Foreign Spouse and Learning English

Ugh, English almost caused our marriage to end! My husband refused to learn English for several years. This baffled my family, made it very hard for my husband to find work, and to be honest–it just really felt unfair to me–not only did I have to work full-time, plus study in the evenings, but I also had to pay all the bills. So my husband could sit around and not work? It felt like he had all the choices, but I got none. It was infuriating and unfair, but looking back, I realize it was really hard for him too. My husband refused to learn English for several reasons, which I understand now, but did not understand then:

  1. He was afraid he couldn’t learn English.
  2. He felt embarrassed trying to speak English–he didn’t know words or how to put them together.
  3. He couldn’t accept reality–he tried to hold onto hope that he didn’t NEED to learn English. (Eventually he understood that this was wrong–but only after he’d learned the language!)
  4. He hates studying, always did, always will.

So how did he learn? He learned on the job. He had very difficult jobs, and there he had to communicate in English all day. At first, he could barely do it, but each day over the course of four years, he spoke each day and learned. I also tried to speak with him–but he always answered me in Russian. (Neither of us speak Russian natively but it’s the language we use together). So I gave up…

It can feel really hopeless when a spouse can’t speak the language around you–it can be embarrassing for you and your spouse in social and professional situations. The temptation is usually to pressure the spouse to learn the language. But remember–your spouse wants to learn the language around him or her much more than you want this! It’s very difficult to be unable express oneself or understand what people are saying due to a language barrier. I’ve been there. I experienced this in both Russia and Spain–it was very stressful for me, and I LOVE language learning! I like the phrase “When in Rome…” In Italy, you need to speak the language to find Italian jobs–it’s the same here and everywhere else.

Language learning will happen as long as your spouse is exposed to English (or the native langauge of whichever country you live in). Try to be patient and encourage your spouse to be in situations where he or she can hear and speak the language. Also, examine why you have this dynamic in your marriage–I never did this because our situation changed; however, if unchanged, it could easily lead to a burdensome, unbalanced marriage even for two people who are very in love. People need time to adjust to a new culture and accept the reality that learning what they need to might be hard. If all else fails, try putting yourself in your spouse’s place. What if you suddenly had to move to Brazil, adjust to the culture, and find Portuguese jobs? It’s so hard adjusting to a new country.  However, it’s important that the patterns change at some point so that responsibilities are shared–it’s too much for one person to do everything.

When Intercultural Marriage Feels Strange

When my husband and I got married, I worked at a very conservative office in the Washington DC area. That area is so multicultural and full of people from all corners of the world. When you walk down the street, you hear so many languages. I LOVED this aspect of the area.

Yet the moment I got married, I felt this strange isolation–from coworkers, family, and friends. Family started commenting constantly on how urgently my new husband needed to learn English. Coworkers and managers made really dumb comments, such as “Wow, your husband said ‘hello’ to me. HE ACTUALLY spoke English!” Some of my friends just found it really puzzling that I had actually decided to marry my husband–they thought that because he was foreign, this wouldn’t last. And I guess they figured I was crazy for taking this path! And my husband’s family and friends felt the same way–why on earth wouldn’t he just marry a NATIVE girl, rather than an American (like me)???

Then, I changed jobs. I became a teacher of ESL (English as a Second Language). I’d worked on my master’s degree in TESL for 2 years. With this job change, my coworkers changed (obviously). Plus, I had sooooo much in common with all of my fellow ESL teachers, I developed new, really strong friendships quickly. My students, all immigrants and foreigners learning English, saw nothing strange or risky about being married to a foreigner. Suddenly, I was normal again!!! WOW.

My new environment completely changed my life and made me feel totally normal again! Most of my coworkers were married to foreigners. Almost all of them, like me, had lived in at least one foreign country and spoke foreign languages in addition to English. They ALL felt very comfortable around my husband, despite that he knew no English.

Changing my environment really made a huge difference in my peace of mind. If you are feeling isolated because your spouse is foreign–OR if you are an expatriate and feeling isolated because YOU are the only foreign spouse among friends, I strongly recommend that you seek places where you can meet other couples like yourselves. This might include language classes, expat social groups, churches with diverse congregations. Seek SOME groups, because you are definitely not alone. Why feel like you are?

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Challenges in Intercultural Marriages

I just read an excellent article on obstacles for partners in intercultural marriages. The author is Christine Benlafquih. This article is SO true of the obstacles my husband and I had.

If you are thinking about marrying a person from a culture or country foreign to your own, I strongly recommend reading this article. I wish I had seen more information like this in the early days of our relationship!

Cross-cultural Marriage Advice: Tips for Successful Intercultural Relationships

People from any two cultures are likely to face these issues. This author focuses on the issues that form cultures and makes cultures different. It’s these differences that most excite people in the early stages of intercultural relationships, but challenge them in later stages!

Does My Foreign Fiance Just Want a Greencard?

Please Note: I am not an attorney. This is not legal advice. Do not take this post as legal advice, as each case is unique. This post is a story about my experience with my spouse during the process of getting my husband’s marriage-based greencard in the US.

If your relationship shows all the signs of a healthy relationship–communication, each partner likes spending time with the other, interaction with each other’s family and friends, and so on, you probably don’t need to worry over this issue. Remember, people in most countries of the world are very patriotic and would NOT want to live in the US. People in poorer countries where life is a challenge often want to come to the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and so on to make a living–but they most often do this through student visas, tourist visas, and work visas, not by trying to scam natives into marriage!

