10 keys to a successful intercultural relationship
Statistics say that you are most likely to find a partner near your house or at your office, someone who will come from the same background, the same social class and who will speak the same language.
Yet, if you are reading those lines, you might have proved statistics wrong.
You fell in love with someone you were not “supposed” to meet, who challenges your worldview and who forces you to step back from your own culture.
As your relationship evolves, you might wonder what you have been doing right or wrong, how to improve your attitude to overcome your differences and how to build a strong couple.
After reading a few books about intercultural relationships, I decided to sum up for you the top tips to build a healthy intercultural couple.
This article was designed to give you an overview of key factors for success. However, some of these topics, such as communicating across cultures, parenting in a multicultural family or moving to your partner’s country, will be further developed in upcoming articles.
To begin with, let’s talk about the most obvious, and probably most important, thing that you should do to understand your partner better.
1) LEARN ABOUT YOUR PARTNER’S WORLDVIEW
What do we imagine about each other’s cultures?
First of all, you need to confront your illusion about your partner’s country with reality. Try to analyze what you know and what you ignore about their culture.
“Stereotypes often exist beyond consciousness and can become a problem when one partner turns out to be different from the norm of his or her culture.” G. Shelling & J. Fraser-Smith
Here are a few things you can do to understand your partner’s culture better:
- Get to know other people from that culture to compare what is true generally and what is true for your partner
- Read books and watch movies about your partner’s culture
- Try to live in the country for an extended period of time
- Try to learn the language as much as possible: what you can get from words and expressions is invaluable
- Avoid generalization about your partner’s culture
Why do we do things differently?
Values are taught in the home, often unconsciously, and reinforced by society. Therefore, most of them are generally culturally determined.
Not only do you have to understand your partner’s values but also question yours:
- What are the underlying values that dictate my behavior?
- Why do I do certain things in a particular way?
“People of different cultures, while having the same fundamental needs (eating, sleeping, procreating…) may very well not have the same wants (social and psychological). Both are convinced of the “rightness” of their ways, because they are behaving instinctively according to their own cultural logic.” D. Romano
This is why, for an intercultural relationship to work, each partner must to some degree learn to understand, acknowledge, and respect the views of the other partner, even if they cannot always come to an agreement.
Now, let’s focus on the second thing you can start doing right now for your relationship.
2) BE READY TO CHANGE
In order to make your relationship work, you might have to make some decisions about who you are and what aspects of your identity you want to keep.
“Making some changes will not destroy your personality, but it might unravel it a bit, or it might reshape it a little – sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. Some changes are necessary to make a union of diverse partners work.” G. Shelling & J. Fraser-Smith
Before you engage with a foreign partner for the rest of your life, it is very important to ask yourself:
- What am I willing to give up or sacrifice of my own culture in the relationship?
- What from my partner’s culture am I able to tolerate, accept or adjust to?
In other words, an intercultural partner should have two very important personality traits: adaptation and flexibility.
Being in an intercultural relationship means adjusting to differences together and finding a balance between your partner’s needs and yours.
It is one thing to know intellectually that all cultures are equal and that one must adapt, it is quite another to be able to suspend judgment and to apply cultural differences in one’s daily life.
And to make sure you know what to expect from your partner, don’t underestimate my third piece of advice.
3) VISIT YOUR PARTNER’S FAMILY
Although this may not always be possible depending on your situation, making a home visit in your partner’s country for an extended period of time can be extremely interesting.
You will realize that you can understand much more about your partner by meeting his family than with a thousand conversations.
You will have the opportunity to see in action the family that raised your partner and have the experience of being immersed in the other’s culture.
“This is a great time to learn about how decisions are made (and who makes them), how family members relate to one another, how male and female roles are defined, how welcome siblings’ spouses are made to feel and what their role is, how love and affection are expressed, how arguments are dealt with, how parents punish children, and how courtesy and respect are displayed” D. Romano
You will also get a social picture of the family: who their friends are, how they see work and money, how they define privacy, how they entertain, what sorts of holidays they like, what are their attitudes regarding education, religion or marriage.
It’s a unique opportunity to deeply understand your similarities and your differences. It will give you a good indication of what patterns of behavior are likely to emerge once you are married or establish a home of your own.
Finally, it’s a very efficient test to see how well you can cope with your partner’s culture and how you can expect to get along with your in-laws!
However, you probably didn’t fall in you love with your partner because of your differences. That’s why it’s important to be able to put them aside. And this is what we are going to explore in the following paragraph.
4) FOCUS ON YOUR COMMON GOALS
Usually, intercultural couples believe that it is more important to be similar in personal values, social class, personality styles, and interests than in the dimensions of culture, race and religion.
Therefore, the success of your relationship will not only be based on your ability to cope with differences but mostly, on your ability to celebrate your common goals and interests.
Remember to put your differences aside and to focus on making activities that make you feel like you belong together.
Your culture does not define every bit of your personality and you might feel much more similar to a foreigner than to someone from the same country who does not share your values.
“Whenever both partners want essentially the same things out of life, they will probably find a way to work together towards these goals, despite the difference in their methods of achieving them.” Dugan Romano
Now that you’ve found your common goals, it’s time to learn how to express your needs and wants.
5) MAKE YOUR NEEDS KNOWN
One of the most important aspects of any relationship is that each partner needs to feel “heard”.
This can be more complicated for intercultural couples as they often use a foreign language to communicate and are more subjects to misunderstandings.
This is why you should spend a fair amount of time making sure that your partner “hears” and understands what you need and want. Likely, you need to focus on what your partner wants and needs from you.
“Many Westerners don’t have the ability to perceive what needs their partners have or which things bother them. Rather, they expect their partners to tell them verbally. This might be different in another culture where the young are trained to notice the needs of another and to understand what silence or body language communicates.” D. Romano
Therefore, you should not take for granted that your partner knows your needs.
