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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Cross-Cultural Issues in Raising Children

I am not really sure how to contain all of the issues in one post. Marriages like mine–in which the wife (that’s me) is Western and the husband is from the Middle East or East–will tend to have the most conflict as far as child rearing. This is because even though men from these areas can fall deeply in love with a Western woman, but the moment he realizes she will be the MOTHER of his children–and she was not at all brought up with the mothering ideas of his country–FEAR takes over.

This is extremely frustrating, frightening, and sad for both spouses. The good news is that mothers and fathers from all countries love their precious children dearly, and eventually, this helps tear away at any mistrust caused by cultural differences, beliefs, or bias. Here are some things I have learned:

  1. Parenthood can bring out a person’s worst fears about his or her spouse. My husband dearly loved me and treated me with a great deal of respect until the day our first child was born. On that day, he began to blow off all of my opinions, ideas, and basically thought most decisions I made about our child were very stupid and needed to be changed. Basically, he suddenly became convinced that a Western woman could be as good a mother as a girl from his country.
  2. These fears can cause unexpected, odd behavior. When my husband realized that our child wasn’t being raised exactly as he was, he freaked out. He became controlling and demeaning. This nearly ended in divorce when my son was 3. But slowly my husband began to return to normal–he saw how dedicated and loving I was, despite some cultural differences in the way I cared for our child. Now, years later, all is fine and we’re very excited about our third child who will be born in a few months!
  3. Mother-in-laws can make a bad problem MUCH WORSE. My mother-in-law came to “help” me with the new baby. This is the #1 worst decision I have made in my entire life. She felt she needed to TEACH me, a dumb Western girl, how to be a GOOD mother. They have many beliefs in their country that I just couldn’t agree with, such as covering my baby even though it was 90 degrees and he was sweating. Please. But because I refused to do some of these things, she felt I was a STUPID and HORRIBLE mother. Of course, this rubbed off on my husband, as to him, she’s the child-raising master! She could have helped, but because she was so close-minded, her visit had reprecussions that lasted 3 years.
  4. Cultural differences in child-rearing theories can lead to divorce. Learn to be open-minded and respectful while there’s time! My husband and I almost divorced over child-rearing issues. I was willing to compromise. Many of the beliefs my husband and his mother (and most people from their country) held about babies seemed strange to me. But they weren’t HARMFUL, so I was okay with them. But I still wanted to do many things my way, my doctor’s way, or per the advice of my family–things like feeding schedules, routines, limits, clothing, and so on–but when I tried, my husband would treat me like I was so stupid…eventually my child began to copy him. That was the end–I could not bare for my child to grow up disrespecting me. We almost divorced, but several interesting events happened, and my husband changed. To make a very long story short, now he’s very proud of my mothering–as I always was!
  5. Here is a short list of issues you may want to discuss before you have children with a foreign spouse. Some of these were very unexpected to me, and caused many, long-term spats!
    • Giving a child medicine for pain (some countries don’t like doing this)
    • Religion in which a child will be raised, or even only baptized
    • Age when a child should go to kindergarten (many countries go sooner than in the US)
    • Age when a child should go to pre-school
    • Whether babies should have an eating or sleeping schedule
    • What types of limits to set for toddlers (some cultures believe in almost NO limits–as my husband’s)
    • Activities mothers should do with toddlers
    • Who will stay home with the child? Is it okay for the mother to go out by herself while the father watches the child and vice versa? (It seems logical that this will be fine–sometimes it’s NOT!)
    • What role the father will have–change diapers, take walks with the child, give baths, or nothing
    • What role will the mother-in-law have–will she be expected to adhere to the mother’s ideas? If she fails to do so, what course of action will the husband and wife each take?
    • What languages do you want your child to speak at home? Is it important that they are bilingual?
    • Where will the child sleep? (in some cultures it is very important that the child sleep in the parent’s room or bed, while in others, children may have their own room much sooner)
    • What will you do about dating when the child is older? (in some cultures girls are strictly forbidden to date or even go out near the evening with female friends)
    • How often will the family visit in-laws? (this will be a consideration due to finances, plus families in some cultures will expect long visits of 2 months or more, both to your home and theirs)

All in all, child-rearing causes conflict even for most spouses from the same country! In my experience, just being respectful can prevent many problems. Also, remember that each spouse will feel a very serious and deep commitment to his or her ideas about child-rearing. You may feel you can be flexible until the moment when your partner wants to do something that you feel will not benefit your child. If this is rooted in culture, it may take time to solve.

