Would you fall in love with someone who couldn’t speak English?
Would you fall in love with someone who asked you to move to another country with them?
Would you fall in love with someone with a different skin color?
If you’re one of the 73-million-strong Millennial generation, then your answer is probably yes.
The stigma against intermarriage is fading…
And with it comes a whole new raft of problems.
The Beauty of Cross-Cultural Relationships
I’ve fallen in love with someone who couldn’t speak English, someone whose skin color was different from mine, and someone who wanted me to move to a different country to be with him.
Not because I have a fetish for foreigners, but because I was the foreigner.
Living overseas, I had two options. Either I could stay single until I moved back to the U.S., or I could date the locals. I chose to date the locals!
And I’m so glad I did.
I learned that sharing the same values matters more than sharing the same heritage. I learned that globalization has given us the gift of a common culture. I learned that we talk about the same things, regardless of which language we’re using.
I saw friends marry across national and racial lines. Some of those marriages worked. Others didn’t. Some of my own cross-cultural relationships worked. Others didn’t.
And I spent a long time reflecting on why.
4 Kinds of Intermarriage
Intermarriage comes in many flavors.
There are interracial marriages between people of different races or ethnicities. (These marriages are the focus of most research on intermarriage.)
There are interfaith marriages between people of different religions.
There are cross-cultural marriages between people from different cultures, even if they live within the same region.
And finally there are transnational marriages between people from different countries.
A relationship may be one or some combination of all four.
But with each element added to the mix, more complications arise.
The Rise of International Marriages
Perhaps the most challenging of all is the transnational marriage.
Spouses must not only contend with different cultural backgrounds and often a different language, but also the challenges of deciding which country to live in.
International marriages have always been popular in European countries like Switzerland (where half the marriages are between different nationalities), Sweden, Belgium and Austria.
The French and Germans marry outside their own country fairly often, too, at a rate of about 1 in 7 of all marriages.
Transnational marriages have rising steeply in Asia, affecting countries like Taiwan, China, Japan, and South Korea.
But Americans are much more likely to marry across faith or racial lines than national lines. By 2010, less than 5% of Americans were married to a foreigner. (Meanwhile, 10% of all American marriages involve a spouse of a different race or ethnicity.)
Many international marriages stem from student love affairs, when a student from overseas comes to study in the U.S. or an American student studies abroad. Others arise when Americans are posted overseas for a job or military service.
International love affairs feel drenched in romance. You feel like you’re starring in a movie. You never thought this would happen to you. You’ve never felt this way about anyone before. Your partner feels so special, so exotic, yet so tailor-made for you.
Will you be able to overcome the practical challenges of merging such different lives?
Do You Have These 3 Skills?
It’s easy to fall in love with a foreigner.
Everything about them is out of the ordinary, yet you’re delighted at your similarities. You’ve never learned so much from anyone before.
Falling in love may be easy, but making a successful marriage is hard work. It will require skills you may have never needed before.
Among them are cultural humility, a proficiency with navigating government red tape, and heart-wrenching sacrifice.
Would you give up your country, your faith, maybe even your family to keep the one you love?
Skill #1: Cultural Humility
To practice cultural humility is to maintain a willingness to suspend what you know, or what you think you know, about a person based on generalizations about their culture.”
– Craig Moncho, The Social Work Practitioner
Maybe you know what men want.
But do you know what Latino men want? What African men want? What Scandinavian men want?
Back in my mid-twenties, I was living in South America and dating a local guy. I remember talking to some other American women who’d also fallen in love with locals. They’d gotten married and moved there for good.
“What I could really use,” I told them, “is a book called How to Love Your Latino Man.”
“If you write it, we’ll read it!” they replied, laughing.
I never did write that book, because even then I knew I was completely inadequate to the task. What did I know about Latino men? Only what I’d learned in the few years I’d been living there. And most of what I learned was country- and culture-specific.
That’s where cultural humility comes in.
Cultural humility is a willingness to learn from other people about what it’s like to be them.
When you’re culturally humble, you don’t assume you understand everything you see and hear. You ask questions. You clarify. You’re not afraid to be seen as silly or stupid.
