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Monday, April 23, 2012

Citizens and Their Foreign Spouses

Marriage is a topic on which I am very hesitant to give advice.  There are too many variables and it's impossible to pin down what makes a marriage or long-term relationship work even when both parties share a language and a culture.  There is no magic formula that guarantees success.  Call it one of the "cosmic crapshoots of life."

There are special challenges, however, when two people from two different countries decide to make a go of it.  For one thing, there is a choice to be made:  In which country do you plan to live?  Unless you are very rich, it's not possible to maintain residences and jobs in two very geographically distant places.  There is a choice to make and, to be brutally honest, one party is going to have to leave his or her country of residence. This move can be temporary or permanent but it has to be made at some point.  Some couples have resolved this by choosing a Third Place: a country where neither is a citizen.  That way no one has the upper hand (the "home court advantage") since both are foreigners.

It usually doesn't happen that way for obvious reasons.  It's just a lot easier to choose one of the countries of citizenship and benefit from immigration policies that favor family reunification.  23 years ago I had no trouble getting a French residency permit and that is still true today though some countries in Europe are making noises about limiting this.

But that's just the beginning of a long journey for the foreign spouse and most of us discover that getting the residency permit is the least of our challenges.  Once married and installed in another country, this is not an easy decision to reverse for either party if things go terribly wrong.  There is no way to know for sure how things will work out but I thought I would throw out a few thoughts that might be helpful to those foreign brides and grooms contemplating a move:

The Empathy Gap:  Even before the decision is made, I think its important that both parties recognize that the citizen and the foreign spouse are starting from very different places, may have very different implicit expectations and are going to experience life in the citizen's country very differently.  Every marriage requires love and empathy but bi-cultural couples in one country of citizenship, I contend, have to make an extra effort because one person is "home" and the other is not.

One good sign of trouble is a lack of appreciation on the part of the citizen spouse for just how hard it's going to be for the foreign spouse.  When I say this I am not calling into question his or her goodwill-  I'm just saying that there are some important barriers to understanding here.  The citizen spouse who wants to stay in his home country clearly finds his country desirable and wants to live there.  It may not occur to him that it has never been his spouse's deepest desire to migrate.  For the foreign spouse, it can be hard to talk about this honestly with the citizen spouse because the conversation can quickly disintegrate into a debate about what is and isn't attractive about the potential country of residence. This can be greatly exacerbated when, in the citizen spouse's head, the foreign spouse's country has a perceived lower economic or political position relative to the host country.  Why wouldn't someone want to move to the U.S. or to France or to the U.K. ?  Shouldn't the foreign spouse be grateful to have the chance at a Green Card or a 10-year EU residency permit?   Not necessarily.  The trite saying, "home is where the heart is," applies here.  Doesn't matter what country we are talking about, how poor/rich it is, how politically corrupt/sane, how many/few opportunities.  We all have a very human tendency to love where we are from regardless of how outsiders perceive its lacks/advantages.

The other barrier to understanding is that whatever the citizen spouse's life experience I can guarantee to you that he/she has never been an immigrant of the opposite sex in his or her home country.  He may have the best of intentions, he may even think it won't be a big deal, but he or she is starting from a position of complete ignorance - he doesn't even know what he doesn't know because he hasn't lived it.  If things start to go badly with the foreign spouse (difficulty finding work, integrating or learning the language) he/she may be genuinely surprised and might even call into question the foreign spouse's competence, intelligence and goodwill.

The Information Gap:  On the foreign spouse's side the move is a leap into the unknown.  Sometimes the adventure is welcome and the spouse is eager to go.  In other cases, it takes a lot of persuasion (and a lot of trust) before the spouse agrees to sell everything, quit the job and give up the old life.

Intellectually we all understand that moving to another country things will be different but no migrant can judge the depth of the differences until he/she actually arrives and starts living.  Describing what it's like to be a permanent resident in France is a little like trying to explain how a rose smells.  Nothing I could possibly tell you (assuming I could even find the right vocabulary) would do it justice.  It's just something you have to experience.