All in all, my case was pretty hard. But even mine is fine now! And my husband is SUCH a wonderful father. I would not change any decision. Our family is extremely happy–it just took work and patience.

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.

Do Foreigners Need a Social Security Number to Get Married?

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.

So, do foreigners need a social security number to get married? When we were married years ago, the answer was NO! We married at the Justice of the Peace near our house. (Then we married in a church later.) It was such a special day:)

BUT for a while, I was afraid we couldn’t get married! My friends had gone to apply for a marriage license and said there was a HUGE sign posted: “Parties must present a social security number to obtain a marriage license.” Well, my fiance (now husband) didn’t have a social security number… I thought, “Great, now we can’t get married because of some dumb number.”

So, I called all of these different Justice of the Peace offices in different states–Pennsylvania, Las Vegas, and so on. They all said you have to show your social security number to get married. Finally one kind lady explained: “If you HAVE a social security number, you must provide it. If you DO NOT HAVE a social security number, then you must sign a document that says you don’t have one.”

I am not sure this law applies to all states, but you can call the Office of the City Clerk where you live to find out (this may also be called the Office of the Town Clerk depending where you live). You can usually find this information on the website of your city government.

When you call, ask: “Does a person need a social security number to get a marriage license in your office?” The person will probably say “Yes.”

Then ask: “What if the person does not have a social security number?” In many places, maybe all, the person will say, “In that case, he or she will sign a document that says he or she has no social security number.”

And then, of course, after you are married, your spouse will be able to get a social security card soon–definitely after receiving the EAD. Read about this here.

Parent Reactions

My Parents Reacted…Reasonably
I learned a lot about my parents when my husband and I decided to get married.

I am sure they were nervous about his English–because they knew he would have difficulty finding a job (and he sure did). So, I am sure they felt a little panicked wondering how he and I would support ourselves.

Short-Term Reactions
Both the short-term and long-term reactions surprised me. Short-term were the opposite of what I expected. My mother totally supported our marriage and was REALLY nice to my husband (then my fiance) and thought he was the nicest man ever, which he is–almost always:) My father (whose mother is also an immigrant who came in the 1940’s) was nervous that my husband might just want a greencard. I understand that concern, as there are foreigners who scam for greencards–but I knew this wasn’t the case with my husband.

So, my parents were happy for me mostly, but both of them were very nervous about my husband’s English–I was not, but I should have been. I assumed he was going to study hard and learn quickly. NO. Instead he totally refused to study or take English classes, and to this day 9 years later, still doesn’t speak all that well. But I don’t really care because he has a good job anyway, and we don’t speak English together. He finally learned English from speaking at work (he managed to find work, very hard and low-paying). Then from there moved onto better jobs. Then really good jobs, better than mine! But it was a long, hard road.

Long-term Reactions
Anyway, the long-term reactions of my parents were the ones that really got me. Everything changed. My mother ended up HATING my husband because of the hardships I went through (financial and child-rearing mainly–that topic needs a whole different post, many of them actually). It is too bad. But we rarely see her, so it’s her problem not mine. She doesn’t treat my husband respectfully, so I refuse to go. My husband and children should always be treated with kindness, even if that means avoiding my own mother. And I have to be treated kindly even if this means avoiding his mother. Now that we avoid both of them, we are very happy. We talk to them and email, but we visit very rarely.

My father, on the other hand, became very supportive of my husband and our marriage. He learned that I chose my hardships and that I was willing to bear them because I really believed the future would be better, and that my husband was still the right man for me. Thank goodness I turned out to be right!

When my husband got really good jobs, everyone calmed down completely. I think that was a big weight lifted from their shoulders. Also, they know I am happy, which is all they wanted.