Updated: Nov 17, 2020
Unsurprisingly after almost six months of quarantine I've recently had an influx of couples looking for therapy! When I sat down to write a blog entry about it I couldn't believe that it's taken me so long to write about multi-cultural couples. The vast majority of my patients are part of one, the vast majority of those regularly bring their relationship issues into the therapeutic space and I myself have been living with my Argentine partner for nearly ten years now.
So are multi-cultural couples different from couples where both partners are from the same culture? Personally I think there are actually more similarities than we sometimes think. John Gottman www.gottman.com spent forty years researching what makes couples function (or not) and came up with a model of healthy behaviours and toxic behaviours which are almost infallible indicators of whether a couple is heading towards their golden wedding anniversary or the divorce courts. Having used this model with many multi-cultural couples I can say that Gottman's model is as true for them as it is for all couples.
What's the difference then? In my experience couples from the same culture have a head start when it comes to achieving the sort of knowledge and understanding of each other that is necessary for a relationship to be successful. John Gottman proposes creating "love maps" as a way of getting to know each other's internal world but for us expats often we don't even understand each other's external worlds! When you're with someone who has grown up with different values to your own, different cultural practices, different ways of expressing emotion and different ways of resolving conflict it often feels like you have to forcibly strip away your own cultural logic just to be able to begin to appreciate their's.
On top of that there are practical issues. Whose country are you going to live in? What are you going to do for work in a country in which your qualifications aren't recognized? Can you really insist that this year's holiday is a trip home for the fifth year running? If that wasn't enough our native partners have to help and support us in negotiating the difficulties of everyday expat life that . I remember for the first year or so coming back from the pharmacy empty handed every time because I couldn't work out what on earth was going on in there and feeling mortified when my partner just looked at me and said "don't worry, I'll go tomorrow".
So is it worth it? Obviously I have to say yes, I'm in a multi-cultural relationship myself and I'm in the business of salvaging or improving them! However on a more serious note, if you can bear the strangeness and discomfort of stepping outside your own world in such a radical way I think the depth of understanding and trust that it's possible to achieve is beyond compare. Yes, the conversations are longer, harder and there might be more set-backs but if you achieve it the finished result is something very special. I often remind my expat patients that we haven't chosen an easy life for ourselves and I believe that with our relationships the same is true. So get ready for misunderstandings, strange social situations and feeling frustrated and dependent. But also for the camaraderie, the private jokes, the anecdotes, the Spanglish and your children being able to swear in two or more languages before they're three years old.