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Last updated: January 17, 2022

I think we can all agree—relationships are complicated. There are a lot of possible points of contention that could either bring you closer together or drive you apart. When you’re in a relationship with someone outside of your own culture, the divide between these topics can be augmented as a result of our unique cultural lenses. Relationships that are multinational are subject to an additional layer of complexity. This is especially true when the two parties designate different countries as “home”. Issues that regularly come to the surface include language barriers, religion and beliefs, and the need for one person to move so that the couple can start a life together.

This article will bring to light some lesser-known effects of multiculturalism on relationships. Using my relationship with my Frenchman as a reference, I’ll be discussing a few of my own findings. For reference, Jonathan and I have known each other for over 5 years now and have been married since the fall of 2019. This article is for fun and reflection! Enjoy!

handing over a cut out black paper heart
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

1. You’ll Cover a Wide Range of (Taboo) Topics Early On

Communication is key in any relationship. That’s no secret. I think what most people will tell you is that communication is harder in a multicultural relationship, particularly when there is a language barrier. Beyond the obvious language barrier, we also have different ways of expressing ourselves based on our cultures. For example, Jonathan is very direct when he speaks, which might be hurtful if I wasn’t aware of this cultural difference.

Even taking these difficulties into consideration, I’d counter that, in a multicultural relationship, you’re likely to be more thorough in how you communicate. Yes, of course there are going to be misunderstandings. However, when you really care about getting your meaning across to someone and you are simultaneously aware of possible linguistic barriers, you take the time to make sure the message is correctly received.

I’d also add that you might communicate on a far deeper level, earlier on in your relationship, especially if you are currently in or about to embark on a long-distance relationship. This situation puts you in a position where you have to ask questions that you normally wouldn’t dare ask until several months in. If you don’t jump right in for a discussion on marriage, babies, and your foot fetish*, you might waste considerable time and money on a relationship that won’t last in the long run. This is especially important if you’re considering moving abroad for love.

*I’d like to state here that neither of us has a foot fetish.

2. You’ll See Your Own Country and Culture From a New Viewpoint

Dating someone from another culture offers you a new perspective. We don’t always realize how culture affects how we view things. It was so interesting seeing what Jonathan observed and noticed during his first visit to the United States. It was June, the weather was beautiful, and Americans everywhere were preparing for July 4th. Picture it: American flags lining the streets, decorating mailboxes and houses, and hanging from light poles.

Americans flags lined up on a building in New York City
New York City (2017)

I remember Jonathan kept taking pictures of the countless flags everywhere we went. I’d be driving and he’d ask me to slow down so he could get a good shot. Another thing Jonathan commented on was all the drive-throughs. He made me go through a drive-through ATM because he wanted to know what it was like. He couldn’t believe you could drive up to a bank. So, to sum this up…. America is patriotic and lazy. (Yes, I am proud to be American!)

3. You’ll Embrace Stereotypes

We say stereotypes are bad, but within the safety of your relationship, they can become something that brings you closer together. Some of those quirks are what you fell in love with after all, and it’s totally ok to embrace them and poke a little fun.

When Jonathan makes fun of me for being American, I take it as a compliment and full license to continue doing whatever it is that he commented on. It’s what makes me special to him, obviously. For example, he calls out my americanness when I put cinnamon on my applesauce (and in all desserts, let’s be honest). On multiple occasions, he has said that a French person would NEVER do that. Likewise, I call out his frenchness when he uses a spoon for his jam. By the way, do you do this? It’s genius. Why have I been spreading jam with a knife my whole life? (Also, Bonne Maman Raspberry Preserves is THE best jam.)

4. You’ll Create Your Own Language

Being in a relationship with someone who has a different native language than you can cause occasional misunderstandings, but hopefully you’ll be able to laugh your way through it. This one time, Jonathan said to me, “C’est toi la plus belle” (“You’re the most beautiful.”). What I heard was, “C’est toi la poubelle.” (“You’re the trash can.”) We have since lovingly incorporated this phrase into our daily lives.

a couple holding hands in a café drinking coffee
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

If you are lucky enough to be in a multilingual relationship, you will have the opportunity to create your very own hybrid language. This comes with time, patience, and lots of laughter. New words just show up, and sometimes they stick around. Jonathan really likes the candy, Gobstoppers. One day, he forgot what they were called and asked if I wanted a “Gobblestopper.” The worst part is that I let him think that that was the real word for it because I enjoyed him saying it that much. (He’s aware of this mistake now. Don’t worry.)

