Cross Cultural Relationships

How Couples Make It Work

An edited version of this article appeared in Aquarius Magazine in November 2009 – find it online here.

If it’s true that variety alone gives joy, it’s no wonder there are so many happy couples from vastly diverse backgrounds, especially here in the UAE. Every year, thousands of singletons arrive from around the global, and with over 200 different nationalities represented in a relatively small space, cross cultural love connections are bound to occur. Perhaps English dramatist Aphra Behn best captured the beauty of marrying someone from a different background when she wrote, “Variety is the soul of pleasure.”

Dr. Roqhy McCarthy of the Counseling and Development Clinic, however, warns that some people use cultural differences as a way to keep their partner at arm’s length. “There will always be differences to overcome in any relationship, but for some people, the barriers in a mixed marriage add to the intrigue,” explains McCarthy, a clinical psychologist. “These people don’t want to connect or are unable to connect. They want to have someone in their lives, but they don’t want to communicate on an emotional level.”

Both experts and experienced couples agree—cross cultural relationships can be harder than they sometimes look. Despite the difficulties that are bound to arise, though, hundreds of marriages don’t just survive but thrive on the diversity. These three happy couples share how they’ve bonded in the face of racial, religious, and language differences.

Erik and Lucille Juhlin, married 6 years

How do two people meet and get to know each other from across the globe? Like many couples, Erik and Lucille Juhlin met via the internet. Despite the distance and differences in culture, Lucille has found the language barrier to be their biggest issue. “We want to learn each others’ languages but it’s hard,” says Erik, a native of Köping, Sweden. Though both speak English, Erik’s mother tongue is Swedish and Lucille’s is Visaya, a Philippine dialect.

“I feel like I spend a lot of time explaining because I don’t want us to argue over misunderstandings,” says Lucille, who hails from Ormoc in the Leyte province of the Philippines. “I end up saying ‘no I meant this’ or ‘I was trying to say that’ and sometimes I don’t understand a word in English that Erik is saying. He’s very loving, though, because he always tries to explain what he wants to say in an easy way.”

Ironically, the fact that both Erik and Lucille are speaking a second language helps to ease the tension. “My English is not perfect either,” admits Erik. “I studied it at school but I didn’t speak it regularly until I moved here.” Despite Erik’s daily use of English, he’s still always aware that it’s not his first language, and that awareness fosters his patience with his wife.

Even more interesting, because Erik and Lucille rely on English to communicate with each other, their children, Mark age 8 and Janelle age 2½, are growing up speaking English as their first language. “They both speak a bit of Visaya and they know some words and songs in Swedish, but mostly they speak English,” says Erik, an air traffic controller.

In addition to being trilingual, the Juhlin’s are also a family of many colors, but this variety of skin tones hasn’t been a problem for them. Though mixed races are the norm in the UAE, Lucille doesn’t really notice the differences in their colors until they go to visit her family. “In the Philippines people will ask me ‘why is your son so dark?’ and ‘why is your daughter so white?’” says Lucille. “I don’t think they mean to be evil—they’re just curious, but I get tired of explaining sometimes.”

Thanks to the large American influence in the Philippines, Erik is not as conspicuous as he thought he might be. In fact, he says his family is more likely to draw attention in Scandinavia. “If we were to go back to my little town in Sweden, we would stick out a lot.”

The good news is that the Juhlin’s have no immediate plans to leave the UAE, arguably the ultimate melting pot. “We’ll go to Sweden for at least 3 years so Lucille can get citizenship and the kids can go to school but we don’t want to leave the UAE yet,” says Erik. “Our dream would be to live half the time in Sweden and half the time in the Philippines.”

Deb Kelly and Mahmoud El Moneim, married 15 years

Perhaps the only way to make a multicultural relationship work is for each person to truly appreciate the other’s way of life. When mutual friends introduced Deb Kelly and Mahmoud El Moneim in August 1993, Deb was on her second sojourn in Egypt. “I’d spent six months backpacking in Egypt with a girlfriend, but I returned on my own to work as a scuba diving instructor,” recalls Deb, who calls New Brunswick, Canada, home.

