In the world of romance, globalization brings a new dynamic to an age-old mystery
Brexit, Trump, Strache, Le Pen. With all the gloom and doom on globalization, you’d think everyone was miserable. Think again.
One of the most profound effects of globalization is that people from everywhere are falling in love with people from everywhere else. Not that this is new: Aristocrats have been building empires with their strategic love matches for centuries. Caesar and Cleopatra is sizzled with international intrigue and romance. Now, it’s everywhere you look. In Austria, a full 18 percent of all marriages are intercultural, according to Statistik Austria (in July 2015), and it is even higher in multicultural hot spots like Berlin and London. There is literally a world of romance happening out there!
When I met my Austrian husband on New Year’s Eve in 1996, I did not realize that I was at the start of my own multicultural journey. His English was passable and I scraped by in German, and our worldviews were amazingly similar. And Vienna seemed a lot more glamorous than my small town in Canada. Since then, our worlds and worldviews have moved and merged, clashed and connected, and we have come to realize that we are part of a growing trend toward increased internationalization of families, or what I call the globalization of love. As romantic as it sounds, however, the globalization of love also means a fresh new universe of relationship challenges.
The adjustment paradox
An international relationship is a merger of two or more cultures, depending on what the couple bring together. It is not one or the other, but one and the other. Both parties have to find a way to mix and match and merge these two cultural frameworks into one family culture. That requires the willingness to adapt from both sides.
“So I sleep on a futon on the floor,” Irish Dylan said of his way of adapting to marriage with Azami from Japan. “I believe a proper bed has a box spring on legs, a mattress with coil springs and a headboard, but Azami likes to lie on what I call foam, close to the floor,” he explained. “So I adapt.”
Adapting in the multicultural context is essential for day-to-day harmony. What is ironic, perhaps, is that for the long haul, you need to do something that seems just the opposite, which is to be true to yourself.
If you adapt and change too much in any relationship, you risk losing your authentic self. This cautionary tale rings particularly true for the so-called imported spouse, the “foreigner” who gave up career, cat and flat to move across the world for love. Anyone who has lived outside the home country for any length of time will recognize the period of adjustment, when you search for that fine balance between the current you and the new reality, and how these fit together.
At times adjusting to fit in is relatively harmless. You stop eating pizza out of the box, for example, and now use a knife and fork. Classy! Or you regularly watch football (soccer) even though you think hockey is more action packed. (After all, it’s not as if you started playing boules with a Gauloise hanging from your lip!)
Sometimes the issue is dress, when an imported spouse will abandon her original style to blend in with the locals. I felt really encouraged when my husband told me I looked sexy in an Austrian Dirndl, that is until my sister saw me. Why, she asked in alarm, was I mixing flower prints with gingham? And wearing a skirt with clogs, in winter no less? (Come on, a Dirndl is so comfortable, you could eat a whole pie and still not feel the pinch around the waistband … but I digress). I was not being my authentic self (insert skinny jeans here). I was trying to be an Austrian version of myself, which she found silly and embarrassing. With time, I realized, I could and should be both, because both cultures have influenced who I am today.
The danger is when the change is so great and so internalized that the new cross-cultural you is no longer really you. Are you embarrassed to pick up a slice of pizza? Do you speak your native language viz uh Vrenj axe-ant because your Francophilia has supplanted your cultural and linguistic hard drive? Are you wearing your Dirndl to work? Do you still look like your passport photo? When international partners adapt too much, they can lose themselves as well.
This is what happened to Dorte, an idealistic young Dane who went to live with her husband Ajay in his native India. “I integrated too much,” she admitted. “I changed language, religion and diet.” Filled with the romance of her new life, she dressed in a sari, and scrubbed the laundry till her hands were raw, even giving up sports because it was “unladylike.” When her family came to visit, they were shocked. It was the catalyst she needed. “We had to make big changes so that I could get back to being me” – the Danish girl Ajay had fallen in love with, and had missed.
Just when you think you have the balance right, something and/or someone is going to change. Even couples who have had a fairly seamless integration process – minimal language hurdles, high food compatibility, faux pas-free family events and even no visa restrictions – can be blindsided when one partner wants to change the cultural dynamic.
Probably the biggest challenge is when the imported partner says these five fateful words: “I want to go home.” The host partner’s response is usually “but we are home, darling,” indicating the very kitchen and table where they are likely to be sitting. What is meant, of course, is that the one living abroad wants to return to their homeland and the one living in their home country needs a new visa.
For most transplanted spouses, cultural affiliation and flexibility will vary at different stages of life. After the initial whirlwind romance and once the relationship is well established, and the international man/woman of mystery is no longer all that mysterious, other priorities re-emerge, such as a focus on career, a hobby, new friends or old friends from home. Major life events, like the birth of a child, may instil deep urges to reconnect with the family, culture and religion of origin. An ailing parent or an inheritance may alter the equation of where and how to live.
Emily, from Australia, was the globetrotter in the family and rarely glanced homeward up to and including her marriage to German Gunther – until her twin sister gave birth to a baby girl. Gunter was happy to fly Down Under shortly after her birth, at least the first time.
“Once baby Joyce was born, Emily was flying transcontinental three or even four times a year. She wanted to be part of her sister’s daily life again, for every milestone in the baby’s life. I was happy for them, but it was bankrupting us!” he said of the expensive international flights. And with every visit, Emily returned more Aussie than ever. “Culturally, she had repatriated herself.”
Of course all couples deal with change. With international couples, however, the degree is usually larger, as cultural issues ebb and flow within the family dynamic.
So sleep on the floor or eat pizza with a knife and fork, but don’t forget the original you. Wear a Dirndl occasionally, but don’t become an extra in Heidi. It was the wonderful differences that attracted you to each other in the first place. And be ready for a lifetime, yes lifetime, of negotiation and change. Nothing remains constant in a life well lived. And for international couples, the cultural dynamic will always provide that – and a bit of magic too.