One Couple, two countries:
Common communication challenges affecting mixed couples

One Couple, two countries: Common communication challenges affecting mixed couples

Falling in love and sharing a life with a person from another country is no longer unusual or uncommon. Advances in technology and the possibilities of transport have paved the way and shortened distances.  Although mixed couples are now a common phenomenon, this does not mean that they are directly equal to two people from the same country or culture – surely more than one couple would like it to be so! 

Mixed couples can come in different formats: they can be between a native and a foreign person from a given country, between two foreign people – and of different nationalities – from a given country, or between two people who were born in the same country (and have the corresponding nationality) but come from a different ethnic background/nationality of the family of origin (2nd generation immigrants), to name but a few possible combinations.  Other combinations include interracial and interfaith couples. Arriving at a single definition of what constitutes a mixed couple is difficult (Collet, 2012). 

Mixed couples, to a greater or lesser extent, involve a hybrid of cultures. If you look at a hybrid vehicle, you will see that its autonomy depends on both the fuel and the battery. As such, it requires additional maintenance compared to a fuel-only vehicle for optimal operation. Mixed couples, therefore, will be affected by the challenges and issues that are common to couples from the same country/culture and, additionally, the particularities of multicultural coexistence. When couples consider a shared commitment, they face a greater challenge and need to negotiate important aspects of life together more intentionally. 

What are these challenges? According to Linares, Moratalla, and Pérez (2021), intercultural couples, in the process of becoming a couple and a family, will have to address, among others, the following issues (although some are common to non-mixed couples, they will be embedded in cultural differences):

  • Location: Where you choose to live can have more implications for one partner than for the other. Does the location benefit one partner more than the other? Is it closer to one partner’s family than the other? 
  • Power dynamics in the couple: It is possible that one partner, because of his/her situation (e.g., emigration), may be dependent on the other in matters such as the language of the country of residence, finances, and/or social circle. Other questions that may need to be addressed include: do certain traditions/ customs prevail over others? Are certain cultural components valued over others?
  • The process of adaptation: Again, this issue may be different for both of you, depending on your individual circumstances. Do you both live in a different culture from your home culture, or is one of you a foreigner to the culture/country where you live together? Does anyone have more advantages/benefits than being native? Does either partner have more difficulty adapting to a new culture? One thing that helps in the process of adaptation is the creation of your own «microculture” with its own rituals and traditions.
  • Customs and negotiation: the unfamiliar and the appeal of what is different may not generate friction during the initial phase of the partnership, but at some point, it will become evident. Mixed couples have more compromises to make, more agreements to reach and more concessions to make. 
  • Languages that you choose to speak with your children: We can talk about a spectrum ranging from you only speaking one language to both being fluent in multiple languages. Is there a consensus on languages or is one language more predominant than another? Is there one language that is considered more useful? 
  • The raising of children and the transmission of values: From the birth of children onwards, what could previously be put aside in terms of differing views and values inevitably requires negotiation. This may concern traditions, habits, principles/values, and religious beliefs, among others. 
  • Family of origin: Cultures differ in the extent to which one is connected to one’s family of origin. Being able to adjust one’s schedule to balance time spent with one’s partner, friends, and family in these cases becomes more complicated. Negotiation involves responding to the different demands that the family of origin may place on your nuclear family. Differentiation (knowing how to decrease reactivity towards – and the influence of – the family of origin while maintaining connection) becomes especially relevant for the sustainability of the couple. 

Discussing these issues as a couple is, on the one hand, very enriching and enlightening. However, it is also a challenge, sometimes quite complicated. Communication and the meaning of words is an issue that cannot be overlooked. You may be speaking in a second language that is not your mother tongue either of you. Perhaps one of you has the advantage of speaking in your mother tongue. Whatever the case, the cultural interpretation of words can cloud your conversations. It is especially important to show a willingness to understand the other partner and to remain curious about the other’s motivations. A long-lasting relationship requires continuous adaptation.

As difficult as the following may sound, part of having a more satisfying relationship is daring to enjoy the differences that can be maintained, accepting and adapting to those that cannot be changed (which may involve compromises on the part of both partners), and finally, understanding and negotiating with each other about those that need to be changed. 

Perhaps you have tried to address some of the points mentioned above, but you find yourselves stuck and it seems that the position of each partner is incompatible with that of the other, generating mutual incomprehension and estrangement. If this is your case and you feel that your own attempts at resolution are not having the expected result, it may be time to consider seeing a couple’s therapist. In couple’s therapy, you will have a space to be heard and to try out different strategies that will allow you to feel more secure and less attacked. 

Couple dynamics awaken specific needs and make us connect with parts of ourselves that we might not know about yet. It is an adventure of getting to know your partner’s world as you discover your own. I end with a thought-provoking question: what does the difference in your partner say about you?

Collet, B (2012). Mixed couples in France. Statistical facts, definitions, and social reality. Papers: revista de sociologia, Vol. 97(1) pp. 61-77.

Linares, J. L. Meratalla, T. y Pérez, A. (2021). Las parejas interculturales. Ediciones Morata, S. L.