Though they’ve always been supportive of the relationship, Deb’s family wasn’t sure what to think at first. “I don’t think initially my family was thrilled—we’ve all seen movies like Not Without My Daughter so they had a perception of what Arab men are like, and the fact is that that sort of thing can happen,” admits Deb. “Even according to UAE law, children of foreign marriages are to remain in the UAE with their fathers. I’ve always been very independent, though, so my family respected my decision.”

Likewise, Mahmoud’s Muslim family has also been receptive. “Most of the people I lived around growing up were used to Christians, so no one in Egypt asks me why I married a Christian,” says Mahmoud, a native of Cairo. “It’s only here in the UAE that I ever get any questions. Every once in awhile, I’ll hear something from the guys around here like ‘whoa, you’re married to a white girl, what about the kids’. I just tell them that it’s none of their business.”

Though Mahmoud is Muslim and Deb is Christian, this massive difference hasn’t been a problem. “Technically our children are classified as Muslim, but we’re teaching them an appreciation for both religions and for the North American traditions that often go along with Christianity,” explains Deb. “Neither of us is terribly conservative when it comes to religion so it’s never been a problem; Muslims are allowed to marry Christians because it’s all the same God and my family doesn’t really talk about it.”

What’s the key to making the relationship work? Says Deb, if you’re going to get involved with someone from such a different background, you really need to appreciate their culture. “I’d been living in Egypt long before I ever met Mahmoud,” recalls Deb, who moved to the UAE with her husband nine years ago. “I already had an appreciation for the region and all that goes with it—the lifestyle, the traditions, the customs, the whole way of life. I think if I hadn’t had that appreciation, my expectations might have been different for the relationship.”

Thanks to this mutual understanding, the marriage has flourished. In fact, Deb and Mahmoud believe their differences will benefit their children, Noah age 11 and Jenah age 8. “Our kids can get the best of both religions and they can choose,” says Deb. “They don’t have to be one way or the other. And if they ever get confused by things they hear, they talk to us and we deal with it at home.”

Mahmoud agrees. “You can see the difference between our kids and kids who have never been anywhere. Kids coming from overseas are generally more accepting of differences, whether that’s color or language or accent or whatever. It’s definitely a plus and as they kids get older, they’ll benefit more and more from their diversity.”

Félim and Alejandra Bolster, married 9 years

Though Félim and Alejandra Bolster met on the job in Abu Dhabi almost eleven years ago, they have since learned that loving a foreigner can be harder than it looks. Language has always been the greatest concern, says Alejandra, who comes from Zaragoza in the northern part of Spain. “The wedding had to be in two languages,” recalls Cork, Ireland, native Félim. “We had to get a Spanish priest who could speak English.”

Though Alejandra’s English skills have improved exponentially since her wedding day, Félim still struggles, not so much with his wife but with her family. “I haven’t really made the effort to learn Spanish,” admits Félim. “I have a really great father-in-law who I get on with really well, but it’s difficult because we can’t have real adult conversations. It’s especially important for me to be able to communicate with him because my father passed away when I was quite young, so he’s the closest thing I’ve got to one.”

Even more than the basics of communication, neither Félim nor Alejandra feel like their true personalities come through in the other’s language. “If you think you’re reasonably intelligent, it’s hard to prove that to people when you can’t speak their language,” jokes Félim. “I always have more to offer to the conversation than I’m able to contribute. I’m a funny guy—her friends will never know how funny I am!”

Alejandra feels the same way. “No matter how well I speak English, I’m a different person speaking English than I am speaking Spanish. When I first came to Abu Dhabi, someone described me as very quiet and shy; I couldn’t believe it because anyone from home would say I was completely the opposite.”

Despite the issues, the Bolster’s language barrier will eventually pay off for their two sons, Milo age 5 and Connor age 1. “Milo is already bilingual because he and Alejandra only speak Spanish to each other,” says Félim, a high school principal. “Even though he’s living in what is essentially an English speaking world, he’ll be able to speak and understand Spanish like a native Spaniard. We sometimes have conversations between the three of us and Milo will move back and forth between the two languages.”

