The Fairy Tale of Expat Relationships
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
4.5 years ago, I left my home in Germany to explore the world and realize my dream of an international life and career. As I discovered my curiosity for far-away places and foreign cultures, it was only a matter of time until my romantic life followed a similar direction. A few months into my international quest, I could not think more highly of inter-ethnic relationships. I labeled them with all kind of positive characteristics:
Never-ending fun (infinite possibilities putting this proverb into practice: The quarrel of lovers is the renewal of love.)
Bridging between ethnicities, cultures, and races
Remedy against and prevention of xenophobia and racism
Huge sexual tension
Adorable kids with extraordinary cuteness levels that are gifted with a proper advantage package: Equipped with bi- or even trilingualism, locked and loaded with exotic and attractive looks, they would become future connectors of different ethnicities and lobbies in a globalized world (yeah, I know... projections... tell me about it...).
Driven by my curiosity for the unknown and my attraction to exotic places, cultures, and looks, I created an Utopian image in my head. Although I was aware of the hurdles that come along with inter-ethnic relationships, I approached them with a let’s try and find out mentality. A few years later I adjusted my perception of inter-ethnic relationships to a more grounded one.
Before we jump straight into it, I would like to quickly explain the reason I use the adjective inter-ethnic instead of interracial or intercultural. In everyday life, these terms are often used interchangeably. But the devil is in the details. The use of the correct term facilitates proper understanding and prevents misunderstandings.
The term race describes a biological perspective. It is based on differences in the DNA within a particular species (e.g. our own homo sapiens) and/or a specific subspecies (in case of us humans it is the homo sapiens sapiens). From a biological perspective it is still debated if races in humans exist. Our DNA varies by less than 0.1 percent. This is way less variation than can be found in other hominids (such as orangutans or chimpanzees). In social studies race refers to a person's physical appearances, such as skin color, hair, bone structure, or eye color. The term race is mostly used in Northern America to track demographics. In other places like Germany it has a bad connotation due to its historical connection to Nazi Germany.
The term culture refers to the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular group of people or society. On top of that, the concept of ethnicity takes additional aspects into accounts such as nationality, ancestry, and language. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between race, ethnicity, and culture. For example, Dutchmen and Germans share similar cultures but show more differences in their ethnicities. Likewise an Asian-American can identify with different ethnicities while having only one race, even if it is mixed. African Americans and white Americans have different races and their culture is the same or at least pretty similar.
While you can find many scientific and journalistic publications using the terms interracial or intercultural, I believe the wording inter-ethnic to be the best fit. The characteristics and challenges of relationships of people from different (geographical) backgrounds do not primarily arise from different genetics (as the term race indicates) but from the environment during upbringing. I am white, and if I would have raised in a Chinese family in China I would probably think and act more Chinese than anything else. I would be of Chinese ethnicity no matter my physical appearance. My thinking and behavior would influence my understanding of and conduct in romantic relationships way more than my genetic framework (my race).
To make things even a bit more complicated we should differentiate between inter-ethnic relationships, where both partners grew up and live in the same country and relationships between locals and expats. The latter often follow different dynamics, which are fueled by a limited time frame and uncertainty. We will touch this topic later on again.
I turned 30 this year. That is the age where bachelors shift from being a majority to becoming a minority. I witness it daily on social media or hear my mom sharing news from her friends’ offspring. Bellies getting bigger and dresses whiter. The circle of life finishes chapter one of three.
Reflecting on my life and experiences abroad, I realized something interesting. I can list numerous stable long-term relationships between couples from the same ethnicity. Many of my friends and contacts in Germany have been together with their partners for five, eight or even ten years. They move in together, marry and start families.
Last two years I lived in Vietnam. As a rough estimate I might know around 400 people in Vietnam. My social circle in Vietnam is a colorful blend of all kinds of people from all over the planet. Among them are many Vietnamese friends and acquaintances, which have been in long-term relationships with a partner from the same ethnic background. At one point, I tried to list all the long-term inter-ethnic relationships among my social circle. I defined long-term relationship as the following:
·Duration of more than 2 years
·I did not consider the type of relationship (monogamous, polygamous, polyamorous, etc.) nor the extent of it (not married, engaged, married, with kids)
It took me a while and some efforts to come up with names. In the end, I could list two couples out of 400 individuals. The result surprised me. Could it be the social circle I spend my time in? Could it be the big anonymous city? I was looking for answers. I consulted Dr. Google for more objective research-based information.
After reading through several studies and meta-studies, I was able to boil it down to one takeaway: Inter-ethnic marriages are more likely to end in divorce. Socioeconomic and demographic characteristics on individual levels are also associated with inter-ethnic relationships. Among those are age group and age difference, education, income/wealth, political or religious beliefs. The bigger the gaps between the two partners, the higher the risk of separation. Pretty unromantic, isn’t it? Pretty different from the image promoted in Hollywood and the pop culture, eh? Does that mean Manhattan Love Story is reserved for J.Lo only, and the average person is left out in the cold?
