I married a foreigner. So did my husband. Sometimes we like to get together and complain (mostly joking) about all the things that are difficult because we married someone who was born and raised in a different country, with different values, speaking a different language.
We can joke about this together because we’ve both agreed that our marriage was the best decision either of us has ever made.
These are 10 things couples should talk about before embarking on an international marriage:
1. Cultural differences are important
Of course, your boyfriend/girlfriend/fiance is just another person. And hopefully you fell in love with them because of who they are, not because of what country they come from.
But you can’t just ignore cultural differences.
Cultural differences are important.
For example, a common complaint I see on forums for foreign men who married Japanese women is the whole “sleeping in different beds” conundrum.
In Japan, after children are born, it’s common for the mother to sleep in the same bed (and later in futons side-by-side) as the children, with the father sleeping in another room. Other families share a room, with the children sleeping in between the parents. These sleeping arrangements can last up until the children are in middle school or even high school. And even when the children leave the house, parents rarely go back to sleeping in the same room, let alone the same bed.
That’s now how sleeping arrangements work in America, where babies often sleep in a different room than their parents (in a crib). I shared a room with my brother and sister when we were very little and, starting in elementary school, my sister and I shared a room while my brother had his own room. My parents have always had their own room – kids only got in bed when they’d had a nightmare and couldn’t go back to sleep.
Ryosuke and I have decided we’re going American on this one because we’re both cuddlers and no way would either of us be happy sleeping in separate rooms for fifteen years – luckily we’re on the same page. An acquaintance of ours often bemoans on Facebook that his wife sleeps in a different room now that they’ve had a child.
When an American person and a Japanese person marry, they have to decide which culture they’re going to follow for sleeping arrangements. And holidays. And dealing with sick family members. And children. And a million other things.
Basically what I’m trying to say is this is just ONE of the many, many cultural differences that come up when you marry someone from a different culture.
Individually, they are minor things, but they can add up, and unless you talk about them, misunderstandings and frustrations are bound to happen.
2. But a lot of things have to do with your partner’s character (NOT their culture)
Sometimes your partner does something or says something that raises all sorts of red flags. But you let it go, because they were raised in a different culture. You’re open, forgiving, and understanding of the cultural differences and try to be as flexible as possible.
It’s easy to blame culture for any differences you and your future spouse might have.
But sometimes culture has nothing to do with it. Sometimes your partner is just being a jerk.
I’ve seen this happen time and time again to friends who are in a relationship with someone from a different country – with a whole range of issues. And I’ve definitely fallen into this trap myself a couple of times.
Let’s say you married your next-door-neighbor’s very handsome son. You grew up together in the same town in the same country, attending the same school. Even so, you’re bound to argue about things. That’s natural.
Intercultural relationships still have all those personal clashes – but they also have cultural clashes thrown into the mix. Lucky us, we get to argue about twice the things!
You shouldn’t pretend that every personal disagreement is cultural (or every cultural disagreement is personal).
Because that’s dangerous. Abuse isn’t cultural. Financial, emotional, or physical abuse is not cultural and pretending that it is can land you in deep trouble. General rule of thumb, if your partner is doing something that would be unacceptable in your own culture, like, for instance, you would break up with that next-door-neighbor’s handsome son immediately if did any of those things, then it’s time to re-evaluate your relationship.
I interviewed Susan (she is an American woman wrote a memoir about her first marriage to a Chinese man, which ended badly) here about the things she learned trying to be a “Good Chinese Wife” and the realizations she had about culture and character. And another blogger friend, Jasmine, wrote her take on culture vs character here.
3. Are you willing to learn your partner’s language?
You really need to because your children will probably learn both languages, so they can communicate with both sets of grandparents and understand their own bi-cultural identity.
4. Research visas. Extensively.
Here’s a fun fact: Marriage doesn’t guarantee a visa.
Some countries have a minimum salary requirement for you to be able to qualify for a visa for your spouse (which sucks if only one of you is working at the time or you’re trying to move to your partner’s country) and others make you jump through dozens of hoops and fill out several stacks of papers. So before you jump into marriage for the sake of a visa, do a bit of research first (and by the way marriage just for the sake of a visa is rarely a good idea).
Hopefully either you or your spouse is from a country with lax spouse visa requirements – Japan only took about three months and a couple visits to the immigration bureau.
If not… well you’re out of luck.
