Gap Year

How to Rock a Cross Cultural Relationship Abroad

Lisa Saltagi
Lisa Saltagi
Topic Expert

Lisa studied in Ascoli Piceno, Italy in 2010 and since has always needed to have a flight booked somewhere. After failing at office life, she flew to Italy and became a European tour-guide for a year.

Couple on a motorcycle in Florence

The last thing my mother said to me after I decided to take off to Italy for the summer was this: "Fine, go – but don’t you dare fall in love unless he has enough money for a private jet to fly you back home whenever you want". I snorted a response and probably mumbled something like “in my dreams” as I started packing what I then thought were “Italian-style” clothes.

Dating internationally is exciting and full of adventure, but be prepared for some big changes you may have not experienced in your previous relationships to make it work.

Fast forward two years and I’m sitting in my Florentine apartment with my foreign fiance and while he doesn’t have a private jet (sorry Mom) he has everything else that I’ve ever needed. So my dreams weren’t that far off.

However, this dream of mine does have some hang ups -- just like any relationship! Dating internationally is exciting and full of adventure, but be prepared for some big changes you may have not experienced in your previous relationships to make it work. If you are able to, however, it’ll be the most incredible experience you can have. Here are a few of my biggest challenges and how I’ve dealt with them:

Don't Rely on Your New Beau for Everything Because Its “Their” Home

I am guilty of this one. Though it is so much easier to have your significant other order the drinks or take care of the bills, you are only hurting yourself and your relationship by over-relying on them.

Relationships in general are definitely in need of being a two-way street and when you rely on someone for all of the daily tasks as you stand mutely behind them – whether it be because of a language barrier or you simply not knowing the ropes, it will hurt you in the long run.

So, get out there when your other half is busy and meet your own friends, and keep your own interests. Call up the restaurant and make those reservations yourself. Continue to learn and adapt about your new home the way you would if you had moved abroad by yourself. This way, you’ll have your own passage of blending into the culture which will give you more confidence and allow you to focus more on a relationship where you two are equal.

You're Going to Have to Deal with Some Privacy Issues

Group photo in India

For my situation in Italy (and likely in a lot of places), family is everything and that means that your dirty laundry is their dirty laundry. Literally. Like, my future father-in-law washes things I have purchased at Victoria’s Secret, hangs them on the line to dry outside of their house, then irons them and my future mother-in-law returns it all to me perfectly folded into little packets.

Worst part, if I even attempt to tell them I can wash my own laundry, I get a horrified look as if I have scorned them. “WHAT,” they gasp. We don’t do enough for you?! So I wave my white panties in surrender and hand them over.

This may not be exactly your situation, but you are going to have to learn to do deal with different perceptions of private/not-private. This isn't not because you're new love and/or their family like embarrassing you, its just because they think its normal.

Culturally, your views will likely change as well and something that may be extremely embarrassing for you is (and will become for you) the norm! Maybe we just have our panties in a bunch for no reason -- it is just a piece of cloth right?

Do Fun Things Together You Both Enjoy

I love spa days and wine nights as much as the next girl (seriously who would say no to a man that just wants to get a massage and then top off the night with a fancy dinner?) but sometimes I need a day that brings me back to my New England roots.

So, occasionally we’ll go hiking, my fiance will let me frolic along the beach, or let me buy lobsters for special dinner occasions. In return, we go to aperitivo and look at remote control helicopters in the toy store for him.

Just like any relationship, doing things that each of you are interested in and doing them together will allow you to learn about each other and your individual interests more. In a cross-cultural relationship, this may mean sharing with each other something about one another's roots or culture. Even if it may not be your favorite thing, give it a try.

Doing things that each of you are interested in and doing them together will allow you to learn about each other and your individual interests more.

Do I love drowning in turkish bath steam rooms? No, I can’t breathe -- but seeing my boyfriend in there posted up in the back breathing deeply like a happy Buddha makes me happy, and that’s what a relationship is about right? And you know what? Every time I try to go with him, I last longer and feel better afterwards. He is on to something, it is healthy for you -- I’m just not used to it... yet.

Learn the Language. JUST DO IT!

