Tuesday, September 27, 2011
A Few Thoughts on Bi-Cultural Marriages
Globalization has made it possible and even practical to expand our circle of friends, acquaintances and colleagues to almost every country on the planet but marrying outside of our tribe or community is still not that common in most places. And those who practice a most extreme form of exogamy by marrying outside of country, culture, and language are rarer still. So, it's not abnormal that we "foreign spouses" (especially women) get a lot of queries about how we met our spouses, where we got married and what it's really like to live with a Frenchman (or an American, Chinese, Brazilian, or Pole). I will probably be telling the story of how I met my husband well into my old age since it is a pretty good tale and always elicits smiles, laughter and the almost universal reaction, "How terribly romantic!"
Like all marriages, however, romance is simply the gate into the garden. Once you've slipped inside, you have to make something of it. Together. Most of discover pretty quickly that our visions of how we are to exercise our horticultural expertise to mutual pleasure and profit (passed along to us by our respective cultures) diverge in important ways. You're thinking cottage garden but he has his heart set on something a little more in the Renaissance style.
There is no sure method of making this work. There are too many perils, pitfalls and pleasures - it is the Anna Karenina principle in action. I would not presume to say that I understand a Canadian-Russian marriage based on my experience in a French-American one. What I can do is tell you a few things I wish I had known beforehand and how I think we have muddled through over the years.
What Marriage Means: There are many social and political arguments about what marriage means in a particular time and place and this topic has figured prominently in the American culture wars. Different cultures have a different conception of the duties and responsibilities of each spouse and all have some sort of legal framework to enforce these things. Is this a purely individual matter or is this a union of families? Are you required to have a contract or is everything included in the act of marriage? Are there unexpected requirements or obligations that don't exist in your home country that you should think about before you sign?
Some examples. There are at least three kinds of marriage "regimes" in France which have important implications for how property is divided and for inheritance purposes. Different U.S. states also have different rules - it may seem a bit bizarre to people outside the U.S. but getting married in Oregon versus getting married in Washington is legally very different. I am married under the French regime Communauté de biens réduite aux acquêts which I, at the time, thought was the equivalent of Community Property. Over the years I have learned that it is and it isn't.
How Nation-State Laws Apply: In a bi-national marriage you are living at the intersection of two country's laws that may interact in interesting ways. Where you are married and where you live does not necessarily make a difference. The fact that you are citizens of different states does and the laws of both impact the couple. In some countries, for example, the spouses are required to report foreign bank account information even for joint accounts. Others may impose a higher tax burden on a foreign spouse that inherits property in the other spouse's home country. The U.S. government requires my French husband's permission before issuing a U.S. passport to our dual citizen Frenchlings which means a family trip to the American embassy every time we renew their passports.
Treaties: There is the law and then there is life. It's almost impossible to foresee all of the things that you will need to negotiate over the course of your life together. This is true of all marriages but there are some particular issues that come up in a bi-cultural marriage. Some are obvious right from the start: In whose home country will you live? What language will you speak at home? How will the children be educated? How often will the non-citizen spouse go home for visits? Should the non-citizen spouse become a citizen of the other country? Others are more mundane but equally important: Whose cultural values and styles will prevail? At what time will dinner be served? Do you set the table French or American-style? Who works and for how many hours a week? How do you discipline the children? Who teaches them to read and write in the other language? How many movies in which languages do you watch together per week?
It's a constant negotiation and re-negotiation because most of us can't answer all of the above in the beginning. Discovery occurs over time - the utter shock you feel one day when you realize that your children can speak English reasonably well but are incapable of writing a simple email to their American grand-parents. This sort of thing sends you straight back to the negotiating table because something you thought wasn't going to be an issue, suddenly is. It's less a one-time contract and more a series of treaties that you and your spouse negotiate over time.
Creation of a Third Space: Unless one spouse agrees to radical assimilation, what usually occurs is the creation of something that is not quite one or the other but a synthesis of both. The balance shifts from one side to the other and back again depending on the country of residence and what stage of life you are in. To an outsider it may resemble utter cultural chaos with children that start a sentence in one language and finish it in another. Where the table is set American-style but we eat at the French hour, 8:00 PM. Even the fights have a unique flair - a bi-national marriage being the only one where a spouse can start an argument with the other by saying, "Your damn government...."
Of all the things I've talked about I personally think that the last is the most important. The creation of a space where two cultures can co-exist under the same roof in the most intimate of settings requires an extraordinary amount of patience and empathy. It can and does break down sometimes in the face of utter incomprehension and frustration. The legal framework of the nation-state is what it is and you have no control over it; the home, the family, and the creation of common values, purpose and meaning are almost entirely up to the couple. Given the huge distance between two people of very different backgrounds, cultures, languages, it is a near miracle that such spaces exist and can even thrive under the most unlikely of circumstances. What is amazing is not that such marriages fail (many marriages do after all) - what is extraordinary is how many succeed for so long.