“One of the most profound effects of globalisation is that people from everywhere are falling in love with people from everywhere else.”
–Wendy Williams, The Globalisation of Love
I first came across Wendy Williams’ The Globalisation of Love in an article called, “Why ‘expat’ is a misleading term for multicultural couples.”
(And no, in case you were wondering, this Wendy Williams is not the talk show host, the lead singer of the Plasmatics, the transsexual pornography star, or the author of The Best Bike Paths of New England. FYI.)
One of Wendy’s central claims is that expat couples are profoundly different from multicultural couples.
As a Canadian married to an Austrian and building a family in Vienna, she is often referred to as part of an “expat couple” despite the fact that her husband and her Austrian-born daughter are both actually in their native country.
As she writes,
Typically, expats enjoy a long list of job perks to deal with the “stresses” of life abroad, so they get free rent, paid trips back to the motherland and private school for the kids. Paying income tax seems to be optional.
Expats are like visitors to a country: they deal with external issues like culture, language, and religion.
A multicultural relationship, by contrast, is one where each partner is from a different country or culture. Multicultural couples… deal with issues like culture, language, and religion within the relationship. [They] do not usually have the job perks of expats.
Most of all, regardless of where they live—or whether they shuttle between their respective countries—in a multicultural relationship
there is a sense of permanence about the geography. The imported partner is an immigrant really, although “immigrant” has taken on some negative connotations in our nilly-willy live-here-work-there globalized society.
As I get closer to the official two-year anniversary of my time here in Sweden, I’ve been thinking more and more about the difference between being an immigrant and being an expat as well as how my experience here compares to the experiences I had as a project manager in Austria and as a student in Italy.
In many ways, I’m still an outsider to Swedish society and I always will be. Nonetheless, barriers between Sweden and me are slowly but surely evaporating.
In the grand scheme of things, I’m still a newbie at this whole “multicultural couple” thing, so I got in touch with Wendy to learn more about the challenges that stay lay in store. She graciously agreed to shed light on some of the issues her book examines.
12 Questions about The Globalisation of Love with Wendy Williams
What is “the Globalisation of Love” and what is the effect of this phenomenon?
The globalisation of love is a social trend on a global scale. People from everywhere are falling in love with people from everywhere else! It is the most profound effect of globalisation and is tantamount to an increase in multicultural romance and marriage around the world.
What do you think the biggest myth of international relationships is? If you could strike one misconception from the collective unconscious, what would it be and why?
The biggest myth about multicultural relationships is that they don’t work out.
Even though the divorce rate amongst the general population in Western society is over 40%, and as high as 70% in urban centres like Vienna, if a multicultural marriage fails, there is the tendency to believe that the reason for failure is culture and insurmountable cultural differences.
Yet GloLo couples* do not succeed or fail because of cultural issues but due to commitment and compromise or a lack of both.
*[Wendy’s term for multicultural couples in the book]
What is one issue that most international couples face that they do not anticipate or that takes them by surprise?
The issue that surprises GloLo couples, which is probably the same as with monocultural couples, is that people change and the couple does not know how to deal with change.
In GloLo relationships, the potential degree of change is usually larger.
For example, after several years or even decades of living in marital bliss in a foreign country, an imported partner may say to their host spouse, “I want to go home”. The partner’s response is usually, “but you are home”. What the spouse is saying is that they want to return to their birth country or continent, and that can be very destabilising for a relationship.
In an interfaith relationship, a spouse may change or strengthen their belief system at various stages of life, such as when a child is born for example, and want to re-connect with the religion of their younger self and re-immerse themselves in faith. This can be unsettling for a spouse with a different or low religious background where it has been previously understood that the relationship is ‘secular’. In a biracial relationship, the minority partner may one day say, “I am tired of being the only White/Black/Asian/Indian in this neighbourhood/region.”
Not belonging to a larger group can be exciting for a while but then become tiring over time, and it is often only after several years in a multicultural relationship that these issues of change arise.
What patterns have you noticed, if any, along gender lines? Do men and women respond differently to these issues?
I will risk offending some wonderful GloLo husbands out there and say that women adapt more readily.
Many cultural issues are also gender issues and men from manly-man cultures will balk at what they perceive as unmanly behaviour in another culture, such as child care or domestic chores. In such a situation, it is not so much about culture as it is about their personal pride. It may be perceived as inflexibility, when really they are trying to uphold their own image as ‘man of the house’.