You should always check verbally to make sure you both understood a situation.Talk together about your “inability” to read one another and help each other.
As we’ve just discussed, communication styles can greatly differ from a culture to another and lead to misunderstandings. Let’s explore in the next section how to be a perfect communicator.
6) WORK ON YOUR COMMUNICATION SKILLS
In order to build a strong relationship, you need to understand that your ability to communicate will be a real game-changer.
In Intercultural Marriage : promises and pitfalls, Dugan Romano explains that:
“Almost all the more successful couples made an attempt to learn one another’s language. They knew intuitively that they could never really know each other unless they learned each other’s language. Just grappling with another language expanded their worldview and their ability to perceive and relate.”
Even more important than language is the ability to understand one another’s style of communicating: how do you argue? How do you show affection? How do you get your messages across?
Each partner takes for granted that their way of communicating is universal, obvious, clear and right.
Only after a while do partners start to realize that this may not be true. And they begin to wonder if they understand each other at all.
Misunderstandings happen even among partners who speak the same language. So you can easily imagine the trouble of understanding each other in a foreign language.
Both of you should make efforts to constantly translate and explain your feelings.
“How a couple meets this challenge, shares meaning, and decodes each other’s words and signs pretty much determines the kind of relationship they will have.” D. Romano
The beautiful story of Paola and Friedrich illustrates the challenges of communication in intercultural relationships. Have a look!
As you create your own style of communication, you will quickly realize that your singularity can be your strength. This is what we are going to detail in the next paragraph.
7) CELEBRATE YOUR UNIQUENESS
Many intercultural couples feel that they try harder to make their relationship work than other couples.
Indeed, they expect from the very beginning that there will be more obstacles to overcome because of their cultural differences, which makes them more resilient to face difficulties. Therefore, commitment and engagement are often at the core of intercultural relationships.
Mixing your cultural identities means that you certainly created your own rules.
You might speak a language that only the two of you can understand, cook a mix of food that you both enjoy, take the best out of each country and create a new identity that makes you unique.
Feeling different together is a perfect way to overcome your diversity in order to build your own home.
And if you’re still reading this, it’s time to take a little break, let’s focus on your sense of humor!
8) HAVE A LAUGH!
Knowing how to laugh, especially at yourself and your mistakes as bumbling culture-crossers, takes away a lot of tension and helps you bond with your partner.
Even if humor can be very specific to each culture, it should be a way for you to remember what bonds you together in the midst of your differences.
“Learning how to share laughter, building up a repertoire of funny incidents, and having private jokes is one of the best ways for a couple to grow closer.
The couples who laughed together also tended to share another characteristic: a sense of optimism regarding their marriage, as if to say “as long as we can laugh about our weaknesses and difficulties, all is well.” D. Romano
To sum up, don’t underestimate how a good laugh can help your relationship. Take a step back and stop being so serious about your life!
Alright, you’re almost a perfect intercultural partner but now is the time to question your dependency issues regarding your partner.
9) DON’T EXPECT TOO MUCH FROM YOUR PARTNER
In any intercultural relationship, at least one of the partners will live outside of their home country. This leads to a number of situations where each partner can expect too much from the other.
- If you’re the one living in your own country
Try to step back and realize the level of efforts and sacrifice that your partner is making for your relationship.
They had to learn a foreign language, adjust to new customs, leave their family behind, make new friends. To some degree, they will experience homesickness and a sense of unresolved sadness over this loss.
Try to take into account the situation before judging or reproaching their behaviors. Lower your expectation and acknowledge the commitment of your partner.
- If you’re the expatriate one
You might be going through what I have just described. You are isolated from your support system and can feel disadvantaged in many ways.
Therefore, you might find that the only way to overcome the situation is to rely on your partner. You could end up asking a lot from them on a daily basis.
The risk is to become fully dependent on your partner and to expect them to solve all your problems.
Try to focus on the reasons why you decided to leave your own country and the ways in which you can become more independent in this new chapter of your life.
Now let’s take a deep breath. If you’re still here after this overwhelming list, it means that you might soon consider my last point.
10) TALK ABOUT CHILDREN BEFORE HAVING THEM
“We were fine until the children came along” is something you do not want to say in the future.
And yet, even when everything is going smoothly in your intercultural relationship, disagreements about how to raise children can become overwhelming.
Indeed, you need to keep in mind that, not only will you have to agree on how to discipline, guide and raise your children but also on how to deal with the psychological impact of their bicultural, and sometimes biracial, identity.
As D. Romano explains, usually, most people when becoming parents:
“automatically revert to their own childhood to find a model of parenting. And because they were raised in different countries and cultures, the parents may have not only different but conflicting models.”
This is a first list of questions that should guide your discussion before planning to build a family together:
- What religion and what language should be taught?
- Should the child be raised monocultural or bicultural? Monolingual or bilingual?
- Should the name be typical of one culture, one country, one religion or should it be one that is acceptable to both?
More generally, you will have to discuss:
- values and beliefs
- educational and disciplinary styles
- parent-child relationships
And as if it’s not enough for the parents themselves to agree on these matters, the extended families often take an active role and offer advice, comments and criticism.
“Raising children is the real test of how well a couple has learned to handle their many differences; with children all the issues surface and must be confronted. Differences don’t matter. How they are managed does.” D. Romano
I hope this first list of tips will be useful to question your relationship and your behaviors.
To learn more about these matters, you should read the books that helped me write this article :
- Intercultural Marriage: Promises and Pitfalls, written by Dugan Romano
- In Love but Worlds Apart, written by G. Shelling & J. Fraser-Smith
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interesting, thank you!
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