Surviving intercultural relationships: what are YOUR top tips?

Having been in an intercultural relationship on foreign soil for some time now, I like to think I know a thing or two about the subject. As marvellous as it can be, loving someone from a totally different culture – especially when you live together on their turf rather than yours – presents its own world of challenges to be negotiated.

Over the last three years, I’ve found that there’s nothing like talking to other people who are in the same situation – who share the shining highs and know the desolating lows.

For a while now I’ve been keeping a mental list of survival tips on how to survive intercultural loving. Today, I decided to write them down. But what I really want are YOUR tips and tricks for surviving intercultural relationships – fresh from the front line of international love.

Here’s my starter for ten:

  1. Carve out a niche for YOURSELF. There’s nothing worse than feeling like your whole life is determined by what the other person does, so it’s vital to carve out some things to do that are just for you. One of the great things about loving and living in a country that’s not your own is that you’ve got your own ready-made tour guide at your fingertips. But that can produce an unhealthy dependence, so whether it’s places you want to visit or things you want to do, it’s vital to have your ‘own’ things to do.
  2. Invent a routine: This has been a really key one for me, especially when I haven’t been working. Want to feel more settled in a foreign land? Then create a routine. Mine was going out to buy the paper every morning, then reading it over coffee. But whether it’s going to the market every day or taking a walk at sunset, the little things that get you out of the house every day make a huge difference.
  3. Learn the language: This is probably the single biggest thing you can do to make yourself feel more independent. If you can negotiate the local market or haggle over prices with a taxi driver on your own, you can do anything (well, near enough, anyway).  Not only does is hugely increase your confidence, it’s also a great route to #1 and #2. Just having to go to language lessons every week will give you a routine, and there’s nothing like a routine to make you feel settled somewhere. It’s also a fun way to meet others in similar positions to you.
  4. Set some boundaries: if you’ve got in-laws to negotiate, it’s really important to set boundaries early on. Freaked out by unpredictable invasions of distant family members who expect feeding on the spot? Then talk to your significant other. Tell them how it makes you feel, and explain what would help. In our house, the rule is at least a couple of days notice for dinner and E is responsible for making sure the snacks are in if he invites people round without telling me.

10 thoughts on “Surviving intercultural relationships: what are YOUR top tips?

  1. I just giggled as I read your no. 4 “boundaries”. If I turn my head to the right I can see my father in law asleep on my couch as I type this. Luckily he is quite deaf *sigh*.

    • Oh yeah, I know that one! I’m FINALLY returning to istanbul on Saturday after a 4 month separation and guess who’ll be staying? Both mother and father in law. I guess it’s about redefining boundaries to some extent, as well as setting them…

  2. Great post! I mean, really great!!

    Number 1. SO IMPORTANT.This morning I made my FIRST EVER trip ALONE to the shops. I felt so liberated, I can tell you. I was started to get down due to my lack of independence, that little trip has made me feel so much more at home and so much more independent!

    Number 2. I really really need to make a routine for my own. I have been sleeping until the mid afternoon and lounging around with nothing to so, especially as we have maids. Such a difference compared with my 40 hour working week and maintaining a house on my own. After my momentous trip today, I might do that every morning- at least I start my day by actively doing something instead of waiting around for my husband to come home from work.

    Number 3. ARGH, if only there were a pill. I wish I had made more of an effort before I moved here but being her surrounded my the language will make learning it easier (I am hoping). This will really make life for any intercultural relationship easier.

    Number 4. Definitely need boundaries, especially when the boundaries of the other culture are a lot different from your own. Communication is definitely the key, express how you feel and what space you need. My mother-in-law would walk into my room without knocking (to my horror) all the time until I said how it was making me feel uneasy (and made me get dressing in the corner with a towel and a 10 second countdown- just incase she wondered in.

    This is a really good list!! 😀 x

    • Thanks Lauren! Glad you like it.

