When we met we both already had one expatriation under our belts. My husband brought in his love for music, and alongside Paris, Baudelaire and Rodin, his general French touch. I came with my skills in Italian cuisine, a Russian taste for Art, and some Pushkin poetry of course.
As the years passed, these little bricks modelled walls; our openness became large windows, and the spread pieces of furniture and art collected through our passionate travelling created this unique eclectic place called our home.
I guess this story may be the story of many successful mixed couples.
At some points this story really looked messy as construction sites usually do. Sometimes I felt frustrated as my husband didn’t understand my native Russian properly. I laughed at some joke; he didn’t have a clue. And to explain jokes is a tedious matter indeed!
For any mixed couple this primary background difference can become an obvious source of conflict. At the beginning of the relationship one might wonder how the partner can enjoy this smelly piece of rotten cheese, or how he is able to receive visits from family members who are coming in dozens and staying for weeks.
Our parents don’t speak the same language and therefore cannot communicate.
We don’t have the same frame of reference; we love different children songs, stories, and nursery rhymes.
We are used to completely opposite climates.
I guess all the typical differences requesting adaptation from anybody wanting to live with another human being are enhanced by our different cultural backgrounds.
If falling in love does not need many words, to grow the relationship into something bigger than dating requires quite a number of them. Language can become the first and obvious obstacle for good communication. In my experience, mixed couples often tend to select one of the two (or more) native languages to become the main tool for family communication. This chosen language will probably become the child’s first language. This often happens in the first weeks of a relationship, and once settled, this rule is hard to change.
Which language is chosen is usually not a trivial question. If one of the couple has good command of the other’s language, the choice is obvious. If the place where the relationship starts is one of the two native countries, it can be an easy choice too. But what if the couple meets on a “neutral” third country and both speak the two languages at the same level? I guess the choice is rarely based on any kind of fair decision, but simply on the basis of efficiency. What we want is to understand each other, right?
The problem may arise later. Often we end up with a couple where one of the partners becomes absolutely fluent in the other’s language, whilst the other hardly understands his partner’s native language.
This is simply not fair, and may become a source of resentment or punitive secrecy from the “linguistically missed” partner.
This harmful dynamic may even start a vicious cycle: I have seen cases where chatting among friends in the “other” language becomes suspicious in the eyes of those mastering only the “common” language who, as result, are feeling excluded.
How to avoid such complications?
To become aware of such a dynamic is already a great step towards a better communication.
I also believe it is every person’s responsibility to make an effort toward meeting the other one’s culture. Every language, even the most “exotic”, is worth learning; especially if the partner’s cultural background is deeply linked to this linguistic heritage.
Living with somebody who comes from a different place and speaks a different language helps us to become more aware of our own specificity. I would never have felt so intensively Russian if I wasn’t living with a foreigner.
If mixed couples start with a more challenging set of cultural preconceptions about each other, and sometimes with more resistance from the field, they need to work harder in order to make the relationship work.
Sharing our emotional experiences becomes an even bigger priority. Overcoming linguistic and cultural differences takes some additional emotional literacy and, at times, a lot of work.
This extra effort pays. Through mimicry we may start eating raw meat or rotten cheese and listen to some weird folkloristic music. We learn to become be more tolerant, more open to difference. Our common luggage and our common languages might be heavier, but together we are growing emotionally richer.
Anastasia Piatakhina Giré is an integrative psychotherapist practicing in Madrid, and also worldwide through Skype.
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