Love, Marriage & Partnership

5 realities of expat relationships

Hop on board and buckle up for the roller coaster of expat relationships. The realities of dating abroad are more difficult than they might first seem.

Expat relationships

By Expatica

Updated 23-1-2024

There’s a new demographic in town: the serial expat. With an integrated global workforce and accessible travel, many people are choosing a lifestyle that rarely resembles life as we’ve known it. Terms such as cross-cultural relationships or love migrants are entering our vocabulary as this new expat demographic rewrites the social norms. Although many tend to move abroad to further their career, expat relationships certainly affect quality of life.

Entering uncharted territory makes for an exhilarating adventure. However, there are few paths to guide those who enter multicultural expat relationships and friendships. An extra layer of complexity is added as you grapple with multiple cultures, languages, and expectations. That being said, you also widen your mind in a way that few experiences can replicate. Yes, it can be hard, but you learn how to live the best of both worlds.

Romantic couple on street
Expat relationships can take great dedication from both partners

How then does this new expat demographic navigate uncharted personal territory? Each story is unique and different, as every person has their own history, perspective, approach, and expectations of what a healthy relationship looks like. Hard-and-fast expat dating rules may never be written but there are some truths about what to expect in an expat relationships.

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Doing it the hard(er) way

It’s no secret that maintaining expat relationships requires nurture and care; sometimes even finding someone to date online can be a bit of a chore. Against the backdrop of ever-increasing divorce rates, this holds especially true.

Yet expat relationships take the difficulty level one step further. Not only do you need to assimilate your individual personalities and habits – typical in any relationship, and fuel for many breakups – you need this to transcend a cultural and language barrier as well. You can no longer just interpret your partner’s actions, idiosyncrasies, insecurities, and dreams through your own cultural lens; you must translate what they mean through theirs.

First date etiquette can also vary greatly from what you’re used to back home; these dating norms can be difficult to swallow. Would you be upset if your Dutch partner called you a ‘little fart’ (a term of endearment in Dutch)? Would you back off if your Spanish partner told you they loved you after a week? Should it bother you if your Swiss date doesn’t hand out praise lightly, or if your French partner seems initially unattached? What about if your German partner is being too direct with you, or your Belgian date appears reserved? Once you understand each other better, you can reduce potential miscommunications.

Of course, being with the right person will be easier than being with the wrong person, no matter where you both come from.

Who are they really?

Comprehension doesn’t necessarily stop at learning culture in an expat relationship. Cultural traits need to be deciphered from your partner’s individual traits; avoid thinking in terms of cultural stereotypes. This distinction can be hard to define, particularly if you don’t understand how they express themselves in their native language.

How do they treat and speak to others? Is their directness a reflection of culture or are they just rude? When your passionate partner says they love you quickly, do they mean it or is it a reflection of social norms? Your learning path will continually evolve as you gain cultural insight.

Someone will always have to make a sacrifice

You can never be in two places at once. Unless you can move your extended families with you, someone will always be far from home. You will miss birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, births, and festive holidays; in a worst-case scenario, you may even miss your chance to say goodbye to someone who passes away.

Compromise is key in expat relationships; while it is inevitable that you will miss many things, you don’t need to miss everything.

Language barriers can exist, even in the same language

You might both speak the same language – even if it’s just the language of love. But language can be a minefield in expat relationships. Common words or slang you have grown up with can take a different meaning when strictly taught to a non-native speaker. A mistranslation on either side can quickly redirect a conversation in the wrong direction. It’s important for cross-cultural partners to take communication slow, and avoid quick flare-ups. There’s probably a perfect explanation if you allow time for it.

Couple walking in Ferrara

Non-verbal communication can play an even bigger role. Besides each person having a unique way of expressing their love, cultural norms will likely be ever-present. Your Dutch or German partner might not flaunt their love with hot sessions of public affection, such as their Spanish or French counterparts; this doesn’t mean their level of love is any less. You can read more about the levels of public displays of affection in Europe. Likewise, your non-verbal communication might not be in line with what they interpret as love. Being aware of the message you are portraying in their eyes is important.

It’s a gift

Despite any missteps that might occur along your journey, true love is never far away. Putting your relationship through the cogs of multicultural living, constant travel, raising bilingual children, and becoming each other’s crutch as you live far from family, is a trial that many relationships never have to test. Getting through these trying times will enrich expat relationships.

Additionally, deeply integrating into another culture is a gift you give each other, through teaching and showing the ways of your home country. You learn more about your own culture, and take on the best parts of theirs. Meeting the (foreign) parents and spending time with your new family provides a local insight that most temporary travelers wish for, besides giving you context to the new world you live in. Even your families benefit when they meet each other and enjoy the foods, stories, and places that they may never have had the opportunity to discover.

Cherish it: you’re one of the lucky few that gets to jump on board the life-changing roller coaster. Once you’ve taken your first ride, you’ll never want to get off.