In a time of increased travel and mobility, which naturally means a lot more bumping into people from cultures other than your own, it’s no wonder that intercultural and international marriage is on the rise. In the years that I’ve spent working with other women in relationships like mine, I’ve learned that much of what helps us navigate the unique challenges of our relationships can serve as beneficial advice for all marriages and intimate relationships.
1) Examine your relationship (before marriage) like a government official is going to grant you a visa.
While the process of getting a visa for a fiance or spouse is long, complicated, and stressful, there are parts of it that I can’t help but believe put couples who’ve gone through it at an advantage. It’s not possible to get through this process (despite what you may see on reality TV — looking at you, “90 Day Fiance”) without having some serious conversations about your future goals, dreams, and desires. And nothing brings two people together like solving a high stakes problem together.
Does this mean you and your partner should immigrate to a new country just for the experience? By all means, no. But why not have a serious conversation about your future together? Rather than leaving unsaid things to chance, have a conversation about it, guided by a counselor or book or deck of random question cards, if you’d like. And lean into the idea of solving problems together, even when it feels like it would just be easier to do it yourself. Ask your partner for his or her help or advice, then take ownership together and solve it as a team.
2) Prioritize clear communication through self-examination.
When you’re talking about two distinctly different cultures, there are plenty of opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict as we bump into each other. But the same is true for any two people who choose to be in a committed relationship. Your values, worldview, and unconscious beliefs are formed in childhood, so as long as you and your partner didn’t grow up in the same house, it’s highly likely there are some differences there.
But where do you even begin to navigate those deep differences?
Here’s the thing: culture is an iceberg (thank you, Edward T. Hall, for that model). There are the visible parts that we see above the surface, but there is a much larger mass below the water that we can’t see. I’d say the same is true for individual humans. We have our visible behaviors, floating at the water level and above, but these are deeply influenced by all the parts that we can’t see at all – these are the dangerous parts, both for relationships and for Titanics.
Before you tell your partner that there’s something about his or her iceberg that you don’t like, throw on a wetsuit and dive down to explore your own iceberg. When you feel negatively or have a conflict about something, diving down (otherwise known as doing introspective work) to understand yourself will help you more effectively communicate those feelings to your partner. You’ll be able to say, “I feel ______ right now. Maybe that’s because ______. I’m working on it, but I wanted you to understand what I’m feeling.” This will get you a lot farther than saying, “Hey, when you do that, it makes me really mad. Don’t do that.” See the difference?
3) Stop “othering” people from countries that aren’t on your bucket list.
One of my favorite things about intercultural relationships is the ripple effect they have on those around them. There are plenty of people in my life who didn’t know anyone from Turkey until they met my husband, and now, just by meeting him and getting to know them, their paradigms about the region of the world where he comes from are being shifted. Sure, it may be a drop in the ocean, meeting the world one person at a time, but it gives me a lot of hope every time I witness it. It’s easy to feel scared or judgmental about places that we’ve never been, have no desire to visit, and see on the news with headlines that confirm that they’re never getting added to our travel bucket list.
The great news is that you don’t have to marry someone from another country just to be more open to the humanity of people from other countries, religions, races, cultures, and people groups of all kinds. Seek out opportunities to encounter and learn from people in other cultures, whether that’s through events in your city, travel, or even easing into it by watching documentaries and reading books. One of my favorite ways to experience a culture other than mine is to read fiction written by a person from that culture, set in that culture. I love non-fiction, sure, but there are few opportunities to get into someone else’s head that compare with a really great work of fiction. Best part? With a library card, it can be completely free: no passport required.