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Friday, January 2, 2015

Citizens and Their Foreign Spouses

This post appeared in April of 2012 and still generates comments.  I went back and reread them (and answered a new one) and realized that a repost/update was in order.  

I have migrated once and am about to be expatriated for the third time for my French spouse.  As happy as I am to be global and mobile, Osaka represents yet another sacrifice on my part and a set of challenges for us to face as a couple - a loss of friends, family, my parish, my house and garden, my oncologist and the clinic where I am still under treatment for breast cancer.  As much as I love Japan and find the Kansai region to be fascinating, this city was not my choice of destinations and a move at this time not so simple.  It has been emotionally wrenching to leave so much and from time to time I find myself asking if this move (which is definitely a good deal for my citizen spouse) is, in fact, a good deal for me.  Much of the past few months has been spent trying to find ways to equalize the situation which makes a reread of this post particularly apt at this moment. In my search I also found some new information that I would like to pass along.  May it be of benefit.


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.  25 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. 

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 off 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 or negotiate 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. 
  • And finally I would strongly suggest that the foreign spouse take some measures against the precariousness of his/her situation.  Bi-national marriages are complex from a legal standpoint - there can be uncertainty about which country's laws will apply in the case of a dispute or a divorce.  For example, a bi-national married couple living in one of the citizen spouse's countries or living in a Third Place might find that the marital regime under which he/she was married under in one country may not be valid or applicable in another country.  Yep, it happens and the repercussions of getting it wrong are pretty horrendous.  This is something to clarify as soon as possible, mes amis, because what marital regime (community property, asset separation and so on) you think you are married under may not actually be the one that will be enforced.  So as unpleasant as this may sound, you (the foreign spouse) should find a lawyer (or in France a notaire) well versed in international family law and get this clarified.  What the notaire I saw in France advised was that we both sign and have witnessed a declaration of matrimonial regime that says that we agree that we are married under community property in France and that French law applies wherever we happen to be in the world in the case of divorce/separation.  Not a terribly complex document but very helpful for one's peace of mind.  A good lawyer (or notaire) can also advise on other matters that the foreign spouse might be concerned about (questions about children, for example, are ones I hear often) and so I think it is well worth the trouble to make the trip and ask - assumptions in this case just won't cut it.


Ellen Lebelle said...

Happy New Year, Victoria!
This is an excellent article -- I think you should submit it for the AAWE newsletter, in fact. Or to FAWCO.
One thing I might add concerns the children. We are married with a contract under the standard French community of whatever is aquired (communauté des bien aquis"), but when we were expecting our third child, my father asked, "What happens in case of a double catastrophe?" (You and spouse go to the movies leaving the kids with a babysitter. You are in a fatal car crash = double catastrophe.) We went off to the notaire and he explained that under French law, a judge is assigned and he or she determines what is best for the children. He or she assembles a family council. We did not want my family left out of the discussion because they were in the US, so we specified that in our will. We also had to decide whom we wanted to be the childrens' tutor, and we asked my husband's brother and put that in the will with the stipulation that any US assets belonging to the children would be managed by one of my brothers. Such a will is not binding to the court, but is an indication of what we wanted. That was thirty some odd years ago and is all not relevant as we have both survived. And for you, both of your children are now adults, too. But for your younger readers, with minor children, it is important to clear the air about the subject of what happens to the kids if we both die.

Unknown said...

Good article, Victoria. Can tell you first-hand that French wife (a) did not understand difficulties involved in learning a new language at 60, finding friends who were not French but Americans who spoke American English about things like politics, local news events, football games (not soccer by the way), good food that you miss in France, etc., (b) that the spouse's relatives are not a substitute for American friends, (c ) that her children were not substitutes for American friends and grandchildren were not good substitutes, either, (d) and that I quit my job, sold all my belongings that mattered (even if you don't believe in this material world, there are some things that matter (like the Lexus, and the Honda motorcycle, and the tools, blah, blah, blah). And finally, (e) the things that really matter are not the things mentioned above. The things that really matter concern (1) maturity levels of the two people, (2) the ability to discuss that living in France is really difficult (hell) and that I don't have the skills and maturity to pull everything together. Now that's a conversation a good marriage counselor would like to hear (but in France, good luck in finding a native American who speaks American english and can understand what is going-on). I never did and, in fact, was blamed for not actually visiting the counselor. Go figure. Mike

Jacques said...

I have no plans to marry a foreign spouse at this time but I have enjoyed reading your well-structured summary of what to watch for.I always enjoy reading your blog and I hope you can keep it up in your new location.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thanks, Ellen, and thanks for adding the note about children. Another things that is good to know and should be taken into consideration.

Mike, That sounds really rough and I've heard similar things from other folks I've talked to (including French living in the US married to Americans). For the citizen spouse, living in his/her home country is a no-brainer, right? It's easy - I have lived here most or all of my life and what could you possibly find difficult about it? These are hard conversations to have. I've had a few of them myself. :-)

Jacques, Thank you for reading and for the comments. It is deeply appreciated. All the best.