Intercultural Marriage, Promises And Pitfalls: a new book about mixed marriages

"Look, Jean-Paul, I don’t want to go to your family for lunch again this Sunday … ” Jill Penton-Browne has been reading a new book about mixed marriages

married coupleMixed marriages are a delicate subject. When I wrote about them here some time back I got an irate letter from a Franco-Algerian couple accusing me of “racism”, even of being a partisan of Le Pen, because I had said that marriages between European women and Moslem men — what the French call “mariages couscous-frites” — sometimes ran into trouble. As I explained in my answer, printed in our letters column, it’s a commonplace of family sociology that any couple whose members are of different cultural backgrounds are more likely to be at risk than those where husband and wife have similar histories. This is one explanation for the mounting divorce figures in so many countries. Increased travel, migration and work-led expatriation have resulted in many more conjugal relationships between partners of different nationalities than existed even fifty years ago, and they don’t always work out.

“A sure path to self-knowledge and growth”

Dugan Romano, formerly of the Rome Daily American, once part of what she calls an “intercultural marriage”, and now resident in Washington, D.C. and counselling others through that experience, has produced a useful discussion of this topic, Intercultural Marriage: Promises and Pitfalls (Nicholas Brealey, U.K.), drawing on detailed interviews with several dozen couples whose origins ranged from French and Kuwaiti through American and Austrian to Cuban and Iranian. It’s a rather solemn book written in that formal didactic style found in older U.S. high school social studies texts but it contains a lot of common sense and anyone in a mixed marriage, even — like me — a veteran of that state, may find something to think about. Along with the problems, Romano looks at the upside of marrying outside of one’s own culture and concludes (and many would agree) that, whatever the ultimate outcome, the experience is “a sure path to self-knowledge and growth”.

There are two basic stages in such a relationship, Romano argues. At the beginning “love” is the dominant factor and physical attraction and sexual reward tend to obscure any underlying difficulties. Later, as the marriage begins to settle down, problems may begin to emerge. The major variable here — that social studies tone is infectious, sorry — is location. The couple may live in the home country of one or other of the spouses or in a third country. This latter, we learn, is regarded by many couples as the ideal situation. It is less easy for either partner to try to impose his or her cultural norms on the other and both have to accommodate to a third way of living. The most problematic situation seems to occur when a woman goes to live in her husband’s country. Even in Western societies she may find life not always easy; in more traditional countries she may have a very hard time indeed, as was the case in Romano’s sample of American Rashida in Kenya and of French Yvette in Kuwait. However, as she points out, even seemingly closely related cultural origins don’t guarantee immediate success. She cites problems between Swedes and Danes and Americans and British and we all know women from other parts of Western Europe who’ve not found things easy in France.

What are the major sources of conflict? In all cases, independent of nationality, Romano found that “no other cultural difference was cited so often by couples as food” (what’s eaten, when and with whom). As the title of this review suggests, that remarkably stubborn institution the French family Sunday lunch is a good illustration of this. Other fraught issues are sex, money, bringing up children and how far a woman, especially, should have friends beyond the couple’s own social network. An American girl here had a terrible time with her French husband over her “good buddy” relationship with a male colleague though it was entirely innocent.

“It takes more effort”

As Romano points out several times, problems in intercultural marriages may in fact have causes related to individual personality rather than national origin. Arrived in Kuwait, Yvette discovered that her husband was “in some ways a boor even in his own language”. Romano’s comments on some couples could apply to any marriage but, as she rightly insists, with partners of different cultural background it takes more effort to get things right. There’s need for communication, sensitivity, flexibility, awareness of common goals in the marriage — and a sense of humour. All these factors have to operate within the interplay of specific cultures. The French, we should never forget, usually cannot bear to be mocked by outsiders, either as individuals or as a nation. Romano ends her study on a sombre note: marriages, good, bad and indifferent, come to an end through death, divorce or desertion. That’s something an expatriate spouse, in particular, should be prepared for.

From Riviera Reporter Issue 105

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