How to Survive an Intercultural Relationship: Part 1

Living abroad, I have had the opportunity to date people of various cultural backgrounds. An intercultural relationship often takes more work than one between two people from the same background. Don’t get me wrong – long-term relationships all require hard work. But when you throw different languages, religions and cultures into the mix, it gets even harder. Sometimes, it may feel too much and you might even feel like throwing in the towel completely. So here’s what I’ve learned from my relationships for anyone else who is just starting out or perhaps in the middle. Remember – it’s never too late to change something you don’t like.

When Language Is a Problem

It’s definitely more their bed than mine.

After two years in Italy, I have finally found a guy who is crazy enough to want to spend time with me and my cats. He doesn’t even mind that they sleep in the bed. (Seriously, if he ever tries to leave, I’m going to have to lock him up!) At the beginning, we would write to each other in English and speak to each other in Italian. This was not a problem as I’m usually more than capable of making myself understood (except after a few too many Peroni). After a month, we decided that we would have an English-only month, where everything would be in – you guessed it – English! We came to this decision together and for me it was really important that he showed enthusiasm for learning my language. He had a basic knowledge of English from school but we wanted his level to reach a similar level to my Italian. There are several reasons which I feel are important as to why both partners should speak both languages.

  1. Communication

One of the biggest factors in building a lasting relationship is good communication. For me, it doesn’t matter how fluent I am in a language, sometimes I want, no I need to express myself in my mother-tongue. If my partner doesn’t understand me then it can be very frustrating for both. You can open the passages of communication by ensuring that you understand your partner completely, even if you need to ask for clarification every now and again.

couple 1
Don’t end up like these guys! Source

2. Equality

A relationship is supposed to be 50/50. You have both chosen to be with the other person and so equal respect should be shown to both. It doesn’t matter if your partner has moved to your country and chosen to be with you; you also chose to be with someone who doesn’t speak your language. There is no faster way to make your partner feel small and unappreciated than when you say “You moved to Finland and chose to be with a Finnish person so speak Finnish!”. It shows a complete lack of respect for that person. They are already facing enough struggles simply by living in another country without you attacking them, too. Have a little understanding and communicate with them on their level.

3. Individual Identity

Closely linked to equality, it is also important that each person retains their own identity within the relationship. For me, my mother-tongue language is closely related to my identity. I am an English-speaker and when I go for months on end without speaking my language, I begin to miss it. You should be able to share your experiences with the person closest to you and be the real you. Also, I’ve noticed that my personality changes depending on which language I’m speaking. Sometimes I want to be a different person for a bit.

4. Family

If you’re in it for the long haul then you’re going to meet each other’s families. If you’re going to meet each other’s families then you’re going to need to communicate with them. Trust me – there’s nothing more awkward than being sat around the dinner table and having absolutely no idea what’s going on. I’m sure they’ll do their best to make you feel welcome (most of the time) but if you don’t understand what they’re saying, you’ll always be on the outside. Furthermore, if you and your partner decide to have kids one day, it will be vital for them to be able to communicate with both sides of the family. You should be able to understand what your mother-in-law is saying, even if only for your own peace of mind.

couple 2
I have no idea who this people are but they look awesome! Source

Like I said, these are my thoughts and feelings on the topic. I’m sure there are plenty of intercultural couples who make life work by just speaking one language and more power to them. However, I have also met many couples who struggle because of this. I have also been in that position, which is why I know how difficult it is. Learning a language can be difficult but will take your relationship to a whole new level.



6 thoughts on “How to Survive an Intercultural Relationship: Part 1

  1. I will look forward to your further explorations on intercultural experiences, Ive written a post on it myself, mostly about the challenges but totally get that it is also a source of immense fascination,

  2. WhenTwoWander says:

    Awesome post Katrina, really speaking from experience. Language is such a critical thing to individual identity, and this is never more prescient in your mind than when you’re in a linguistically different country. Bring romance and emotions into the equation and quickly things can begin to get out of hand. Sounds like you’ve managed to survive though and your English-only month is an interesting way of coping!


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