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Why international relationships are so challenging



Ana Sofía Ibarra Castro - published on 05/15/17

The decision to leave one's country for love is hard, but here's some advice for making it work.

International love stories usually begin with an incredible and unexpected coincidence that allowed two people from different countries to meet. There is an obvious “opposites attract” dynamic at work when different cultures add another dimension of difference to the relationship. And the first stages of these relationships often involve periods of patient long-distance love.

But perhaps the most challenging part of an international relationship is the decision of where to live. Inevitably, one or both of the spouses has to make a big decision: to leave their land, family, friends, and lifestyle in order to move to the other’s country. Adapting to married life is already challenging, but uprooting from one’s old life and embracing a new culture and country make it even harder.

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Some people make that decision impulsively, in the midst of falling in love or the “temporary madness” of infatuation. Others make it in a phase of more clear-eyed and mature love built on knowledge and acceptance of the other. Whichever way the decision was made, hard times are part of the bargain.

Adaptation is not always easy, and we often take the wonderful aspects of our home country for granted until we are no longer living there. This struggle can also impact the relationship: when we’re having a hard time, we can feel tempted to throw our sacrifice into the other’s face as if we were the only one making an effort, or as if there were a competition for who has sacrificed more in the relationship.

But those who welcome a foreign spouse are no less committed. They have the arduous task of supporting and accompanying their spouse in the process of transplanting their roots. This close accompaniment becomes the “backbone” of the relationship, because it is a fundamental point of reference and contact with the new culture. And the dialogue that is born from working through these differences can make international couples even more attuned each other’s perspectives and needs, and more empathetic and respectful of the other’s way of being.

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How can international couples harness the good possibilities of this struggle to adapt to a new country? Some ideas:

  1. Express our expectations explicitly: What do I expect from you? What do you expect from me? What do we expect from ourselves as a couple? Sometimes one spouse may have expectations that the other is not aware of, which can cause unnecessary resentments. It’s best to lay all of those expectations out on the table beforehand, and also during the marriage. Communicate, communicate, communicate!
  2. Accept that it’s going to be hard sometimes. Both spouses need to accept from the get-go that adaptation is not always a cakewalk. There will be moments of culture shock, sometimes even after a year or more of living in the new place. There will be waves of nostalgia and sometimes a sense of grief at being so far away from one’s own family, particularly at key moments like the birth of a child. There will be frustrations and annoyances with aspects of the new culture that we “just don’t get.” Let your foreign spouse vent sometimes without getting defensive. And if you are the one struggling to adapt, express your struggles in a personal way (“I find it hard when…”) without making harsh criticisms of your spouse’s country that may be hurtful (“Your people are so…”). Having a sense of humor about the difficulties is also a great coping tool.
  3. Remember that loving the other also implies respect for his or her culture and history, even though sometimes we do not understand or share it at all. That is why it is very important to make space in the relationship for each one’s culture, showing openness, curiosity, and respect. Look for occasions of cross-cultural influence – through food, the way of arranging or decorating the home, music, a trip, etc.
  4. Look for ways to make our new country our own, to “appropriate” the new culture. It helps to encourage the foreign person to embark on a personal project beyond the couple, and look for opportunities to develop new friendships and a social network of support that is independent of mutual friendships.
  5. Try to make friends and share experiences with couples similar to yours. In addition to having fun with the misunderstandings that usually happen when learning a different language and with cultural differences, we can discover other ideas that help us to be better as a couple and exploit the resource of meeting each other in our differences.

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When navigated well, international marriages can be tremendously enriching because they bring two very different people together on the basis of mutual understanding, acceptance, and love. In these types of relationships, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts: it’s a new reality that enriches the couple, their children, and the world.

This article was originally published in the Spanish Edition of Aleteia.

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