Leigh Matthews is a registered Australian psychologist and founder of Therapy in Barcelona. Leigh moved from Australia to Barcelona in 2011, left a successful private practice in her home country, opened another in Barcelona, married a local and gave birth to her son here in 2012. She comes to her work with expats in Barcelona with personal experience of the challenges and rewards of expat family life.
All relationships require work and are met with challenges, but intercultural relationships come with a whole bunch of other pressures. Here are just a few tips for successfully navigating intercultural relationships.
Your love of your partner will not erase all of your, and their, ingrained ways of thinking and being. So little of what we actually see, or know, about another person’s culture is above the surface. Food, language, dress, traditions are all the visible differences, they’re easy to see and they might even be exotic and attractive.
The challenges for cross cultural relationships are beneath the surface: definitions of relationships, concepts of time, punctuality, fairness, family, raising children, work, sharing, gender roles, personal space, approaches to problem solving, notions of cleanliness, expectations, body language, communication styles, unspoken rules and etiquette.
It is important to sit down and explore how your different cultures impact your daily life, perspectives and expectations to determine if they are too far apart to find a middle way. It is better to do this before marrying.
Beyond this, there are very practical matters that will require much compromise and sacrifice: Will you marry and in which country? Which country will you live in? Which language will be the primary language at home? Which family will you live closest to? What support will you need if you have kids? Which country will you spend Christmas in? How will you divide the time between your countries of origin or will you live in a third country?
If some things cannot be negotiated and the divide between your values is too great, then it is better to walk away.
Compromise, respect, and acceptance of difference are all at the heart of the survival of intercultural relationships. Self-sacrifice will be required on both parts and that sacrifice can strengthen the relationship as it is a relationship in which you have both invested a great deal of energy, commitment, and love.
Coming from different cultures often means speaking different languages. Intercultural relationships are fraught with misunderstandings due to language differences. It is hard enough to communicate with individuals from the same language background, but the language differences add another layer of challenge. So much can get lost in translation and you will need some of each others’ languages to communicate with each others’ friends and family.
In an intercultural relationship, the partners cannot assume, and generally have to get better at asking if they understood the other person’s meaning. Be ready to learn a new language, or languages, if your partner is from Barcelona and speaks Spanish and Catalan.
There will be abundant mispronunciations and cultural faux pas throughout your whole relationship. It is important to learn to laugh together at your errors, accept imperfections, and educate yourself about each others’ cultures.
What are greetings like? Is there kissing or handshakes or bowing? Shoes on or off in the home? What is the etiquette around gifts or accepting offers of food etc? Do baby girls have their ears pierced, as happens frequently in Spain? Do you know the “false friends” in your partner’s language? For instance, in Spanish embarazada means you are pregnant, not embarrassed! In English, molest means something more sinister than molestar which, in Spanish, means to bother someone.
You will need to educate each other, support each other through embarrassing moments, and learn to accept imperfection.
Often, an intercultural relationship presents challenges in terms of the discomfort it can raise in the partners’ families. Families can be wary of a foreigner if the family are not cosmopolitan, have not travelled a lot, and, of course, if there is a language barrier. If the language barrier exists, the partner who is in the other’s country of origin, may feel left out at events, and even infantilised when the family members speak to the person by having the partner translate.
Some people hit the jackpot and find a family embracing the cultural difference, but some people find their in-laws do not make the effort with them and they end up feeling alienated and bored at, in Spain, frequent family events. Your cultures may have very different expectations about the amount of time spent with family. In Spain, you may encounter a strong pull to spend a lot of time with your partner’s family.
A willingness to negotiate and compromise is important for the health of your relationship. You may end up compromising on the extent to which in-laws are involved, or to which each of you is involved with each others’ families. If one of the families does not accept a foreigner… you and your partner will need to decide if you can find ways to live with that, for example, your partner visits their family and you simply attend the more important events.
It is important to prioritise your relationship and strengthen it.
Often intercultural relationships that deal with the most opposition are the strongest relationships, uniting together to manage the opposition.
Observe and try to respect the various ways of being in your partners’ family. By the same token, you and your partner may forge a third culture in your home, where you combine some of their family cultural traditions and some of yours.
You will merge your cultures, language, food and other traditions. You will need to find a balance between yours and theirs. A willingness to do this will help make this an easier process. For instance, can you celebrate Sant Jordi instead of St Valentine’s Day? Will you choose Santa Claus or the Three Kings and Caga Tio? Will it be the Tooth Fairy or Ratoncito Perez when your kids lose their teeth?
Can you be open to each other’s food? You try theirs and they try yours!
Be adventurous and ready to try new things. This can be so enriching and fun. Your relationship itself becomes another step toward a more tolerant society.
Raising children is a topic that is often discussed too late in intercultural relationships and research suggests it is one of the primary difficulties in intercultural relationships. We all come with a lot of baggage and ideas about how children “should” be raised. Inevitably there will be differences that can impact a relationship greatly.
Here in Spain, families often start events like Christmas and other celebrations late in the night and kids are often up and about well after what is considered an acceptable time in other cultures. This is often a clash that arises. When is the right bedtime? How will we navigate family events that start late if one partner believes kids should be in bed early?
That said, they say kids here in Spain are the 5th happiest in the world, so there is an upside to raising children here if you can find a way to navigate the concept of bedtime.
The key here is to discuss raising children and family values before marrying or having children so you know if you can find a middle way.
If you are the partner who has moved countries for your intercultural relationship, you will be homesick at times and you will also likely be more dependent on your partner than you have ever been on any partner before. You will need to learn to live with being an “outsider.” That’s ok, that also gives you the freedom to be different!
Keep in touch with relatives and friends, but also focus on finding your networks and building a life in Spain.
You need to choose a supportive partner who understands the challenges of moving to a different country and is willing to carry the extra responsibility of managing things while you are learning the language and feeling isolated. Talk about this before embarking on this adventure and prepare yourself for feeling dependent on someone. It is uncomfortable, but if you work on the language and building your life in your partner’s country you will slowly become more independent.
You’ll both require patience and a mutual acknowledgement of how much each of you has sacrificed to be together. If you can do that, it will make your relationship stronger.
All relationships are complex and require work, but intercultural relationships present added stressors, challenges, and differences to navigate. There are added pressures, mostly from extended family, and due to cultural and language differences.
Such relationships do, reportedly, have high success rates, but require full disclosure of values, needs and wants and a willingness to self-sacrifice, compromise and embrace another way from both sides.
The most successful intercultural relationships bring together people who:
Your relationship will be a unique combination of cultures, shared by two people who have supported each other through all the complications of intercultural differences. If you remember why you are together then you will find a way and create a strong unit for life.
If you need some help, for yourself, or as a couple, contact Therapy in Barcelona to get some support through the challenges.
Main photo @pabloheimplatz on unsplash