Cross-cultural love is easy to start but harder to maintain.
They say that fate has a hand in every connection. But the night my husband and I met, fate seemed to be cutting things awfully close. Richard lived in England, and was in New York City for a week’s vacation.
I was in graduate school at Columbia University. It was the ultimate coincidence that we happened to be in the same bar, a little dive called the Subway Inn on Lexington Avenue and 60th Street. We fell easily into conversation, and by last call I was pretty sure that this was the guy I was going to marry. Fortunately, he felt the same way.
As anyone in a cross-cultural relationship can attest, falling for each other is easy. But dating is much harder.
Seeing each other casually isn’t really an option if you’re not living in the same time zone when you first meet. You have to make a commitment, early on, to nurture a relationship that may require securing a visa before going out to dinner. Add in the complications of diff erent cultural approaches to love and marriage, conflicting ways of communicating, and language challenges, and it’s enough to give even the most ardent romantic a headache.
So, after a year of impassioned emails, gigantic phone bills, and whirlwind romantic visits, I found myself adjusting to life in Richard’s small Lancashire village. My journalism career was put on hold: I had been rustling copy at a prominent international newswire, now I was churning out cappuccinos in a Manchester café.
After the social buzz of New York, my life seemed bewilderingly dull. Apart from Richard, I didn’t know a soul in England, and I missed my friends and family desperately. My unhappiness took the shape of an endless litany of small complaints—the showers were lousy, the television was a joke, the clothes all looked the same, the trains didn’t run late enough, you couldn’t get a good cup of coffee (or burger, or burrito, or spicy tuna handroll) anywhere.
But couples that can weather so many practical obstacles together often emerge with unshakeable lifelong bonds.
Take Laura Yasso, 32, and her husband, Fernando Ballester, 34. The couple met during Yasso’s college year abroad in Valencia, Spain; when she couldn’t find work there after graduation, he joined her in New York City. She supported both of them while he job-hunted … for six years.
“It put a strain on our relationship,” Yasso says. “We had to live with my family at first, because we couldn’t aff ord our own place on one income. I couldn’t switch jobs or pursue a lot of my own personal goals because I always had to make sure I had steady employment. I was the sole breadwinner, and then I would come home and have to do all the housework. I was living with someone who didn’t know how to do the laundry or make the bed.”
Ballester—now gainfully employed—wasn’t fazed by having to depend on his wife and her family. Yasso believes this is because Spain is more accepting of adults who are financially supported by their families. “I think a different man wouldn’t have been able to do it,” she says. “I’ve always supported myself, and when I couldn’t earn a living in Spain, I had to leave because I just couldn’t deal with that. But Fernando doesn’t have that machismo about money. He knew our relationship was the most important thing.”
Compromise is a part of every relationship, but it’s absolutely essential in a cross-cultural dynamic. “You have to be openminded, and be prepared to give a little all the time,” says Autumn Bangoura, 33, a French teacher who lives in Burlington, VT. She and her husband, Ismael, 32, a traditional drum instructor from West Africa, were raised with very diff erent notions about the division of labor in a marriage, especially when it comes to caring for their two children, Khadija, 7, and Gracie, 2.
“I’m a feminist at heart, and I always had this sort of white picket fence vision of a husband who does everything with the babies and isn’t grossed out by a changing a diaper,” Bangoura says. “I really had to let that go, because Ismael was never like that.”
Today the couple has made changes: she’s content to be the main breadwinner and primary caregiver when they’re both home, and he stays with the baby during the day. “You would never see a father doing that where Ismael
comes from,” Bangoura explains. “It’s considered woman’s work.”
Cultural differences may be readily apparent when it comes to balancing finances and raising children, but opposing national identities can also affect the way couples relate to each other on a very subtle level, says Dugan Romano, author of Intercultural Marriage: Promises & Pitfalls.
“We are socialized from the day we are born to expect certain ways of relating to others,” she says. “When these ways differ, there can be problems and misunderstandings.”
I’ve experienced this firsthand—particularly in the way my husband and I each deal with conflict. I come from a post-’70s northeastern American culture, where men and women are pretty comfortable talking about their feelings. But in Richard’s traditional northern English culture (think The Full Monty), a man who cries in front of his wife or admits to seeing a shrink is considered effeminate.
In the beginning, whenever we had a significant disagreement, I wanted to talk things through right away. Richard’s response was to clam up and hope that things would blow over. I resented his silence, and he resented having to bare his soul in countless 3 a.m. discussions.
It took months of patiently working through our differences before we both adapted. He’s now a lot more communicative, and I try to give things a little more room. Living in the English countryside has helped me understand that for a man from Batley, West Yorkshire, Rich is downright touchy-feely.
Tackling differences at home is one thing, but dealing withthem in public is another. I’ve found that many Brits tolerate unpleasant situations stoically, even cheerfully—an off shoot of the “stiff upper lip” that served the English population well during the years of wartime rationing. But today, this tendency has people averting their eyes from everything from bad service in a restaurant to an incident of vandalism on a packed commuter train.
By contrast, I’m your typical mouthy New Yorker. This almost led to my undoing just after I moved to England. One afternoon, I saw some teenage guys urinating on the door of a Manchester synagogue. I was appalled, and told them so. They responded by jeering at me and a nearby policeman didn’t intervene.
Experiences like this are just as hard on Rich as they are on me: he doesn’t like to see me unhappy, but doesn’t understand why I need to “create a scene.”
Romano says this scenario is fairly typical among international couples. “Even people who have spent twenty-plus years in another culture can have the feeling of not belonging and being outnumbered in a point of view, or way of doing,” she says.
For American writer Rachel Freeman, 38, and her Polish husband, Slawek Justynski, 33, relocating for love presented insurmountable challenges. Freeman met Justynski, a jazz musician, on a train in his native Poland. There was an undeniable spark, though the two could barely communicate—his first love letter had to be translated by a sympathetic diplomat at the Polish Consulate.
Three years later, she moved to Warsaw to live with him. “Initially, he was the only person I knew in Poland,” Freeman says. “Of course, he was my best friend, but you need other friends too. It can put a strain on the relationship. In my first year I was so helpless, I remember not even being able to call a plumber because my Polish wasn’t good enough.”
As romantic as it sounds to drop everything and move to another country for love, the reality often means giving up your job, financial stability, and independence for a grueling adjustment to a foreign culture. It’s a leap of faith that doesn’t always have a happy ending.
When Freeman and Justynski moved to New York City, he was suddenly the helpless one. “His English wasn’t up to speed, and it was hard for him to get work,” says Freeman. “In Poland he went to all the right schools, and he came to New York and he was just a nobody.”
Justynski was unhappy enough to move back to Poland, and Freeman had a tough decision to make. “I was so happy to be back in New York, but I knew that if I didn’t go with him, we would have broken up.” The couple now lives in Edinburgh, Scotland—“neutral territory,” as Freeman puts it—and are expecting their first child.
Difficult though it was, Freeman credits the time they spent in each other’s countries as key to their success. “Our backgrounds were so different,” she says. “He grew up in a communist country, where you stashed all your money in a drawer. I remember thinking, I can’t believe I’m going out with someone who doesn’t have a bank account.”
International romance is often accompanied by unavoidable complications, but the scenario is not without its perks. Marrying someone from another country has not only made me more openminded, but has also given me incredible insight into my own beliefs and ideals.
This is all part of the payoff for globe-trotting couples, Romano says. An international relationship gives both parties “an opportunity to increase self-knowledge by being forced to examine and defi ne your own values, ideas, and prejudices. Add to that the variation and vitality of blending two cultures, having an international identity, and bringing up children who are ready for the new global world.”