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International Marriages

Those of us who appreciate exotic cultures often marry into them, enthusiastically but blindly. There are some common concerns about which all those who enter into an international marriage should be aware.

• In which country will you live? Among the dozen international marriages among our friends, all but two couples live in the country of the husband because of his greater work possibilities. The burden of adjusting to new cultural patterns, to a certain amount of isolation (family and friends left behind), and usually to a new language lay with the foreign spouse. Is she or he up to those challenges over the long haul? We would suggest, if possible, that the couple try out both countries. It is difficult to understand people if you have not lived in their culture.

• Whose culture will be dominant? Probably the one of the country in which you are living. Although the foreign spouse will want to hang on to some traditions, it is difficult to maintain a cultural oasis within a household. Our Thai son-in-law still cooks a mean curry, but he has given up trying to explain to our daughter that his shirts should be washed separately from his pants because the items from the two parts of his body should not be mingled (this does not apply to the less important female gender).

• What will the children’s nationality be? If children are born abroad, their birth should be registered with the American embassy. They no longer need to fulfill an American residency requirement to retain their American citizenship throughout their lifetimes, but they cannot pass on their citizenship to the next generation unless they have lived in the U.S. for five years. If you live in the U.S., you may want to check with the foreign embassy of your spouse to see if the children can also retain that citizenship. Our three adult children, raised in the U.S., have retained their dual Spanish/American citizenship.

• What language will the children speak? If the language of the household and the country are the same, the children will not automatically speak the second language. If the language of the household is different from that of the country, the children will grow up bilingual but will need additional education if they are to know both languages well.

• What will the children’s names be? In recent years Americans have come to accept all sorts of exotic names, but we would suggest names be given that can, at least, be easily pronounced in both languages.

• What if you divorce? Given the greater challenge of understanding a partner from another culture, there may be greater likeliness of divorce. The American spouse would be aware of the divorce laws of the country of the fiance, especially if that is going to be their place of residence. We are all familiar with horror stories of children taken from American mothers and held by fathers in foreign countries. Also, there are countries in which men can marry additional women with impunity, then leave the American wife penniless should she object.

• What happens if the spouse dies? There should be wills in both countries if property and assets are held in both. If you are living in the U.S., the foreign spouse should become a U.S. citizen; otherwise, the government will take a large share of the couple’s assets on the death of the American. If the foreign spouse is the surviving one, he or she is unlikely to return to the country of origin. Old age will probably be lived out in the new country and every provision should be made to assure it is comfortable.

International marriage is not for the feint of heart but for adventurers like those who subscribe to Transitions Abroad. It requires its participants to look at the world in a different way, to change long-established patterns of behavior, to cope with the prejudices of two cultures, to learn new skills and a new language, and to be extra caring and understanding of a foreign partner. The global perspective that comes from living in a home built upon two cultures is a gift one can pass along to future generations. In our case, we are now educating our grandchildren.