5. Your Travels Together Might Be Tricky

If your passports are of different nationalities and you are traveling together, you might get questioned, depending on your country of destination. The first time that we traveled to the United States together as a married couple, we bought our tickets together and checked in together at the airport. At the check in counter, we were equally bombarded with questions about our motives for traveling, why we were traveling together, and the nature of our relationship. Personally, I was a bit offended. I hold an American passport, and I have every right to return to America where, even though I am no longer a resident, I am required to file taxes and report my income and bank account information. (Sorry, my American side was peeking through there. I’ll tone it down.) Understandably, these kind of questions are an attempt to detect immigration concerns.

Something else to keep in mind is that different passports might not come with the same freedoms. For example, on my American passport, I can freely travel to Canada. Jonathan, on the other hand, with his French passport, would need to make sure he gets an authorization to arrive in Canada by air (une autorisation de voyage électronique—AVE). Indeed, even for Jonathan to fly to the United States, he needs to apply for a similar document, called an ESTA—Electronic System for Travel Authorization. It’s important to check on restrictions and visas when picking out your next vacation spot!


Have you had similar or different experiences? Let me know in the comment section below!

5 Things Nobody Tells You About Multicultural Relationships
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13 thoughts on “5 Things Nobody Tells You About Multicultural Relationships

  • April 25, 2020 at 9:32 am
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    The cinnamon thing! My French fb always comments when I add cinnamon to everything…

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    • April 26, 2020 at 8:51 am
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      There are so many American desserts with cinnamon. Granted, I love it so much, I just sprinkle it all over the place! Have you ever put some in your coffee?? So good!

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      • April 26, 2020 at 10:11 am
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        Yes! Reminds me of the cinnamon dolce latte my mom would always order from Starbucks

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  • April 25, 2020 at 10:53 am
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    At least you are the most beautiful trashcan!! ♥️♥️♥️

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    • April 26, 2020 at 8:52 am
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      Yes, I do have that going for me, haha

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  • April 25, 2020 at 1:40 pm
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    Nice piece, Ellen! You have the makings of a book here. Have you ever read Pamela Duckerman, an American who lives in Paris with a Brit husband (I think) and writes about things French in Op-eds for the NY Times on occasion? She explains differences between French and American culture in a way that’s often witty and entertaining.

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    • April 26, 2020 at 9:00 am
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      Thank you, Vladimir. Such a nice compliment! Yes, I have heard of her. I read one of her books, “Bébé Day by Day: 100 Keys to French Parenting.” Jonathan and I had a great time discussing it, and he confirmed many of the book’s findings! I haven’t read anything by her recently. I’d be interested to see what she’s been up to!

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  • April 26, 2020 at 3:20 pm
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    I never would’ve admitted Gobblestopper was wrong :p

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    • April 28, 2020 at 6:55 am
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      I figured he was bound to see it on the box eventually! He probably won’t read these comments, so I feel safe enough to let you know that there are a few other words I haven’t corrected… hahaha

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  • April 26, 2020 at 6:34 pm
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    Ellen,
    Great writing and funny to read that you didn’t correct Jonathan about the candy word ! I do the same with my husband when he makes some mistakes with Spanish because I found it adorable. I’m sure he does it with me too in English.

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    • April 28, 2020 at 6:56 am
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      It is adorable! We tend to only correct each other when it’s something that really neeeeeds to be corrected… I’m sure you know what I mean! So nice to hear from you, Carolina. I hope you’re well!

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  • November 11, 2020 at 7:44 pm
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    14 June is Flag Day. I had no clue. We got married on 14 June. We arrived in a small town for our honeymoon and thought it a bit odd that the entire main street was festooned with the red white and blue – did they do this just for us?
    Sharing this with our daughter, engaged to a guy from a different culture…

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    • November 13, 2020 at 9:01 am
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      They were celebrating for you, I’m sure! 🤣
      Thanks for reading and sharing! I appreciate it.

      Reply

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