexity arise...

Can two people from different cultures make it work and not get lost in translation?

International couples face many challenges

In today’s world of increasing global mobility, millions of people go abroad to study, work and live. Having an intimate relationship or being married to a person from a different country of birth and ethnicity is a frequent phenomenon.

According to a Eurostat report, for the period 2008-2010, across Europe, on average 1 in 12 marriages were "mixed" (i.e. consisting of one native-born and one foreign-born partner).

Culture has a deep influence on our definition of an intimate relationship and various aspects of it. What may appear in the beginning as charming cultural differences, can easily transform into a rigid barrier when stress arises and the going gets tough.

A relationship depends not only on the people and the mutual love they share, but to some extent on the socio-cultural background as well. In a way, all relationships are to some extent cross-cultural since both partners come from different backgrounds and have different expectations, values, beliefs, perspectives and personalities.

With international couples these differences can be quite dramatic and fundamental, making it difficult to communicate efficiently and to understand the way the other partner sees the world and vice versa.

All intimate relationships are complex and present their own set of challenges and rewards, regardless of cultural background, but cross-cultural relationships give complexity a whole new meaning...

Lost in translation

Language tends to be one of the biggest barriers in cross-cultural relationships. Many bilingual couples start their romance by having a limited shared vocabulary.

Not developing a common language of communication may bring potential roadblocks. It is easy to misunderstand each other when expressing oneself and that can bring conflict and frustration.

Imagine meeting friends or family of your partner (which in itself is a nerve-racking experience) and not understanding the language. Every time I have been in such situations, I have felt quite alienated; as if a part of my identity was lost since I wasn’t able to express myself verbally.

Tip: Be patient and make the effort to learn the language of your partner. Begin with basic words and gradually build it up. Your partner can be a great support in practicing the language. When misunderstandings arise make sure you have understood correctly before becoming upset over what actually might be a poor choice of words.

Lost in cultural traditions

Being loyal to our own culture and traditions can bring conflict if we are not willing to understand our partner’s culture.

Cross-cultural clashes may include differences in beliefs, values, expectations and behavior, confusion about identities ("Do I fit here?" "Where do I belong?"), struggle with unsupportive families of origin, different interpretation of events, differences in religious and familial practices, disagreements in lifestyle habits, contrasting views on gender roles when distributing housework, clothing (changing your clothing to fit with another culture or just to get the approval of your partner), money issues and many more.

Tip: Get involved in each other’s cultures. Discuss with your partner and share customs and cultural expectations about dating, love, marriage, children, family of origin etc. Often we assume that "our version" is the normal and forget that other cultures have their own valid version as well.

If your family or your partner’s family is being unsupportive, respect their need to adjust and give them space and time to do it. And lastly, with so many obstacles to overcome, clear communication is essential in your everyday life together.

Cross-cultural relationship advice

There is no single formula for a fulfilling cross-cultural relationship. Every person is unique and relationships are all different. Cultural background plays an important role but not as much as how the two of you communicate, respect and relate to each other. Here are some general suggestions:

› Understand, Respect & Accept

Understanding the other’s thought processes and being aware of differences and similarities in perspective, opinions, attitudes, ideals, values and goals is essential. If you expect your partner to think, feel, act and express themselves like you, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

Respect and accept each other’s differences while also being honest about your feelings and needs when you disagree with something. Humour can work miracles in a relationship. The couple that laughs together, stays together.

 Appreciate each other’s cultures

Appreciate each other’s cultures at least to some extent. How involved are you in each other’s cultures?

Appreciations doesn’t mean fully adapting another culture but rather being aware of the cultural diversity, making the effort to experience life from your partner’s perspective and adapting certain traditions and customs as you create "your common culture" together.

 Be flexible

Be flexible to see things from another perspective and redefine your own values and prejudices. The abilities of adjusting and compromising are basic elements for all fulfilling relationships.

See it as a chance to increase your knowledge and self-awareness by being open and learning from one another. Be willing to make changes without asking each other to sacrifice too much and find a balance good enough for both of you.

 Communicate your love & commitment

Two unique personalities and lifestyles merge to find a new equilibrium by forming a new culture combining their own personal and national cultures.

It takes continuous hard work, a willingness to find new ways of co-existing, good emotional boundaries, efficient communication, a lot of patience and tolerance, respecting and accepting each other’s differences and a strong bond to overcome cultural barriers and conflicting traditions.

There is no such thing as the perfect relationship or the perfect cultural mix. Remember that despite all challenges and differences, your relationship relies primarily on mutual love and respect and depends on the strength of your bond: how you relate to each other and communicate.

How do your cultural differences impact your relationship? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences.

Anastasia Christidou


Anastasia Christidou

Anastasia Christidou is a certified counsellor and psychotherapist working with expatriates in Rotterdam (NL) and Brussels (BE). She also runs Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) courses in addition to offering a...

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