Dating someone outside of your culture can be amazing for many reasons: you get to connect with someone across cultural lines, broaden your ideas about the world by learning about another’s experiences and ways of thinking, and also to share a life that spans countries and cultures.
However, it’s not without its problems. It can be hard to bridge cultural gaps and fit your lives together perfectly. While they are by no means exclusive to international couples, the following six points are common challenges in international relationships.
Suggested by Japanese blogger Madame Riri, these points (plus one of our own that we think is vital) are definitely worth considering if you or someone you know is about to begin an international relationship.
1. The Language Barrier
It probably goes without saying that understanding what your partner is saying is vitally important, but when we first meet someone and fall head-over-heels in love, such matters might seem trivial. They’re not.
In relationships where a language barrier exists, it can really add a lot of stress—particularly when one person is always expected to speak in their non-native language. Studying a language can be fun and rewarding, but even people who reach a relatively high level of proficiency need a break. You can see how that could lead to resentment for the person bearing the burden of communication. Considering the importance and difficulty of communication within a relationship, using a non-native language can seem impossible. If you’re only talking about day-to-day matters and choosing the type of cat you’re about to adopt into your home then you might not run into much trouble, but if something serious happens – illness, issues regarding visas and residency, etc – not being able to understand one another, or make yourself understood, can be a recipe for disaster.
▼ Remember when Ricky used to get upset and switch over to Spanish? It may have been funny to watch, but probably not great to experience daily.
Add to that the cultural differences in communication styles. People from different cultures can use the same words to convey drastically different meanings, and that just makes this particular obstacle harder to overcome. Even nonverbal communication varies from culture to culture. Take, for instance, the act of offering a hot drink to guests in your home.
▼ In the US, this means “Relax, let’s talk for a while.” In Japan, this means “You should probably get going soon.” Hmm.
Differences in language don’t have to mean the end of a relationship, though. Every couple handles it differently, but it isn’t a bad idea for each partner to learn the other’s native language. Learning a language is never very easy, but if you’re in it for the long haul, it’s one more way you can care for your partner. In addition, language and culture are mutually reinforcing, making them nearly impossible to disentangle. That means that learning your partner’s language gives you a frame of reference and makes it more likely that you’ll understand their logic.
2. Differences in Expectations
This one can happen for any couple that hasn’t talked about each person’s expectations, though it can be greater when crossing cultural lines. In some countries it’s expected that the wife will stay home, have kids and keep the household running smoothly, while in other countries it’s much more common for the wife to continue on with her career. “House husbands” are becoming increasingly common in some places.
▼ It’s the stuff sitcoms are made of, even when they’re from the same town.
Marriage roles are one issue, but then there’s also which country you’ll settle in, how to care for ageing family members, whether or not you have children, and how to raise any children there may be. These kinds of misunderstandings can have huge implications, and that’s if you’ve made it this far. What about cases where one person is thinking they’re definitely heading towards marriage while the other is thinking it’s just a fun (but short-term) adventure while travelling? Yikes!
If you’ve mastered the first point, this one should be fine as long as you exercise your communication skills. If you haven’t, you’re in for a very frustrating Catch-22. The best way to avoid these difficulties is to have open, honest conversations about what you each expect, what you want from the relationship, as well as what you’re able to give – there’s a good chance that what seems obvious to you won’t have even occurred to your partner.
3. Excessive Anxiety
It’s normal to have doubts about a marriage, but what if you were also moving across the world to a place you don’t know a single person? And you’re going to become a member of a family you hardly know and can’t communicate well with? And you have almost no prospects for a career there? And it’s starting to sound like your future marriage has gone from an equal partnership to complete dependency? Aaaarrgh!
▼ Run! Run away so fast!
Alright, so maybe it’s not as bad as all that, but it’s one particular slippery slope that’s hard to keep from sliding down. To avoid this pitfall, it requires (you guessed it) communication and mutual understanding! You can’t soothe fears you don’t know about, so you’ll have to express everything that’s worrying you so you can work to find ways to support each other adequately—and to follow through on that support, whether you understand the fears or not.