But most foreign spouses come to a new country with the idea that they do know what it will really be like "over there."  Their views are informed by the media, the Internet, books, travelers and the citizen spouse.  That is an illusion of knowledge and it's very dangerous.  It is not and will never be enough and I will even go so far as to say that all these sources are unreliable for different reasons.  I personally have a special loathing for the endless parade of very silly books written about France for Americans.  Generally these fairy tales do little harm unless they are taken even semi-seriously by men and women who actually do choose to follow a spouse to a foreign land.  Then they can become very destructive indeed.  Why?  Because the reality almost never resembles the fantasy and the citizen spouse (who may have been very flattered in the beginning by his foreign spouse's pre-move good opinion of his country) may find himself in the unenviable position of being held  responsible when the foreign spouse has a series of bad days or when the dream comes crashing down. This is not fair, I grant you, but it is very very human.

I've seen these two scenarios played out in many places by couples of many different nationalities.  Was it ever inevitable or necessary?  No, and here are a few suggestions I offer up based on hard experience.
  • Citizen spouses need to take their foreign spouses very seriously when they talk about the problems they may be experiencing. For every fairy tale about moving to a foreign country and living a wonderful romantic exotic life filled with opportunity, I can give you others that more closely resemble horror novels: loneliness, isolation, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, marital problems, and suicide. Having a spouse who, from his or her lofty position as a native, laughs the foreign spouse's problems off as minor or who criticizes the immigrant spouse for his or her inability to get a job right away or who makes incessant jokes about the spouse's accent or grammatical errors in the second language or who denigrates the foreign spouse's home country or culture, may be genuinely unaware of how destructive these things are. But they are. Of the bi-cultural couples I know who have divorced, I most often hear that it was a lack of empathy and an unwillingness to listen that was the final straw.

  • Before moving, the foreign spouse should take everything he/she reads about the future country of residence with a grain of salt. The best approach might be to cultivate a Beginner's Mind - a mind that doesn't have preconceived notions about what will happen and what it will really be like. Hard to be disillusioned if one doesn't start with too many assumptions. Once in the host country the foreign spouse can seek out many sources of information and help - never rely entirely on the citizen spouse for information nor cast him or her in the role of being the sole support or sounding-board for all the difficulties encountered. Cast a wide net and listen to true stories by people who have lived, survived and thrived though the good and the bad - those who have recently arrived and those who have been around for years. A foreign spouse should never feel embarrassed or depressed if things don't click right away -  don't let anyone push you around or make you feel guilty because you haven't yet mastered the language or the customs. Integration/assimilation comes in its own time and, like love, it is not worth anything if it is forced. 


Laura Rebessi said...

Excellent post. Thanks Victoria for putting this into words!

Victoria FERAUGE said...


I'm so glad you liked it and thank you for stopping by and telling me so - made my day.


Anonymous said...

Thank You, Thank You! Perfect insight and so true.

Tell me, of the multi-cultural couples that you know, that have divorced, did any of them leave with the kids?

I sought legal counsel and was informed NO french judge will allow a bi-national (French/etc) child to leave the country under any circumstances if it is against the wish of the French parent. Hence, custody automatically resides with the French parent.

Do you know of any spouses who thought it was so bad, they left the children behind (as I am considering?). Can't fight the courts, but the withering away as a person due to the strain of this foreign living enviornment makes for such a distressful consideration.

Thank you for your kind reply to the last post. I have tried it all, getting a life, working, career, etc. Problem is taxes make my salary so low and the weather just absolutely depresses me. I know that sounds so trivial but I need sun to shine. Like humans need water, I need sun. And I need smiling, friendly faces, and helpful bureaucrats, etc.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi there, I'm so glad that you read and commented.

What the lawyer told you is 100% correct. It's not so much French law as it is international law and agreement between states to enforce it. The rule is that the child's country of residence and that country's citizenship trumps the citizenship of the foreign spouse. The US and France abide by this very strictly. This is why an American spouse of a foreign national living in his/her country must have the permission of the foreign spouse before obtaining a US passport for a minor dual citizen. And that is why when a Frenchwoman a few years back left the US with her minor child, the American parent sued, won and the French national police were sent to the village to forcibly remove said child and put her back on an airplane for the US with the American parent getting full custody. I believe that the child was two or three years old at the time. This is taken very VERY seriously by both countries.

