Strengths and Weaknesses of multicultural relationships

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Strengths and Weaknesses of multicultural relationships

02/08/2018 World 17

© Eleonore Breukel

 Why do people of different nationalities easily fall in love and become a happy couple when living in a foreign host country?  What happens when one of them decides to take a job in his or her home-country?

Moving around the globe and meeting new people often results in multicultural relationships. Dating someone from a totally different culture is very exiting with so much to discover, so much to learn and so much that remains a mystery.

When expats arrive in a new country they might experience culture shock, leaving them uncertain of how to deal with everyday life.  Autopilot behavior has to be  re-programmed with new software written for the local context. Survival skills quickly take over and expats often seek fellow expats for understanding and support. They often find themselves working, wining, dining and dancing together.

Some expats look for excitement and romance, others stumble into it. After all, being single in a foreign country without social pressures from family and friends back home can open new opportunities.

Let us consider a typical multicultural couple: Juliana and Heinz.

 Juliana from Sao Paulo and Heinz from Munich fall in love with each other while they are both living in the Netherlands. There are no racial differences but still the Brazilian and German cultures vary hugely. It is exactly these differences that are so attractive and admired at the start of their multicultural relationship. 

After six months of dating Juliana and Heinz decide to live together. Irritations with local habits and cultures can be discussed freely over the dinner table. Once they settled the parents of both sides visit them and approve of the relationship.

 Soon Juliana and Heinz realize that, aside from having different characters, their cultural baggage is more complex than expected. They have different concepts of the role of men and women in a relationship, loyalties towards family back home, work and colleagues, the way social life should be lived, food, dress and many other concepts. Also, they realize that even more remains a mystery since they cannot pinpoint their differences.

Multicultural couples create their very own way of living often composed of various cultures.  In this case, they have Juliana’s Brazilian culture, Heinz’ German culture, the local Dutch culture and their own private culture. They often have the potential to quickly shift from one culture to another. At work they adapt to the organizational culture. When spending time with friends from the home country they adapt to that culture, when at home they adapt to the new culture they created together.

 After two years Juliana is offered a wonderful job in her hometown Sao Paulo. Heinz, who speaks Portuguese, is exited to move and looks for a job via contacts his expat network. Once they move, Juliana is occupied with her new job and obligations towards family and old friends. Heinz finds a part-time job within weeks and meets other expats in Sao PauloHe observes though that Juliana does not realize that the culture they created together in Amsterdam has evaporated. Juliana has become a totally different person, which results in daily fights. Her local culture is dominant. Nothing about Juliana is a mystery now! Heinz feels totally lost. The relationship is no longer a stronghold but a sinking ship. His parents come over from Germany and he senses their disapproval.

When multicultural couples move to the country of origin of one of the partners, that partner may change almost immediately in order to function in the local culture. Local family and friends notice the changes from living abroad, but often don’t tolerate foreign behavior. At work in a local organization or in society being different can be seen as arrogant by colleagues.

The once happy couple, both foreigners in Amsterdam, is no longer happy. It may well be that the newcomer becomes emotionally dependent on the other in the beginning which may be perceived as weakness, a previously unknown characteristic of that partner. The local partner has regained the old identity as where the newcomer has lost his identity.

The couple perceives each other as changed which results in fights about the culture, politics, religion, food. Things they used to have the same opinion about while living abroad are now a reason for a row.  The local partner is on familiar ground and feels the support of family and friends. The other feels alone and hangs with one hand on a cliff above an abyss. Usually the local partner feels guilty and responsible for the unhappiness of the other. Both feel desperate and incapable of overcoming the impasse.

Patience and understanding from the local partner and a strong will from both partners to make the relationship work, can bring new energy. Taking time off to travel together and enjoy the country, taking dance classes together, meeting with the family, friends and other expats may help in most cases. Both partners need to have a good understanding of what their strengths and weaknesses are in being a multicultural couple in that particular country.

The relationship survives gloriously as soon as the newcomer feels that he has created a new identity and feels respected and loved. They now both understand that the strengths, as a multicultural couple, outnumber the weaknesses.

© Eleonore Breukel



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