5 mistakes I made in my binational relationship (and how to avoid them)
Can you remember what attracted you to your partner in the beginning? Was it his/her cute accent? The misunderstandings that used to make you laugh? His/her exotic eating habits? Or the promise of an adventurous life around the world?
And over time, you may have realized that a binational relationship takes more work than you ever imagined. Not only do you have to match your personalities, but you also have to juggle with your cultural differences and the miles that separate your countries.
Like you, I’ve had my prejudices, I’ve had to question myself, I’ve made mistakes.
In this article, I decided to tell you about my personal experience and those moments when I was wrong.
Let’s get started with my first mistake…
1) I felt superior
Living a foreigner means being confronted to different values and habits on a daily basis.
Despite the distance you might have with your own culture and your own value system, it is almost inevitable to end up judging some foreign behaviors or attitudes.
No matter how open-minded and caring you are, you will have to face this natural reaction: considering that your way is the right way and that your partner is wrong.
Unfortunately, judgment and ethnocentrism lead to endless causes of conflict.
In my personal experience, in spite of my love for Italy and Italian culture, I sometimes caught myself judging some of my partner’s behaviors because they challenged my value system.
Whether it was about our relationship to family, independence, male-female roles, cooking, friendship or religion, many situations forced me to step back and understand the roots of my reactions.
Many times, I couldn’t control this feeling that my approach was the right one and that my partner was wrong.
If you are in an intercultural relationship, you probably have a certain cultural awareness already: you know which values from your own culture matter to you and which ones you can let go of.
That means you are definitely able to overcome this knee-jerk reaction that leads you to judge your partner because of his/her differences.
Nevertheless, it is important to identify situations and behaviors that hurt you in some ways:
- Why are you sensitive to certain subjects?
- What does it refer to in your value system?
My other piece of advice is to auto-censor yourself in some situations. You do not need to agree on everything and if your disagreement is only a detail in your relationship, it useless to risk hurting your partner.
“Let’s agree to disagree” is what you should apply to yourself in these situations.
2) I underestimated the influence of biculturalism
Have you ever thought of how your personality would be shaped by your partner’s culture?
If you have been in a relationship with a foreigner for a few years, you already know that the person you used to be no longer exists. You will never be able to identify with your own culture in the same way and there will always be a distance with people from your home country.
In my case, I noticed a paradoxical feeling:
- In some ways, I have never felt more French than since I have been with a foreigner. It is by confronting the difference that I have discovered elements and behaviors related to my own culture. My French vision of religion or the need to eat cheese after the main course but before dessert are all little things that make me understand that I am part of the society I was born into.
- At the same time, I can no longer feel completely French. My partner’s culture has influenced me a lot, I eat Italian food on a daily basis, I love the Italian mindset and I am often critical of my own country.
Be aware that this relationship will make you evolve. You may sometimes feel like a stranger in your own country as well as in your partner’s country. Try to appreciate this feeling rather than reject it. It is a symbol of the path you have taken towards your spouse’s culture and it will give you an invaluable richness.
3) I thought that neighboring countries had the same culture
When I started dating an Italian, I often thought that our cultures were so close that we wouldn’t even notice a difference. Coming from the south of France, I am surely closer to an Italian in terms of cultural identity than to an Alsatian or a Breton (regions of Northern France).
I had never thought that our nationalities would be so important in our lives. And yet, I created a blog about it!
Because in everyday life, we end up discovering subtle differences. They are obviously not of the same order as differences between countries much further away geographically. We share a European culture and only a few hundred kilometers separate us.
But when we navigate towards the depths of culture (see my graphic on the cultural iceberg), we are confronted with much finer differences, which we will only be able to really understand after several years and a lot of time spent in the other’s country.
No matter where you come from, you will surely encounter differences. These may only come up after a while, when you talk about subjects like education, family, politics or religion. This is clearly what will enrich your relationship so be curious and open-minded!
You can also read my article on culture shock, with valuable advice from Wiebke Homborg, intercultural expert and coach.
4) I ignored the practical consequences of the relationship
Once the phase of the first romantic months and the idealization of the other’s culture is over, it is time to face reality. A much more practical reality that will surely be at the center of your discussions or conflicts.
This is where the complications of your relationship will begin. Where to live together? How to learn each other’s language? What sacrifice to make to be with your partner?
Where an average couple may find themselves facing these types of questions much later in the relationship, these are challenges that a binational couple will have to overcome quickly.
In our case, these questions have often arisen and still do. After living together in the UK, we had to face a year of distance to preserve our personal desires. We then each made the effort to spend time in the other’s country, which was very beneficial in creating a common culture between France and Italy.
At the moment, we are experimenting with living in a new third country which offers advantages for both of us.
I think it’s important to try out different types of lifestyles to better understand what each of us is willing to leave behind. But don’t be fooled, you will have to work through these obstacles and make decisions together.
These questions can be overwhelming, but they are a good way to realize, relatively early in the relationship, how important your partner is in your life. If living in another country, leaving your family, learning a new language and losing your bearings don’t scare you, it’s probably a good sign for your relationship.
Entering a binational relationship involves much more effort than a relationship between people from the same country. It is therefore useless to persevere if you do not feel capable of questioning so many elements in your life.
5) I minimized communication problems
Speaking a foreign language in your relationship (English, in our case) can be fun at first. There is a certain exoticism and romanticism in speaking a language that is less familiar to us.
But over time, it can become frustrating and tiring to express yourself with a foreign vocabulary, not being able to present all the facets of your personality.
Here are the 3 realities I didn’t anticipate:
- Arguing in English is exhausting: in a situation where one is already sensitive and irritable, finding the strength to communicate in a foreign language is often difficult. To express nuanced ideas, not to hurt the other person’s feelings, or to present your point of view in a relevant way, you need to redouble your efforts and patience.
- To become truly bilingual in your partner’s language requires years of investment: unless you live in your partner’s country and practice the language on a daily basis, it takes several years to express yourself in a sufficiently elaborate way in a foreign language. It is not a question of simply asking for the time or introducing oneself, it’s about communicating with one’s spouse on a daily basis, expressing one’s desires, making plans and planning a life together. This requires a large vocabulary that is not accessible after a few weeks.
- My English has not improved thanks to my relationship: obviously, speaking English on a daily basis makes it much more natural. However, when speaking English with a non-English speaker, you end up adopting the mistakes of a foreigner. Which means that now, I not only make the mistakes that a French person would make, but also those of an Italian. Not to mention that our everyday language is mostly an absurd mix of our three languages and that, at the slightest hesitation on a word in English, we replace it with a French or Italian term. The result is surprising and often leads to difficulties in each of the languages!
Communication should be the foundation of your relationship. Do not assume that your partner understands everything you say verbally. Repeat, explain, be clear and precise, and continue to learn each other’s language.
I hope this overview can inspire and comfort you. You are not the only one who doubts, makes mistakes and tries again.
For more tips, read this article about the keys to success to an intercultural relationship.
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