When you live abroad, you inevitably end up dating and having relationships with people from other cultures, which comes naturally to the existential migrant since they are xenophiles that are inherently more attracted to what is “different” and “unfamiliar” anyway.
However, although many existential migrants actively seek out foreign partners, this decision can bring on a whole new set of problems and challenges….as if dating and relationships weren’t hard enough! Not only do you have to get to know each other and integrate your unique personalities like any other couple, you have to do this while trying to transcend linguistic and cultural barriers. On the other hand, these differences can also be the main driving force behind cross-cultural relationships that do work. Meaning, what can tear you apart can also keep you together.
Based on my experience and that of other expats, I’m breaking down cross-cultural dating by examining a few of the stand-out influential factors affecting these connections.
When you’re dating someone that speaks a different language, even if they speak English well, or you speak their language well, there is still way too much room for misinterpretations and misunderstandings. It’s not like when you date someone from your home country and you have a reference point from which you can (at least) try to interpret or comprehend what they say or how they say it. Nope, that all goes out the window when you date cross-culturally.
Tip: Take communication slow as you’re getting to know each other, use non-verbal communication (body language and affection) as much as possible, and try to avoid relying heavily on electronic communication (i.e. texting).
As if the language barriers weren’t enough of a challenge, now you have to face the reality that getting to know this person is going to be much more difficult than getting to know someone from your home country. You come from different cultures, have different stories, different beliefs, different backgrounds, different experiences and different perspectives. You won’t understand everything they talk about, whether you understand the words or not, and you won’t be able to “bond” over nostalgia or discovering your similarities like same-culture couples can. “You loved Saturday morning cartoons? I loved Saturday morning cartoons!”; “You went to South Padre for spring break? I went to South Padre for spring break!”… Nope. Not going to happen. Navigating your way around the realm of the unknown when you’re dating someone new from another culture can be a real challenge, especially when you are trying to find ways to connect, relate to each other and bond.
Cultural differences can also open the door to a lot of confusion, especially when it comes to understanding expectations and feelings. For example, in Argentina a man might act like he’s in love with you, when in fact you’re not special at all and this is just a part of his “chamullo” (sweet talk to get you into bed). On the other hand, in the United Kingdom, a man could be completely in love with you and you would be none the wiser until you wake up next to him in bed after a drunken pub night and suddenly, you’re in a relationship.
Tip: avoid trying to interpret their words and actions and instead focus on direct, honest and open communication. Being vague or indirect is not a luxury you have in a cross-cultural union (or in any relationship, really).
Now, while I may have made the linguistic and cultural differences seem only like recipes for disaster, they are also, in fact, the basis of why many cross-cultural relationships are successful. Why? One word: Novelty. This is the “X” factor.
Novelty is the thing that can keep cross-cultural couples together. Having a partner that comes from another culture, speaks another language, teaches you new things every day, and continually surprises you, can be very appealing to some individuals and a way to keep that spark alive. This is the main advantage that cross-cultural couples have over same-culture couples. But this dynamic won’t work for all couples, only those that are comprised of two “xenophiles”, “adventure seekers” or “experience junkies”. Meaning, for those that love to learn and experience new things, travel, learn other languages, a cross-cultural union can be exactly what both parties need to be truly fulfilled. Because novelty, for them, releases endorphins, raises adrenaline, and satisfies existential needs; when both partners get these needs met by their romantic relationship, this can lead to a deep sense of bonding and connection. Becoming deeply integrated into another culture turns into an invaluable gift that you give each other and the constant newness will keep both parties enthralled.
Tip: Novelty can be the key, but too much emphasis on your differences can blur a genuine connection, so discover what you have in common and integrate those aspects as well. Also, make sure there are no differences that are “deal-breakers”. What may seem “exotic” at the beginning could signal problems that will arise later on, so make sure you talk about future expectations and visions regarding career, gender roles, raising children, religion, politics, family, and where to live.
The White Elephant in the Room
Speaking of where to live…all cross-cultural couples must face the big white elephant in the room: Will you stay or will you go? Will they want to go with you? Will they want to go and you’ll want to stay? If you do go, will the dynamic change? Can your union hold up in your country, or in completely new country? Talking to expats whose cross-cultural relationships have failed or thrived, one things seems clear: the cross-cultural couples that can make it work in two different countries, if they have the luxury of trying, are generally the ones that stay together.
Tip: it’s probably a good idea to talk about this issue early on. Do you know for sure that you will want to move back to your home country at some point? Do they know for sure that they never want to live abroad? Do they love the idea of living in your country but you never want to go back? These are all real-life examples that have split up otherwise happy cross-cultural couples, so beware.
The “American” Expat Dilemma
As if all of the latter weren’t challenging enough, American expats face their own set of unique challenges in the dating abroad sphere, mainly due to the strong stereotypes and global, let’s call it “popularity” (or lack thereof), stemming from the worldwide exportation of our culture.
We have the added challenge of making sure that our foreign love interests are interested in us for who we are, and not because of where we’re from, or who they think we are. Also, in general, dating an American will either improve or diminish a person’s social status, depending on the country, which can certainly play a role in dating dynamics.
Tip: Beware of this because, while it’s okay for your nationality to play a small role in your relationship (ahem, novelty), just make sure it’s doesn’t have a starring role. Also, ladies beware of men that assume that American women are promiscuous, as this is a common stereotype across the globe.
When it works, it works
This is so well-written, I’ve taken it word-for-word from this article:
“Despite any road bumps that might be scattered along your journey, true love is never far away. Putting your relationship through the cogs of multicultural living, constant travel, raising bilingual children, and becoming each other’s crutch as you live far from family, is a trial that many relationships never have to test. Getting through these trying times will enrich any relationship.
Additionally, becoming deeply integrated into another culture is a gift you give each other, through teaching and showing the ways of your home country. You learn more about your own culture, and take on the best parts of theirs. Meeting the (foreign) parents and spending time with your new family provides a local insight that most temporary travellers wish for, besides giving you context to the new world you live in. Even your families benefit when they meet each other and enjoy the foods, stories and new worlds that they may never have had the opportunity to discover.
Cherish it – you’re one of the lucky few that gets to jump on board the life-changing roller coaster. Once you’ve taken your first ride, you’ll never want to get off.”
CHECK OUT: DATING & RELATIONSHIPS PART 2: BUENOS AIRES