Though my fiance was born in Florence, Italy and raised in Damascus, Syria, he has an American accent like he’s straight out of the suburbs of California. He does trip himself up occasionally in English (I don’t think he’ll ever remember that a big toe is NOT called a thumb), but more often than not he is absolutely fluent in English. It's is great for our relationship, but at the same time it’s a crutch for me.

Because he can switch from one language to another so quickly, he has become my personal translator by default -- and sometimes even forgets that he is doing it. And because of this, I am not practicing my language skills enough.

For others, you may find that neither of you are one hundred percent fluent in a common language. And, as everyone knows, communication is such a huge part of making any relationship work. Language barriers will add to the challenge and improving your linguistic skills is the first step to helping prevent any future misunderstandings.

So, future international relationship-ers, make yourself speak (even if you’re embarrassed) and get great at speaking the language (or vice-versa). The worst feeling in the world is getting to the point where you understand the conversation, but can’t participate in it because you’re too shy. Belt it out! Let them make fun of you! It’ll only get your relationship to the next level if you can converse with the world around you as well.

You’re Going to Have to Deal with Some Pretty Interesting Cultural Beliefs

Hand heart

In Florence, Italy even in the beginning of summer it is hot, like hot meaning if you’re sitting on your couch doing nothing, you are melting as fast as Olaf in Frozen. It was in this season that I slept wrong and my neck hurt and oh-my-God was that a tragedy for my Italian counterpart.

After rubbing it a bit he proceeded to wrestle me into a WOOL SCARF to “keep the heat in” and make sure my health didn’t get worse. There is a real thing here called colpo d’aria which basically means that getting a gust of cold wind to the neck will surely be your end. It’s like the headache of the American world, but popping Advil is frowned upon here -- and honestly, they’re pretty right about that.

As you begin to understand the ways of your new lifestyle, you will undoubtedly be presented with new and different cultural beliefs -- whether it's about wearing a wool scarf or deeper perceptions about family and life in general. Don't write them off immediately, and hear your significant other. You may just begin to agree with their “strange” ways of doing things and they won’t seem that strange anymore. I, for one, just wore a scarf yesterday. It was 82F outside.

Your cultures may clash at first (my fiance just started reading this over my shoulder and put in his two cents about how this scarf fact is scientifically proven and to stop joking about it), but if you simply learn from them and attempt to see their side of things, you may find that they have some pretty reasonable explanations and we may have been the crazy ones.

Deal with Long-Distance Droughts

With being in a cross-cultural relationship, there are many times when you need to be apart from each other -- whether that be for legal visa reasons or just families-in-two-parts-of-the-world reasons. You will need to learn to be away from each other and deal with the fact that many of your days will be talking through text messages, Facetime or Skype. How to make this better?

Send letters via snail mail anyway. Send packages if you have the option and are apart for long enough. Buy presents for each other while apart, and keep honesty in the foreground while you take part in time away from each other. The distance will only make you miss each other more -- and I can tell you, that first time you see each other after any time apart is one of the best feelings in the world!

Understand that Your Friends and Family May Just Not “Get It”

You have found the love of your life and they are foreign. To others in your life, that fact is going to be pretty awesome and you’re going to get all those swooning comments as to how “romantic” your life is. But there is a possibility that some of your closest friends and family are not going to understand your desire to travel, grow, wander, and live a life outside your hometown.

They, hopefully, understand you -- the you that you have become since that first stamp on your passport -- more than anyone that is doubting your decisions.

“But when are you coming home?” they’ll ask -- and what they may never understand, is to a wanderer, the word “home” transforms from a place into a feeling, a flavor, a scent, and an emotion. Home can never be tethered to a piece of land anymore.

But they won’t get it and you may lose friends or even family over it. However, if this person that you’ve found is someone special, hold on tight. For they, hopefully, understand you -- the you that you have become since that first stamp on your passport -- more than anyone that is doubting your decisions.

Having a cross cultural relationship is a rough road, but a rewarding one in so many ways for it opens your mind as much as travel itself does (if not more). You will be tried and tested in patience and your sanity, but when all is settled and you’re simply looking into their eyes and you know you love them, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s worked incredibly well for me, my mother is “forced” to come to Italy (the horror) to visit, and we’re working on the private jet situation. Until then I’m just living la bella vita and learning along every step of the way.

Photo Credits: Motorcycle in Florence, Fredella Jessy Surjono, and Jessie Beck.