Women are more flexible in this sense. They might not like culturally imposed changes but they can accommodate better for the sake of the family.
What patterns have you noticed, if any, among the “native” and “immigrant” groups? How do the individuals in these roles respond?
Natives and immigrants, which I refer to as ‘host’ and ‘imported’ partners, are discussed at length in in The Globalisation of Love in Chapter 10 on Location, e.g. where the couple live.
Typically the imported partner is on a steep learning curve, starting with moving to a new country, leaving family and friends behind, finding new friends, learning the language, finding a job and re-defining themselves to fit into the new culture, country and climate.
The host partner has the responsibility of easing the transition process, and remember, the ‘transition’ can last a lifetime. The host will usually take care of living and administrative matters such as banking and insurance and paying the rent. Often the imported partner cannot work, at least initially, so there is a heavy financial dependence on the host.
Neither role is easy, and partners often fail to see how difficult it might be for the other person.
Typically women are better at being ‘imported’ and men are better ‘hosts’ because it is consistent with common cultural ideas of gender; however, I have seen wonderful successes in the reverse roles as well. It really depends on the couple and their willingness to adapt to the situation.
Are multicultural relationships any more or less likely to fail than “regular” relationships? Why or why not?
GloLo couples definitely have more challenges than monocultural couples. They have all the issues that exist in monocultural relationships, plus whatever colourful combination of culture, language, religion and ethnicity they bring into their marriage.
GloLo couples tend to start their relationship facing challenges, so they are not as fazed during the difficult periods that are part of the natural course of a marriage.
Getting into a relationship is not as easy as hooking up with the girl/boy next door, so there tends to be a higher level of commitment as well as an acceptance that there will be differences.
Exiting the relationship is just as difficult. For example, if an international couple has children but want to separate and live in their respective native country, who gets the kids?
On another note, I have seen GloLo couples break up, maybe even due to cultural differences, only to find a new partner from another far-flung land. It may be the ‘GloLo gene’ (a fun theory I present in the book) or a lifestyle, but once you have ‘gone GloLo’, you tend to not to go back.
If your son or daughter were to meet someone from another continent, what advice would you give him or her?
My advice would be the same as any mother giving advice to her son or daughter. Be polite and respectful to everyone you meet, and always wear fresh socks and knickers.
Does it make any difference whether the couple is from two different countries or two different continents? Are there scales of geographical/cultural compatibility?
The difference between countries on the same continent is often greater than countries on separate continents, so in that sense, geography alone is not the ultimate differentiator.
Distance, and the associated costs and time of travel, make it difficult to visit home frequently. The partner living abroad may long to go home more frequently than what is practical or possible. The native or host partner may only make the intercontinental journey seldomly, thereby making it difficult to get to know the family, friends and culture of their spouse.
The continental divide may, however, create psychological barrier. A Cuban man who lives in Costa del Sol with his Spanish wife told me, “In Cuba, no matter how far from family you are, you can always walk home, even if it would take days or weeks. Here in Spain, I cannot walk home.”
What was the most surprising finding you made while writing the book?
The biggest surprise is who defines themselves as multicultural.
There are GloLo couples who are culturally different on so many levels – they are international, bilingual, interfaith and biracial – and yet they are so beautifully unified and unfazed by their ethnic constellation that they don’t even consider themselves to be multicultural.
Other couples will have everything in common except that they grew up in a different state or province 100 km away, and they will say, “Oh, do we have stories for you!”
As you were researching and writing the book, did you start to feel like all the stories were fitting into a certain set of patterns or were the stories quite distinct from one another?
In addition to the obvious topics such as religion, race and language, general themes emerged that became the chapters in the book, such as Meet the Parents, Food, and Holidays. No matter what the cultural constellation of the couple, they all seem to face the same set of issues. The stories within each issue, however, are as unique as the couples who told them.
Did your perspective on your own marriage and life in Vienna change as you were writing the book? If so, how?
Oh yes, both my husband and I recognised that we are part of a larger social trend, part of a global community of multicultural couples and families. We feel more enriched by our experience.
We laugh more about cultural differences too. If we are having a GloLo dispute, I will ask, “Why are we having this conversation? It’s all in Chapter 9!”
Interested in learning more? You can purchase The Globalisation of Love online on Amazon.com. You can also read more on The Globalisation of Love website: www.globalisationoflove.com. Thanks again to Wendy for answering my questions so thoughtfully!