Oh yes, it may be hubris on my part but some days I think I've seen everything. :-) Where there are marriages, there will be divorces and custody arrangements to work out. Among my friends and acquaintances I know quite a few former bi-national couples (French and American/British and other nationalities) where the foreign spouse still lives in France and custody is shared. Joint custody with alternating weeks seems to be the favored solution of most French judges. I knew of one case long long ago where an American woman did successfully move back to the US with two teenage children in defiance of the French courts. I also know of one American expat parent who is now back in the US with his children but this person may have had permission from the spouse to do this. In another case I know a Frenchwoman (ex-husband is also French) who is living in the US with her new American partner and left her children back in France in the custody of the ex-spouse.

Finally, yes I have an old friend here who recently returned to Mexico a few years after her divorce from her French spouse. She had been in France for nearly 15 years and they had two minor children together. I won't go into her reasons for returning since those are deeply personal but things seemed to have worked out very well. The French judge threw out the attempt by her ex-spouse to make her stay in France. The judge also ruled that she did not have to pay child support and set up a very generous visitation schedule. The children now spend half of all their vacations in Mexico. My friend pays for half the plane tickets and her ex pays for the other half. There was a lot of pain and distress in her decision to leave her children but things seem to have worked out better than she expected. Her children are now being exposed to her culture and language because they are now required to spend a lot of time immersed in Mexican culture in Mexico (without the French spouse speaking French to them or trying to influence their impressions of what is, after all, their other home country). She reports that they are finally speaking Spanish and connecting with the family there. So some positive things did come out of a tough situation.

Hope that helps.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you. I deeply appreciate all of your insight. It's such a difficult predicament. I will be sure to keep you informed of my situation - seems like you can keep a good statistics database to share with people like myself. I would like to spread the word that in today's "small world" international travel, marriage, etc. offers some richness. But it can also very well turn into a false romantic fantasy! You articulated it perfectly - that it's impossible to know how it will turn out until you do it. Books and "guides" can play tricks on us! Thank you, thank you, I look forward to reading your new blog entries.

Julia Gandrud (aka JuliaLikesFrogs) said...

Thank you for the post.

I have to say, it confirms my gratitude that my spouse and I currently reside in my home country, and take extended vacations (he telecommutes anyway, so it's possible) to France.

That said, the situation with the in-laws is very difficult, and it always takes me at least a month to recover after every visit. It isn't that they are terrible people (although considered difficult by all of my husband's friends) but they have zero of the empathy you described. Why should they have it, right? They never chose to live abroad, or marry a foreigner! The worst part, though, is how it changes him. He loses some of his empathy, too, when he is around them. Loses a lot, actually. And I am judged by standards I have never aspired to, a kind of independence that I find cold and inhospitable. My trust in him is always a little damaged after these trips.

Fortunately, we often end up visiting them when they are in the south of France, near Cannes, and that takes care of the sunshine that the previous person mentioned. I feel for you, anonymous poster!

This time, I hope to make a short trip, just me and my son, to visit Montpelier for a couple of days. I'd like to feel the same freedom in France that I do in the US -limited by parenthood, but still able to get around.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Anonymous, thank you so much for reading. It is a really tough situation and I hope with all my heart that things work out for you. Please do let me know how things unfold.

@Julia And thank you for your comment and perspective. You've touched another another aspect that can be problematic: extended family and friends. Let me think about it and I'll try to write up some of my own experiences.


P Moore said...

This is an extremely insightful post. It is nice to see someone clearly enunciate these types of issues. Human relationships are very complicated and those involving different cultures and places even more so.

Anonymous said...

Great information here. Thanks for doing this.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thank you so much for reading the piece and for your comments. I may re-post this one because it really does sum up what I think are some of the real touchy issues that occur in mixed marriages that span countries.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I am about to make a move back to the states (where I am from) with my French partner and this is great advice. Your blog is absolutely wonderful. Keep writing, thank you! In the meantime, I'll enjoy reading all the old posts as I just found your blog tonight.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Anonymous, Welcome to the Flophouse and thank you so much for reading and for your comment. As I said in reply to another commentor, I think I will repost this one and perhaps update it.

A very happy new year to you and all the best,