It is definitively not that easy as we might want it to be. To be able to maneuver around the most significant pitfalls we first have to understand them:
Cultural Differences: Upbringing in certain cultures shapes beliefs, values, expectations, communication styles, and behavior. The more significant the cultural gap, the more prominent the challenge to bridge it.
Communication: Language barriers are only the tip of the iceberg. Differences in communication styles can vary widely across cultures and are more challenging to identify. They are the hidden part of the iceberg. Point one and two do not only apply to the couple themselves but also affects the interaction among the extended families.
Time Pressure: This is especially valid for expats on a limited contract/assignment. Let’s look at the most common example: An expat in a relationship with a local. Most expats relocate to a new destination for a limited time. Upon the expiration of the assignment, the couple faces major decisions: Staying in the new country, which can mean a step back in the career/compensation or moving to the next destination together. This could be the expat’s home country or a new destination. This implicates the challenge that the local partner would have to leave his/her country, family, friends, and potentially career to live in an environment that might be completely unknown. Another issue could be the residence and work permit for the next destination. Depending on the strength of the partner’s passport, marriage might become necessary. This increased pressure to make such essential life decision might move partners to end the relationship or to not engage in any committed relationship at all. On the other hand we all know that a pinch of uncertainty can spice up any relationship. As so often it is a matter of perspective.
In my social circle I witnessed an increased level of frustration or even surrender regarding serious dating on both expat and local side. In the endless metropolitan ocean of potential dating partners and the expectation that one partner will move away sooner or later, most relationships seem to follow a self-fulfilling prophecy. In my opinion this is not necessarily something to be pointed at and labeled as an ‘illness of the new generation’ – any easy explanation for a complex situation does not do justice. I personally see it as the logical consequence of increased freedom of choice, change in values, free-thinking and the dynamics of modern (big city) life.
From my perspective, instead of labeling it as good or bad in absolute terms, it is more productive to manage expectations realistically. All the attraction and exoticness aside: If you move abroad as a single expat chances are high that you will be single (in the longer term) as long you keep exploring the planet. Vice versa, as long as you keep exclusively dating expats, you most likely will face similar reoccurring experiences. As long as we are aware of those dynamics we can make a conscious decision.
Meanwhile I realized that inter-ethnic relationships are just as any other relationships. Some obstacles and pitfalls are the same, others differ. No one size fits it all. Again it is a matter of perspective. Challenges are meant to be overcome. If they can be overcome hugely depends on the commitment of the couple to tackle them together. Where there's a will, there's a way.
In case you met someone from a different ethnic background you want to build a life with, the following points might help you make it work:
A genuine interest in your partner’s ethnic background: Learning about the other one’s cultural heritage, upbringing, and home country is a must. Read books about cross-cultural communication and your partner’s home country, learn about customs and manners, visit each other’s countries and learn your partner’s language to be able to have conversations with his/her family.
Open communication: Although this applies to any couple, I believe this to be even more important for inter-ethnic partners. Giving the partner verbal or non-verbal cues that leave room for interpretation or – from the opposite perspective – trying to read in between the lines is a typical ‘game’ between partners. While that is a natural phenomenon it can lead to misunderstandings and therefor conflict. Inter-ethnic relationships add another layer of cultural complexity to gender-based differences in communication and dealing with emotion. The best remedy for those pitfalls is active listening. It’s a concept that makes one’s conversation partner feeling understood by applying easy yet useful tools:
Signaling that you are actually listening, such as non-verbal signals such as nodding with your head or verbal signals like saying ‘okay’ or ‘I understand’ or a simple confirming ‘mhm.’ A simple trick to keeping your partner engaged in talking and therefore increasing the chance to understand the situation is to repeat the last word of your partner's spoken sentence with a slight inclination in your voice. This signals that you are interested and want to find out more.
Mirroring: Adapting your body positioning so that it mirrors the one of your conversation partner subconsciously builds rapport and increases the feeling of being understood.
Paraphrasing: This means to summarize with your own words what your partner has just said. Then the same can correct any misunderstandings. This can be done in an iterative process until everyone is on the same page.
Labeling: Giving one’s emotion a name. A ‘that must have upset you’ signals empathy and increases the feeling of being understood. At the same time, it helps to avoid misunderstandings similar to paraphrasing.
Understanding and patience: Differences will always exist, and that is totally okay. Opposites attract. In the end any relationships is like a book. If we are to far away, the letters become too small for being understood. If we are too close – literally with your nose in the book – the letters begin to blur out.
What are your experiences of dating as an expat, respectively dating expats? Share them in the comments.
 For more information have a look at: US National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health, Pew Research Center, Divorcesource