Embrace Difference: What Expat-“Local” Relationships Can Teach Us

Our guest blogger Andrea, a German expat living in the United States, explains what her own German-American marriage has taught her about international relationships, as well as keeping the romance alive. Andrea is working as a free-lance author and blogs – mostly in German – about her life in the US on Andrea J Larson.com.

With globalization in full swing, the number of international relationships is naturally on the rise. In my years as a German expat living in the US, I’ve seen all three variations of expat couple combinations: both partners have the same (foreign) nationality; both have different foreign nationalities, or last but not least, one partner is an expat while the other is a local resident.

Happy Mixed Couple enjoying summertimeThough all three types of relationship have to maneuver through cultural and communication issues periodically, I’d like to focus on the third kind of relationship here – the expat-“native” couple. Since I’m the “imported” partner in my own international marriage, I know a thing or two about the kinds of struggles that such a relationship has to face.

What makes this love match unique, you ask? After the first exciting years abroad, many of us expat partners are starting to feel a bit of an identity crisis coming on: Our jobs might be great, and our kids are growing up healthy and happy. However, after several trips back to our home country, we realize that we are not quite the same person as when we first left; yet we are not quite “like everybody else” in our new home, either.

We feel a bit like an outsider in both countries, while our native spouse feels very much settled. Couples with both partners from abroad can better support and empathize with each other in that regard. Reisepapiere Sure, with a local partner by our side we are getting the inside scoop of our “new culture”, a social VIP pass, so to speak, but we are still struggling with the feeling of staying a bit on the outside, remaining a stranger in what is now our home.

Initially, we may try to preserve our own heritage, clinging to some beloved traditions; we attempt to raise our children bi-lingually, while, at the same time, we are noticing how our own attachment to these customs weakens and the vocabulary of our native language slowly shrinks.

Unlike an expat couple originating from the same country, our spouse may be supportive of a bi-cultural household in theory, but he or she may be unable to truly help the effort. Add to this the financial burden of raising a family, which may prevent us from travelling back home altogether, and we quickly find ourselves feeling somewhat lost or downright “homeless”.

Some partners confided in me during research interviews that they occassionally wondered if giving up their “home” was worth the amorous adventure. This kind of “identity limbo” spills over into a relationship more often than not. InterNations Expat Blog_ Andrea_Expat Relationships 1Feelings of loneliness and regret can come between the most loving of couples.

And yet – not all hope is lost: While researching long-term relationships for my book about lasting love, I found that it is exactly this struggle of trying to carve out a new identity that offers plenty of opportunities and wisdom for yourself and your relationship alike!

Let’s go back to the beginning: You fell in love with someone from a different country, somebody who was unlike you in many ways. Both of you could have stuck with somebody from your own culture – but you chose differently.

While you were convinced that he or she was “the one” who completed you, you didn’t realize that by being different, your lover was also “the one” who would help you find out who you truly are yourself. The “small print” of entering into this relationship might have mentioned the complete re-evaluation of everything that had made you “you”, possibly resulting in a small identity crisis, but who ever reads the small print?

A crisis, as the saying goes, is also an opportunity, so let’s focus on that: First and foremost, your partner is a great tool for self-reflection and growth. Having somebody help you see things through eyes unlike your own point of view, unlike your cultural outlook even, can be a true eye-opener. Our partner may not say what we expect or even like to hear sometimes, but let’s face it – we wanted something different, and different is what we got. Your flowers are looking splendid!

Secondly, while you may think that you don’t quite fit in any country any longer – old or new – you may just be clinging to the wrong idea of belonging. If you feel at home in both countries just a little more than 50% each, you have actually gained a sense of belonging overall. Not too shabby! Here is another tip: Stop looking at the differences between your “old” and “new” home and look for similarities – you may be surprised at what you find!

And thirdly, embrace being an outsider – it is a true gift. You don’t have to be like others. In fact, you can completely re-invent yourself! You may not blend in seamlessly, but that makes you special. Moreover, it is probably what your partner liked about you to begin with.

When you start focusing on what you have gained rather than what you have lost, you may begin to notice that your feelings of regret subside and make room for gratitude and love in your relationship instead. International couples are allowed to be different, because they chose “different”.

In a sense we all choose “different” in a relationship, and we have to remind ourselves to embrace difference for the opportunities it offers to both of us – never mind the small print!

(Photo credits: iStockphoto.com)

7 Responses to “Embrace Difference: What Expat-“Local” Relationships Can Teach Us”

  1. Love this article, so true I am Irish married to a wonderful Swede, we are into our second week living in Ashburn VA and this has helped with the overwhelming feeling of feeling like an outsider. Many thanks for your wonderful wisdom Andrea

  2. @Cathy:

    Glad you liked this and found it relevant for your own life!

    Andrea’s article seems to be pretty popular on Facebook, too, so lots of other international couples obviously share your opinion. 🙂

  3. Love your article. Even though I am not particularly in relationship area. I can definitely understand the feeling of not belonging to both cultures. I was feeling stressed about it and now I think I can embrace my “different” choice.

  4. @Amy:

    I’m glad you liked Andrea’s article so much. It’s one of our most popular blog posts ever, so it resonates with lots of people – you’re definitely not alone with this situation!

  5. Has been written with a pure heart and absolute true feeling of self thinking and the time past, gained experience very correct formulation of words expressed. great self judgement a nice explanation of the relationships of the new the unknown is in every human being the (neugier auf neues) exotic attraction to each other something different gets together because of that reason attraction to each other two poles of the magnet plus minus positive negative or vice versa.same here too like my story fits quite a bit in a similar manner.Beautifully put together have painted in words.

  6. Thanks for the article, it’s great to hear from other people in similar circumstances. I’m really struggling with the possibility of not being able to return home regularly once we have children. To the point where I wonder if it’s not better to stop here. I’d love to hear how other people deal with this issue!

  7. Hi Elizabeth,

    Thank you for your feedback! I’m glad that Andrea’s article resonated with you.

    As for how couples with kids solve the problem of one partner regularly visiting their home country, why don’t you ask other InterNations members in our forum?


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