      On the language learning, there’s no better way to learn than being surrounded by people who don’t speak English AND needing to learn for your own independence. What better motivation could there be?!

      How are you finding the transition from career woman? This is one of the things that makes me feel most nervous about moving to Istanbul – that the price *may* be quitting my job (more on that later). I feel like my identity is so tied to what I do, if I quit, everything might unravel… but then it might actually be really nice to take a break for a while! Do you plan to go back to work at some point, once you’re settled in? I don’t know what the job market must by like there…

      And what you YOU add to this list? You’re out there, living the dream… what helps you cope with the challenges?


      • I have been trying to think of something to add because, as you say, I am living the dream 😛

        I would recommend learning about each others culture, they have to learn about yours and you have to learn about theirs. The great thing about being in an intercultural relationship means we can draw up upon both of our cultures and live the way which works fur you as a pair!

        I definitely think, if you are in a foreign land finding a project really helps! I do not miss having a job exactly, but I do miss having something to get up for. I intend to maybe volunteer for an NGO, I have had thoughts about writing a book (there is so much from my past I could not share on a blog) about how my life has transformed… Pharmacy here is EXTREMELY different from back in England, I have thought about starting my PhD perhaps, in medicinal properties of plants (I wrote my masters dissertation on something similar)… all this and I am desperate to start a family.

        I have all these thoughts…. hopefully I can do them all, at the moment I am just concentrating on being happy and maybe finding some NGO work. I think I will find peace with something solid to do with my day. xxx

      • Thanks Lauren, this is fab. I couldn’t agree more about the project thing – that’s a really good way to think about it. It doesn’t have to be (sometimes it can’t be!) a job, but something constructive and engaging for you to do… Good luck dear! Xx

  3. I would absolutely agree with your tips. I also would add that it is important to not just communicate with your spouse, but to figure out the way he/she communicates (and to analyze your own communication style) and find out where the problems may lie. Are you the girl who says “fine” when nothing’s fine? Does he like to be alone to process things and talk about them later (or not talk at all; simply change what he does in case of conflict?) Do either of you avoid conflict or have a tendency to start fights? This stuff is complicated in any marriage; an intercultural one highlights it all the more.

    And learning the language, like Lauren said above, is SO VERY IMPORTANT. Even if your husband/wife speaks English or your native language, even if his parents do, it’s very likely that they have a grandparent or an aunt or someone, somewhere, in the family who doesn’t, and the more people you can talk to, the better. Not just that, but if they grew up speaking a language that isn’t your mother tongue, that language and its surrounding culture is what shaped your spouse’s life, worldview, references. It is the language they dream in. The more of that language you know, the more of your spouse you will know. That can never be a bad thing!

    And be open, be ready to try anything once, to ask questions about things you don’t understand. Even cultural customs you may find non-intuitive, or “backward” or “wrong” – realize those are also the way many people live their lives and try to understand it, probe it, deconstruct it through the lens of the people who practice those customs. See how it is harmful – or perhaps not, depending on what it is – through multiple sets of eyes before making a judgment based only on the view you bring with you off the plane. Of course, do set boundaries and do not compromise your morals and standards, but getting a deeper underestanding of the things that are different, even undesirable, will help you to have compassion for those who live with them as a given part of society.

    • Wow, Andrea thank you for your tips – these are all such good points! I especially like your point about communication styles – often the cause of so muh trouble!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m definitely including these in the revised version 🙂

  4. Great post! Absolutely crucial to at least try and learn the language especially if your special someone’s closest people do not speak your language and you want to feel more “at home”, and comfortable, and fit in, and so many other things. I find Turkish to be a very interesting challenge for myself this year 🙂 I would add that when surrounded by a new culture you have to teach yourself to be more open-minded and tolerant, e.g. some cultural or social paths might seem wrong to you, but that’s our perception and we should not judge before we try to understand the cultural roots and backgrounds for certain behaviors.

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