For those taking the plunge and moving to another country, it’s also a good idea to find ways to be more independent. If you feel like you can continue to have your own career and social life, the move isn’t nearly as terrifying.
4. Not Enough Money
They say the best things in life are free, but it can be more expensive than you’d like to admit to juggle them all. So you’ve found your soul-mate and would gladly move across the world to be with them. But what about your family? You’ll probably still want to see them, and your partner theirs, as much as you can. But paying airfare for yourself, your partner and any kids you may have even once a year can really add up, and possibly eat up all your vacation days. Ouch! If the household’s primary earner is working outside of their home country, there may not be as many career options or opportunities for advancement, meaning the salary could be lower to begin with. If you decide to send your kids to an international school, that all adds up to a lifetime of financial struggles. You might hate to place importance on something like money, but it means security for you and your partner.
▼ Every time you pack your bags, this is what your bank account does.
So how can you work through this one? It’s hard to negotiate with your bank book, but making a plan together can at least prepare you for the difficulties ahead. That includes agreeing on a household budget, as well as each partner’s financial contributions, whether you’ll need to adjust education and career goals, and to figure out how to support each other financially as well as emotionally.
Finally, will you, your partner, or the both of you manage the finances? In some cultures it’s a given that women control the cash, while in others men traditionally hand out housekeeping money once a month. These are all things you’ll have to consider and, yes, talk about.
5. Physical Distance
At some point, you may not be able to stay in the same country and have to resort to the dreaded long-term relationship. It can start to feel like you’re no longer sharing your lives—and if there’s a time difference, that can make any kind of communication much more difficult. Over time, there may be less and less overlap and you feel the distance more and more. And of course, it can be difficult to do without the physical aspects of your relationship.
▼ Oh, Tokyo Teleport Station, why can’t you really teleport?
Long-distance relationships are not tenable forever, but until you can find a way to be together again, there are some ways to help you get by. Luckily, we live in the age of the internet. Skype dates, emailing and any other way of staying in touch are essential. You may not be able to go out on Saturday nights, but you can still carve out time to be together, even if you’re just live-chatting through the latest episode of Game of Thrones together or playing the same online games.
It sounds like it would be impossible to maintain a physical relationship, but you can find solutions with a little creativity. Each couple will have different boundaries, so it’s important to talk honestly to figure out exactly what each person is comfortable with. Whether it’s spicy Skypes, an agreement to have a temporarily open relationship, or just saving up all your energy for the next visit, being on the other side of the world doesn’t have to be the end of the world. And of course there’s always virtual reality if you simply have to engage in some long-distance love making…
6. Disliking Your Partner’s Home Country
This last point is kind of a doozy, and probably one of the trickiest situations you may have to face in an international relationship. As anyone who has lived in a different culture can attest, life abroad can be pretty difficult. Culture shock sets in and you might complain about the differences that are especially hard to understand or deal with. Because they’re alien to at least one half of an international couple, things in a foreign country can seem far worse than they really are, and it’s easy to become obsessed with the idea that “different = bad.”
However, when your partner is from that culture, things can get even hairier. To your partner, your complaining about how things are “different” starts to sound a lot less like “blowing off steam” and a lot more like “disparaging.” And if, even after you’ve settled in, you genuinely don’t like your partner’s culture, then it really makes things hard for both of you.
▼ A little hate can poison a lot of love
So how can you live with that friction on a long-term basis? Finding things you love about the culture can really help you find a middle ground. Whether you find your passions in art, history, trains, or something completely different, it is a good way to temper your feelings towards the country— and that means your partner is much less likely to feel attacked next time you just need to point out one place the country went wrong.
Of course, no two couples are the same, and it would be wrong to suggest that, say, Japanese and Australians always go well together, or that a Chinese man and a British woman will never run into trouble — it all comes down to our individual likes, dislikes, and characteristics. But there are some things that, whatever their nationality, those in international relationships can empathise with. If you have advice for someone about to begin an international relationship, or there’s something that you wish you’d known when you started your own, leave a comment below.