Expat relationships

5 realities of expat relationships

Last update on February 05, 2019

Hop on board and buckle up for the expat relationship roller coaster. It’s a ride you’ll never want to get off.

There’s a new demographic in town: the serial expat. With an integrated global workplace 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 migrant are entering our vocabulary as this new expat demographic rewrites the social norms.

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

How then does this new expat demographic navigate an unchartered world? Each story is unique and different, as we discovered in our readership survey on expat dating and learned how even those who didn’t speak the same language could make a cross-cultural relationship work. Hard-and-fast expat dating rules may never be written but there are some truths about what to expect in an expat relationship or marriage.

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1. Doing it the hard(er) way

It’s no secret that maintaining a relationship or marriage requires nurture and a lot of elbow grease, and against the backdrop of an ever-increasing divorce rate, 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, but must translate what they mean through theirs.

First-date etiquette can also vary greatly from what you’re used to back home, and dating norms can be difficult to swallow. Would you be upset if your Dutch partner called you a ‘little fart’ (a term of endearment), or 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 initally unattached? Nor should you be offended if your German partner is 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.

2. Who are they really?

Comprehension doesn’t necessarily stop at learning culture. Cultural traits need to be deciphered from your partner’s individual traits, and 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, and personal, insight.

3. Someone will always have to make a sacrifice

You can never be in two places at once, and 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 and in a worst-case scenario, maybe even your chance to say goodbye to someone who passes away. Compromise is of course key – while it is inevitable that you will miss many things, you don’t need to miss everything.

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4. Language barriers can exist, even if you speak 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 zone. Common words or slang you have grown up with can take a different meaning when strictly taught to a non-native speaker, and a mis-translation 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.

Body language – or non-verbal communication – can play an even bigger role. Besides each person having an 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, but it doesn’t mean their level of love is less. You can read more about the levels of public displays of affection in Europe. Likewise, your non-verbal communication might not be inline with what they interpret as ‘love’, so being aware of the message you are portraying in their eyes is important.

5. It’s a gift

Despite any road bumps that might be scattered 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 any relationship.

Additionally, becoming deeply integrated 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 travellers 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 new worlds 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.