Love is blind they say, even scientists, who gleefully point to studies that show how the rush of emotions place blinkers on our brains, shutting down rational thought. Falling’ in love with someone from another culture is hardly a misnomer. We truly prove our love with the ultimate commitment — launching ourselves off the hard ground of our personal reality into the unknown of another.
By taking a partner from another culture we tacitly agree to share and explore a new reality in ways that reach into the most vital and intimate corners of our lives. What does it matter if we shut down a few more synapses as we bungy jump into this new adventure?
The pity is that this blissful state of irrationality often lasts only long enough to get us to the church (usually after we have neatly written our name on some paper or another) or across a border. In my case it took me to a Swiss registry office where I was asked if I would accept my husband-to-be as ‘Oberhaupt’, oh oh! That was the beginning of a journey that has sometimes seemed like a Disney version of snakes and ladders. If the average marriage has the odd obstacle just square it and you have an intercultural partnership. The average conversation can do it if you throw in one of those run-of-the mill miscommunications. “Did he really mean to tell me he’s had enough of me?”
Don’t get me wrong, I would be the last to knock intercultural partnerships. My husband and I are happily on our way to a silver wedding anniversary, but like most people who come from different cultures we’ve had an eventful journey in more ways than one. Let me see, we’re on our fifth country aren’t we, or should we add the places we landed in after being evacuated out of Africa? But we have been lucky. We did get around the obstacles — we might not have. We might have gone our separate ways and been faced with the problems of sharing children across the world, or one of us might have had to spend a lifetime ‘away from home’ because of these shared loved ones. Intercultural partnerships are often a matter of ‘tou;ch and go’. On the other hand when ‘go’ means leaving a country; lifestyle, friends and possibly children, most of us think twice, or three times, saving many intercultural marriages.
The stumbling blocks of these partnerships start with the fact that no matter how schizophrenic we become we can still only live in one place. ‘”Your place or mine?” is a question with immense consequences. If the marriage lasts, one partner will live far from family in a culture that is often not welcoming, and that these foreign partners will often be unable to ‘make their own’. Even with the best of intentions the fact that one partner is out of his or her ‘natural environment’ changes the power balance in a marriage for a long while — long enough in any case for it to require a weighty mass in the coin of effort, earnings, or straight battling it out to balance the scales.
If a marriage ends “your place” can become a heartbreaking liability. There are countries in which divorce is a matter of who has the most power and influence and this is rarely the foreigner. Some foreign partners limp off the battle-field in the direction of home with nothing but the shirt on their backs. But going ‘home’ after years away is also fraught with challenges that must be faced carrying the heavy burden of a failed partnership, missed friends, lost opportunities. Where children are involved, the theatre of intercultural life slips into the tragic. Either children will be taken far from one partner or, as if often the case with the present shape of western law, the children cannot be taken from the country they have grown up in. Foreign partners must now return home without their children or face life alone in a foreign country.
Would I have chosen differently if I knew what I do now? Probably not, but I suspect that I will not be able to resist heaping advice and warnings on our children when they stand at the same crossroads. Intercultural marriage is a journey into another culture and into ourselves. It adds another dimension to life, but is rich in irony. Just those things that appealed most in our partners are often those that cause us the most problems when the magic transforms into the mundane. The differences that added spice to a courtship can sour a relationship.
But just as often it can sweeten our lives, if we let it. Did you really want to be called sweetheart all your life? Doesn’t ‘Schatz’, ‘Cherie’, or ‘Querida mia’ add just that little something to your understanding of life and love?
Article Author: Ngaire Jehle-Caitcheon, MA, BSc
Ngaire Jehle-Caitcheon, MA, BSc. is a psychologist from New Zealand, Ngaire has spent 26 years abroad in North America, Australia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. She has been involved in intercultural training for 12 years in a variety of settings: companies, expatriate communities and schools. She has a B.Sc. in Psychology, a diploma in psychotherapy, a Master’s degree in Sociology and a teaching certificate for international schools. She and her husband have two children and have faced many of the situations that can arise abroad from dealing with learning problem to preparing for evacuations during wars and rebellions.