However, there are situations when people get duped in relationships for legal permanent residency in a country–like a greencard in the US, landed immigrant status in Canada, and so on. So, it doesn’t hurt to evaluate your relationship for signs just in case. When a partner is getting scammed, there are usually signs. Here are some signs that a partner may be trying to scam you (or that he or she may just be an undesirable partner!):

  1. He or she asks you for a lot of help pretty early in the relationship. Sure, partners ask for help sometimes. However, in the scam marriages, the dishonest partner was asking for WAY too much help early in the relationship–buy me a plane ticket, call me because I just can’t ever call you, I can’t use email because I need you to buy me a computer, I need new clothes, I can’t pay my rent, etc. (Note: My husband needed a little help when we were dating because his visa status didn’t allow him to work. But he LOVED me, so he almost never asked. And tried hard to refuse my help and figure out other ways. And he showed NO other signs below–he was attentive and warm always.)
  2. He or she tries to rush you into marriage.
  3. He or she tries to make you feel guilty for needing time to make a decision.
  4. He or she hasn’t introduced you to friends or relatives, or if they are in a different country, hasn’t even told them about you. If you are really suspicious, see how he or she reacts when you insist on marrying in their country in a ceremony attended by their family and friends.
  5. This person has lied to you about different things. (A liar is a liar and will be dishonest for many reasons, not one.)
  6. This person doesn’t do things a person in love would tend to do–call often, ask you on dates a lot, want to sit and talk to you for long periods of time, hold your hand, act affectionate, try to help you in different situations.
  7. Your friends tell you this person seems rude or seems to be using you. Even if you are blinded by love, your friends and family probably won’t be. A healthy partner in love will NOT treat you poorly. (Of course, it’s possible that a partner is mean, yet does NOT want a greencard. But who needs a mean partner regardless??)
  8. Your “partner” claims to love you but treats you very differently from how he treats his or her friends and family. He or she spends lots of time with friends or family, but barely has any time for you (though lots of excuses!).
  9. Anyone who makes wild promises and gives you too many gifts is suspicious. This person might give you huge compliments one moment, or gifts, especially if you have threatened to leave the relationship. But if the person just wants a greencard, he or she will not want to be with you very often and might act annoyed when you are together. If you find yourself asking questions like “Why don’t you call me more? Why do you always go out with your friends but never with me?” you have some things to figure out.

If you read this list and feel really suspicious, here are a few things you can do to gage your partner’s reaction:

  1. Talk about living together in his or her country rather than the US. Now, my husband would have said “No, we won’t make enough money there.” However, he would have been calm and respectful. If your partner gets irritable, angry, or acts completely shocked just because you brought this up, you might have a problem.
  2. Insist on getting married in his or her country too, particularly in a place of religious worship with your partner’s family in attendance. It may not be totally necessary if you know you’ll live here–that’s okay. Just ask to see how your partner reacts. But again, if your partner gets really freaked out about this suggestion, that’s a sign of a problem.
  3. Ask your partner for help in ways he or she can help you and see how he or she responds. If you have a fiance in Russia or China, for example, and you know she has NO money, ask her to send you photographs of places from her childhood–her school, her family, her pets, and so on. Ask her if she could send you a letter once a week in the mail because you miss her when you can’t call. If you get tons of excuses and no solutions every time you ask her to do something small and simple, you have a fiance who doesn’t love you enough to even mail a letter. Lose this person no doubt.

These tests will not definitely show you anything, but they may clue you into suspicious behavior and clue you in on the need to think further about possible issues. Also note: Your fiance may just be a less-than-desirable partner, and not necessarily a scammer. ALSO, there are many partners who scam people into marriage for reasons other than a greencard! Bottom line: Don’t marry a person you aren’t fulfilled with–marriage is hard enough even when you find the “perfect” partner. The challenges of intercultural marriage will cause a weak partnership to crumble. The partnership can only be strong if both people are reasonably respectful, kind, and healthy-minded.

So You Wanna Marry a Foreigner…

To find a husband or wife seems like the hard part…until you get married!  Then we learn that marriage, while fabulous in so many ways…has many trials and tribulations. Anticipating marrying someone from a different country can feel “scary” because somewhere inside, you know you’re taking a leap of faith that is bigger than that involved with marrying a person from the same culture. If you want to marry a foreigner, let me take a guess at a few of the thoughts you’re having:

  1. CAN I marry this person? I don’t know the first thing about immigration.
  2. Won’t marriage with a foreigner be complicated?
  3. I really think he/she loves me, but what if deep down, my love is thinking about a greencard?
  4. Will he/she change his/her mind and later want to move back home to a different country?
  5. Will he/she ever learn to speak English well? If not, what will happen?
  6. Will he/she ever find a good job? If not, what will happen?
  7. Will people, especially family and friends, accept our marriage?
  8. Will speaking different languages at home confuse our future children?
  9. Do children feel that the foreign parent is different from other parents?
  10. Is it possible to make a marriage between foreigners last?

I have good news and bad news to share! Good news first. The answer to #10 is YES. The answer to #1 is most often YES–I will post a few immigration links for you soon, plus I will describe our immigration situation (which ended fine and was very easy, just a long process) and a few of our friends’ as well.

The bad news. Marrying a foreigner could teach you many things you never wanted to learn about society, culture, how the nicest people in all cultures can turn horrible when their loved ones marry people from different places, that child-rearing practices are different everywhere and people get darn stubborn about the ones they were raised with…Oh, each of these needs its own post or many of them…

What I’m saying is, marriage is complicated–period. Marriage with a foreigner is even more complicated. Having lived in three countries, worked as an ESL teacher for 10 years (with hundreds of foreigners from many, many countries including all continents except Antarctica), I have known MANY couples comprised of spouses from different countries. I saw a few divorce within two years. I see some who are still holding on but unhappy. BUT I KNOW SOME who figured it out and are living an exciting, love-filled, culturally rich life together.

I hope to shed some light on my personal experience and offer help or advice whenever possible through this site. Good luck to you, and know that many international couples are thriving and happy!!!!