5. Understand how often (or little) one of you will see their family
Living away from siblings, parents, grandparents, and relatives is hard. Make sure you discuss ahead of time how often you or your partner will be able to see their family (if you live in your home country) and vice versa.
And make sure you are financially able to make that arrangement because oh man, international plane tickets are NOT cheap.
6. And make sure to get your family on board before the wedding
“Hi, I’m in love with your daughter and I’m going to steal her away to my home country, where you won’t be able to see her more than once a year.”
Not the best opening.
Don’t lead with that.
Ryosuke’s parents were (obviously) worried about me stealing him away to America. Neither of them have passports or speak English or have left Japan – so they weren’t exactly thrilled with the idea of their youngest son joining forces with a wild American girl.
I was able to charm them into acceptance, though, mostly because they see how happy Ryosuke and I are together. Most of the negative things a parent says about your relationship to a foreigner comes from love (and is expressed through fear) and you’ve got to make them understand that you are the best thing that can possibly happen to their precious child. Or something like that.
They absolutely love me now and, even though Ryosuke reminds them on a regular basis we’re moving to America sometime in the next ten years (will we? Honestly I have no idea but, whatever), they’ve come to terms with the sacrifices families have to make when their children marry someone from a different country. I may have promised to send grandchildren to stay with them every year in the summer (wohoo, free childcare!) to get them on board.
Americans are widely known in Japan for their high divorce rates and volatile marriages (thank you, TV dramas and Hollywood movies). Japan has its’ own stereotypes – as do most countries. Understand those stereotypes and then prove them wrong.
7. Talk about finances
This is true for any marriage – not just for international marriages.
Talking about finances is awkward but very necessary. Ryosuke and I decided that because I’m the math/number geek in the family (and the hard-core “saver”), I will be in charge of money. I later learned that’s the Japanese way of married couples’ financial planning.
I’m in charge of budgeting, deciding when we have enough money to take a trip or buy tickets to visit family members, how much we save every month, etc. I have gorgeous spreadsheets. Seriously, they’re so beautiful.
8. And Food
Does your partner like your countries’ food?
Do they have any food allergies or restrictions that prevent them from being able to eat most of the food in your country? Or are they a picky eater?
Food is important.
Ryosuke would pretty much be fine eating traditional Japanese food, like rice and noodles for every meal,365 days a year. He likes foreign food… but doesn’t like how “heavy” it is (and easily gets tired of bread).
I, on the other hand, need bread and bagels and pasta and soups and stews and spicy food. I need variety.
We take turns cooking so each can prepare the food we like and if you don’t like it, well, you don’t have to eat it. You can make your own lunch, sweetheart.
If your partner absolutely cannot stand food from your home country, is that going to be a problem?
9. If possible, live in both countries before tying the knot (so you know that it that is realistic)
Ryosuke lived in America for a year while we were dating (and another 4 months before we got married). I lived in Japan for a bit over a year while we were dating.
I liked living in Japan. He liked living in America.
Whew! What a relief! We knew before getting engaged that we would both be fine living in either America or Japan.
What if my husband hated living in America?
What if he wanted to live in Japan for the rest of his life?
I’m not saying this is a deal-breaker but you should know what exactly you’re getting into when you say “I do.” The only way you’ll know whether both countries are an option is if you find a way to live (or at least travel for a couple weeks) in both countries before you tie the knot. Because it all boils down to the question:
Are you okay never living in your home country again?
10. And recognize that one of you will always have the “home court advantage”
Living in America is easier for me. I understand the culture, can speak the language, and (for the most part) look like everyone else. It’s easier for me to job hunt, figure out directions to a friend’s house, cook, make friends with strangers in the supermarket, and handle problems in America.
Living in Japan is easier for my husband. He understands the culture, can speak the language, and (for the most part) looks like everyone else. It’s easier for him to find a job here, figure out maps, cook, forge friendships, and handle problems in Japan.
When we live in America, I have the home court advantage. When we live in Japan, my husband has the home court advantage.
This is just a reality of life; the power dynamics of the relationship drastically change depending on what country we’re currently in. As long as you acknowledge the home court advantage, you can modify your relationship to suit these new parameters.
And those are the 10 things you should think about before marrying someone from a different country. I realize a lot of these also apply to “regular” relationships (ie, same town, same country) but I wanted to cover all my bases.
Do you have any advice to add?