Relationship advice for international couples
Often international couples (or couples in a long-distance relationship) see difference and novelty as a stressor in their marriage, this doesn't have to be the case.
Here is some relationship advice that can help bridge the gap if you are in a long-distance relationship or living on other side of the world. With cultural awareness and a genuine effort to stay connected you can make a long distance relationship work.
When you started dating your differences were attractive and exciting. You carefully took time to talk with each other face to face or on a video call, being sure to stay connected. You were patient when your partner said, “I don’t understand.”
If there were cultural differences between the two of you, you each took time developing cultural sensitivity. Perhaps you worked hard to cultivate an emotional connection with your long distance partner.
Studies have shown that novel experiences can stimulate the production of the neurochemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. These neuro chemicals show up in the brain in the early, blissful stages of a relationship.
There may be some inherent aspects of being in an international relationship that invites this type of novel experience. There are unique opportunities that may come up for you two, here are six of the big ones:
Learn the language
When I say learn your partner's language, I mean go beyond elementary levels, and really study the idioms, the “mindset” and the worldview.
You may consider watching movies that have sex scenes in your partner's (or your) native language, and learn what “sexy talk” is to your spouse.
It may surprise you to learn that bilingual Spanish/English women in one study had a very different sexual experience when they had “sex in Spanish” than they did in English.
Studying a new language can be a fun aspect of cultural training. But don’t weigh your spouse down by asking them to carry the burden of communication.
Slow the conversation down when you do not understand and ask for clarification.
International couples require a shared understanding that is not only good enough for everyday use, it also must be good enough if something serious occurs, such as a family or personal crisis. At these times, you will wish you were perfectly fluent.
It takes work to become fluent in another culture. An appreciation for nuance and can convey intimacy and that feels good.
Cook the food, eat the food, mix up the food
To really develop an appreciation for culture, food tasting is essential. It will make your partner feel proud when you learn to make their favorite food, but don't stop with merely one recipe. Work together to make foods that have elements of both cultures. Think in broad categories like sweet, savory, or texture.
Shope together and then find ways to combine foods from each culture in a way that surprises the palette. Experiment with unusual wines, beers, or other liquors and put it all together to make a novel meal.
Escape back home in your own living room
Create an escape that feels like home, even if you are not geographically close, you can get there emotionally. Some ideas include:
- Locate a travel video and “head back home"
- Check out a film in your native language to watch together
- Buy magazines from your partner's country and keep them around
- Buy perfume that is unique or popular in your country
Sometimes rearranging the furniture in a way that "feels like home” can make a big difference. In the USA, for example, a TV often dominates a living room, but this is less true in many parts of Europe. Try banishing it for a month or two to a less used room, and makes the area feel more novel and cozy.
Nail Down The Nuance
Make sure that you nail down the cultural nuances in their home country that really matter. This is an important part of cultural competence.
Be aware of cultural blinders or implicit biases. There are many cultural differences in social communication. International couples may use the exact same words to convey entirely different intentions. This miscommunications can be amplified for long distance couples or when talking on the phone.
Consider this example from a multicultural couple. Your American best friend Buzz has been visiting for a long evening. As wonderful as it is to see Buzz, it is getting late and your Japanese wife, Hoki, brings you and Buzz a nice cup of hot tea. You think to yourself, "how lovely, Hoki wants us to finish the conversation and leisurely chat for a while."
However, Hoki’s intent with presenting him with a hot beverage is "Buzz, thank you for visiting, it is time for you to hit the road.”
Make friends with other similar international couples
Make an intentional effort to make friends with their family members and other similarly mixed couples and share experiences. This is a fun way to expand your vocabulary and have some fun with the typical misunderstandings that usually happen when learning to overcome a language barrier. It will also help you have a deeper understanding of different cultural backgrounds.
Having a network of friends, particularly when we are networking with our partner’s friendship circle is a great way to appreciate important cultural ideas that will help you to become a more sophisticated and resilient couple.
It is also a way of normalizing the joys and challenges of cross-cultural romance. A peer group of other international couples is a powerful way to rapidly enhance your cultural sensitivity while having a good time in the process.
If you love your spouse learn to love their culture
Be open, curious, and respectful when it comes to your partner's culture. Always look for new avenues to make your differences more intimately aligned and personal. Cultivate a relationship with your spouse’s family and friends.
Look for ways to share and appreciate one another’s cultural influences. It is fun to teach your spouse about something new which is one of the reasons international relationships never are boring.
Accept that it will be hard sometimes
There will be times when you will be bewildered and there will be frustration. There will be some things you may never “get.”
When you find yourself frustrated and in conflict with your partner, use I statements. Instead of a harsh criticism like “you are so emotional,” (or far worse, "you people are so emotional"), instead “I feel overwhelmed when you speak to me that way.”
Allow your partner vent in their native tongue. You don’t need to get defensive, instead, you can develop a venting ritual that will diffuse the situation.
Cultural differences are an ongoing novel experience, and the best international couples advice we can offer is to remain curious instead of furious. There is always something new to learn and appreciate about your partner.