I recently read an article entitled Foreign Spouse, Happy Life by Lauren Collins. The writer gave us a glimpse into the inner workings of her bi-national marriage. Her comments struck a chord with me in that my husband, Christian, was born abroad. He had an American mother and a Swedish father, and spent his childhood and early adulthood in Sweden before moving to the U.S. He then moved to Australia and eventually back to the US.
I’m especially grateful he returned to the U.S., because that’s when he met me… 11-+ years ago. We’ve been married 3 years, and our relationship is growing stronger by the day. However, there are times when our roads less-traveled together have resulted in different perspectives that can give rise to a discussion as to for instance, why in Sweden, Christmas Eve is a bigger holiday than Christmas Day, or why at a sit-down dinner in Sweden, you will intentionally be separated from your spouse and expected to sit at a table with strangers. Luckily, I absolutely love Christmas Eve, and at dinner parties, I can easily hold my own with people I’ve never met before.
Like the couple referred to in the NYTimes.com article, our multicultural marriage works quite well. We actually have more in common than not. Our life experiences and exposure to various people, customs and cultures have made us “blended individuals.” “According to Colin Woodard who wrote: American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, published by Viking Press, 2012, I have lived in three distinct U.S. regional areas. So, it isn’t surprising that my spouse often kiddingly refers to me as a “hybrid” because my blend of Southern warmth and charm, New York directness and humor, and California-style openness and inclusion, are often in evidence, all at the same time. I lovingly call my husband the Viking King because of his fondness for herring, and because he resembles Gustav II Adolf, an ancient Swedish King who was known as one of the most benevolent monarchs. In short, Good King Gustav made things better for people around him, and that certainly also describes my husband.
So, if you are immersed in a multicultural relationship or marriage and are striving for harmony, here are some basic rules to follow:
1. Listen well to the tales your partner tells - You’ll be fascinated by the stories he/she will share and you will learn things, such as, Swedes are known for being very stoic when it comes to showing emotions, until mid-Summer’s Eve comes. Then, it is expected that adults will hop and skip around the lavishly decorated Maypole to the “Frog Dance.” Interestingly enough, last summer during the festivities, I, the extroverted American, was the one who didn’t want to let my guard down and join the crowd in dance and song. Instead, I chose to sit on the sidelines.
2. Don’t get lost in translation – Exercise patience and allow sufficient time for your partner to speak when he/she is explaining something that is uncommon or unfamiliar to you. Their thoughts may come in their native language first or be mixed among a couple or more languages, so it may take time to find the right words to express themselves. English has 5 times as many words as the other northern European languages, for instance, so be prepared for your partner to sometimes be direct in his/her response. I recall the first time I was offended by my husband’s answer when I asked him how I looked in a new dress. He replied, “Well, since you asked me, yes, your butt does look big in that outfit.” I responded, “Wasn’t there another way you could have said that?” He said, “I thought you wanted me to be honest.” Then we both broke out in laughter.
3. Show compassion – chances are that when your partner is describing an experience from his/her past, they may be sharing feelings of homesickness. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have a strong desire to be there at that moment, or that they want to uproot you in the future, but they may be feeling a bit melancholy and would appreciate a little extra kindness and understanding. And, if they want to talk about the what-ifs of living part-time here or there, be open to it. Personally, if we did a coin toss as to where to spend some of our time, his childhood home or mine, I wouldn’t mind losing the toss. Wink.
4. Do your best to avoid a defensive posture – Resist the desire to contrast and compare and engage in a head-on competition. No one will win. Instead, seek common ground and appreciate the fact that your partner may have had a different experience, not necessarily a better one.
5. Always seek balance - Look for ways to incorporate the best ideas, rituals and customs from both of your experiences into your lifestyle. Our best idea one year was to go as a Scandinavian King and Princess to a Halloween party. The next year, we went as a totally different couple that depicted my heritage. What fun! We’re all about equality.
6. Remain curious – You will have a lifelong experience of learning new things from your partner’s cultural background, and that will enrich your otherwise “comfort-zone” existence. On one of our trips abroad, my husband introduced me to Kronborg Castle, a.k.a. Hamlet’s Castle in Elsinore, Denmark. Seeing this castle in real life added richness to the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet for me, and I could clearly see why Shakespeare had chosen this castle as the setting. On the other hand, I plan to introduce my husband to the Biltmore House and Gardens in Asheville, North Carolina, sometime soon, as that is the castle I am well-acquainted with, having grown up very close by.
7. Expect the unexpected, and laugh a lot - No doubt your partner will share seemingly quirky and funny phrases, customs and foods with you – the kinds of things you never dreamed of. For instance, once in conversation with my husband, I described the ingredients for “red-eye gravy” – something I had been raised on during my childhood in Western North Carolina. Red-eye gravy was a staple and was to be served with fried country ham and poured over a pile of grits. Just visualizing that dish made him turn green for a moment. Then, he began to talk about a smoked eel appetizer on a toothpick that he liked, which is a delicacy in the Nordic countries during the winter months. I was as turned off by the thought of swallowing a chunk of eel and flushing it down with a shot of something strong, than he gulping down a mouthful of grits smothered with ham fat and coffee grounds. After the conversation, we both lost our appetites for dinner and had a good chuckle about it.
8. Don’t sweat the small stuff – Meaning, don’t constantly try to correct your partner. It doesn’t matter most of the time, anyway. Just be aware that even the most well-meaning suggestions may come off as criticisms and be viewed as nagging. You don’t want to drive your partner to the rock-bottom low of his/her self-esteem or, even worse, foster resentment toward you.
9. Communicate often and openly - If you practice good communication skills on a daily basis with your partner, you are apt to head off a lot of misunderstandings that can lead to an eventual relationship breakdown. Practice makes perfect. The more you become accustomed to better understanding and interpreting your partner’s expressions and behaviors, the better your chances of having a healthy and harmonious relationship. Don’t let negative feelings and emotions lie dormant beneath the surface. Allow them to bubble up to the top, so you as a couple can address issues, solve problems and come to a consensus on how to deal with situations.
10. Embrace and celebrate your differences - At the end of the day, you were drawn to one another because of your individual uniqueness. If your core values and interests are aligned, if you have respect for one another, and if you demonstrate kindness and compassion toward one another every day, you can create a beautiful life together despite differences. Think of virtually stitching together a colorful patchwork quilt that will represent your multicultural and multinational ideas, experiences and memories. My quilt will, most certainly, have an image of a “herring” sewn into the fabric, in honor of my husband.