Though it may not seem like Spain and Ireland are that different, Milo is still a third culture kid, a situation that gives his mother pause. “I worry that, because he’s not completely Spanish or completely Irish, he’ll never really make friends,” doubts Alejandra. “He’s not as fluent as other five-year-olds in Spain plus he has an accent, so I’m worried that if other kids laugh at him, he’ll grow up hating Spain.”

Félim disagrees. “I want my sons to understand where they come from and to be proud of that part of themselves, but what I really want is for them to be able to fit in anywhere and to be tolerant.” While some third culture kids are able to blend with just about anyone, others grow up feeling that they don’t really belong anywhere. Alejandra highly recommends the book Third Culture Kids by David Pollock (available through Magrudy’s) to anyone raising third culture kids.

Despite the risks, Félim believes the benefits of their diverse backgrounds will outweigh any negatives. “I think the world is getting smaller all the time and you don’t do a child a disservice by exposing them to other cultures. It would be worse for a kid to grow up being so nationalistic that they can’t relate to other countries or see the suffering of other people.”

What to Do

Dr. Kennon Rider, Professor of Family Community Services at Michigan State University Dubai, recommends the following tips for couples in a cross cultural relationship:

  • Be patient: “Always try to empathize—put yourself in your partner’s shoes.”
  • Make rules regarding cultural rituals: “It may be that the couple will agree to completely embrace both sets of rituals or that one may follow his or her traditional rituals without demanding it of the other.  But all these rules need to be established so there is not conflict every time a holiday or traditional experience comes along.”
  • Anticipate disagreements: “Whether you’re in a single or multicultural marriage, you need to agree on plan that will help head off disagreements.”

Advice for Couples Contemplating Cross Cultural Marriage from Dr Rider:

  • Get to know each other: “Make sure you know your partner long enough to get a feel for many of the cultural issues that might come up. The best time to address them is early in a relationship. They can be too big to manage after a marriage.”
  • See your potential partner at home: Wait to make a commitment until you’ve seen your partner in his or her native culture over some period of time. A person who lives a relatively western lifestyle while living a western country may revert to a different, more traditional style when he or she moves back home.
  • Get your family on board: If families are not supportive, life is difficult, especially after children come along. People don’t always anticipate how intractable this problem can be.
  • Agree on gender roles: Each of us grows up in a family and culture that has “rules” about what men are “supposed” to do in a household and what women are “supposed” to do.  Making sure you are on the same page here is very important; all couples have to sort this out, but coming from different cultures makes it an even bigger issue.

Dr Roqhy McCarthy of the Counselling and Development Clinic warns against potential pitfalls of cross cultural marriage.

  • Communication: Some people purposefully look for a partner who speaks a different first language and then use the language barrier as an excuse to avoid communication. It’s hard to understand your partner’s personality if you can’t understand their words. TIP: Before you settle down, ask yourself if your partner was from the same background as you, would you still want to marry him? If not, the language barrier will only hinder your relationship.
  • Children: When a child’s parents are from two different backgrounds, one of those cultures often becomes dominant—usually the one connected to the language the child uses the most. The child ends up thinking, “I am from this background, but my mother (or father) was this.” In these cases, one parent may end up feeling alienated or left out. TIP: To connect to another person, you must connect through the mind. Ask yourself if your partner enjoys the music, the art, the literature, the food of your culture as much as you enjoy his or hers. If not, you may have a hard time passing on your culture to your children single-handedly.
  • Race: Though it’s not very romantic, the truth is that it’s hard for love to conquer all, especially centuries of racial prejudice. In some parts of the world, children of mixed race will have a difficult time being accepted. TIP: Talk to people who have lived in the part of the world where you plan to spend the majority of your time raising your children and consider how you’d react if they were to become the objects of discrimination. If you can’t face the thought, you may need to consider living elsewhere or rethink the relationship before you commit.