And you don’t automatically assume your way of doing things is the best—or even the norm.
Cross-cultural relationships can’t survive without cultural humility.
A study of 155 interracial undergraduate couples found that “cultural humility was positively related to both relationship satisfaction and commitment, and negatively related to ineffective arguing.”
Lest you think that cultural humility comes at a cost to you—the cost of loyalty to your own country and upbringing—let Dr. Elaine Aron reassure you.
Cultural humility makes you a better person.
To know another reality—another temperament, culture, philosophy or religion—can create deep respect for differences without any shame for who one is. It is perhaps the greatest gift of education, travel and close relationships. One learns humility—no one has the total perspective. And all of this is the foundation of ethics.”
– Dr. Elaine Aron, The Highly Sensitive Child
Skill #2: Agility with Government Red Tape
Millions of readers fell in love with Elizabeth Gilbert’s search for meaning across three countries in Eat, Pray, Love.
When Gilbert met a Brazilian businessman in Bali and found the love she’d been yearning for since the beginning of the book, we all cheered.
But the story didn’t end there.
Gilbert brought her lover back to America, where they made a home. He continued to work in his import-export business, traveling in and out of the country frequently enough that he never violated the 3-month visitor’s visa.
But one day, on a flight back home to America, border security stopped them. They refused to allow Gilbert’s lover back into the U.S. The only way he could return, they said…
Is if he married Gilbert and re-entered the country on a spouse visa.
That story will be familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity with transnational marriages.
There’s not an immigration department in the world that smiles fondly on love.
Some countries have very strict policies on their citizens marrying foreign nationals. Other countries treat it as a way of generating revenue.
It takes an enormous amount of red tape, money, and stress to live in the same country as your beloved or bring him here to live with you.
Along the way, you may experience humiliation (the government has the right to peek into the most private aspects of your union), despair, and rage.
But you have to play by the rules if you want the right to live your lives together.
Janine di Giovanni, writing for Prospect magazine, writes:
There are around 350,000 cross-border marriages and 170,000 cross-border divorces in [Europe] each year…. This is leading more lawyers to advise couples who do not share the same passport to consider what they are getting into and to do their legal research before the ceremony.”
She adds that it’s not just the visas you have to worry about. What will happen if the marriage ends and you’re left stranded in a foreign country?
The rise in marriage across borders has brought new problems—and an industry in handling international divorces. The question is which country’s law should apply. The wife’s? The husband’s? The country where they lived for most of their marriage? Or the one where they were working when they split up?”
Skill #3: Sacrifice
I’ll never forget being pregnant and realizing that my daughter would probably never call me “Mom.”
“Mom” is such an American word. You just didn’t hear it used.
Up until that moment, I don’t think I’d ever really felt homesick for the culture of my birth. I was a natural traveler. I adapted to wherever I landed. I liked learning new customs and new ways of speaking.
But becoming a mother changed that. I realized my daughter would have a different accent to me. Her childhood would be radically different to mine, because she wouldn’t be growing up within the U.S.
Suddenly, culture mattered to me in a way it never had before.
If you love someone from a different country, one of you is going to have to make a greater sacrifice than the other. You’ll have to leave behind your country, your culture, and easy access to your family.
That may not feel like such a hardship when you’re young and adventurous, but things change when you have a child or when your parents begin to have health problems. What if you’re not there to look after your parents? What if your children growing up knowing their grandparents only as smiling faces on a screen?
Globalization and technology has made it easier for transnational couples to stay in contact with their families on opposite sides of the world, but homesickness can’t be cured by Skype.
Now, none of these obstacles are insurmountable.
Cross-cultural relationships can and do work.
But they take work. They require a level of thoughtfulness, carefulness, and adaptability that the average relationship simply doesn’t have.
Want to Learn More?
For more insight into cross-cultural relationships, watch our interview with former Peace Corps volunteer and Executive Director of UC Berkeley’s International House, Joe Lurie.
If you’d like practical tips on how to navigate the challenges that come with loving someone who’s different to you, check out my Irresistible Insider report on making your differences work for you.