8 Challenges to the International Couple

What is an ‘International Couple’?

There are many definitions of the 'International Couple. These  couples can be defined a number of ways. Sometimes, each partner comes from a different country or cultures. Sometimes they are from the same country, but live together in different country. Here are more examples:

  • They might be teachers that lives and works abroad;
  • The International Couple may be partner coming from different cultures and may be living in a third country;
  • "Super-commuter couples" could be an International couple who has one partner traveling extensively for business overseas.
  • Finally, married student studying abroad may be considered an international couple.

We help inter-racial couples and international couples

#1 Challenge to the International Couple: Strain

Anyone who travels around the world to study and learn, typically finds it exciting but also the strain can be hard on them.

Maintaining a happy marriage can be a special challenge to an international couple. They have had to learn not only to live with each other, but to manage many other issues as well. They have to grow and change together. They have to be willing and open to doing new rituals and practices. They have successfully done many of these things already, in order to be a couple. But sometimes they face a barrier they cannot seem to figure out how to climb over.

Sometimes this strain threatens to break up an otherwise happy relationship. Effective help requires cross-cultural sensitivity to ethnic differences.  Working with the International Couple from around the world takes special skills and knowledge to be of effective help.

We know how careful we must be in really understanding an International Couple. Using online couples therapy with International Couples also takes special skills.

#2 Challenge to the International Couple: Being Apart

Super commuter couples

Super commuters are people whose jobs are far enough away from home that they must live apart from their families for days, weeks, or even months at a time. It can also be used to define those who commute 90 miles or more on a daily basis.

New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management reports that as many as 13 percent of workers in large US cities are currently super commuting. It’s not just a trend in the USA either; reports show the number of international super commuters is on the rise as well.

Being apart means managing not only loneliness and companionship of a sexual partner, but also the partner left at home must also learn how to keep the household running by themselves. This can be a conflict if the way they've chosen to manage it is not the way their traveling partner might prefer it to be done. These are power struggles that can be managed if effectively understood.

#3 International Couple Have Different Roles, Rituals & Symbols

Here are some of the many issues we consider when working with the International Couple online:

Roles, Rituals, Symbols

An International couple may have to talk about many things in a lot of detail. Here are a few:

  • How do we discipline our children?
  • How do we deal with gender bias when the husband is the “trailing spouse” in his wife’s career?
  • What is the proper roles for men and women, (both in the cultures they come from and the country they currently live in)?
  • What holidays do we celebrate? Why?
  • Do we invite friends to our home or meet in a café?

Eating with your fingers is acceptable in some cultures/ not in others.

#4 Challenge: What's 'Proper Behavior'

Here are a few examples of how a couple from d​ifferent cultures can face challenges in figuring out proper behavior:

In some countries, kissing in public is fine. No one is offended. In other cultures it is not acceptable.

A person from this culture will feel embarrassed to be kissed in front of others. If these two people marry, it might cause trouble for them. If they do not know what their partner considers to be proper behavior, they might act in a way to offend. They might not understand why they should not kiss in public. It can cause their partner to be upset.

Can you agree about public displays of affection? Are you living in a cultures where this behavior is acceptable?

Or perhaps both are comfortable (or uncomfortable) expressing affection in public, but they live in a country now, that does not approve. This may be especially difficult for them to “hide their love” when out with friends or associates.

#5 Challenge to the International Couple: Mealtime

Mealtime

Something as simple as making dinner can sometimes make problems.

*  Do we cook your way? My way? What spices do we use? 

*  Hit the highway (eat out)?

*  Do we try to put different parts of both cultures into every meal? Take turns? Let the cook decide?

*  What are "comfort foods?"  (The foods we eat to feel calm and good.)​

screen time hurts intimacy

Are electronic entertainment devices acceptable at the table where food is served?

#6 Being an Immigrant

Special Problems in Being an Immigrant

Being an immigrant has its own special stresses and challenges. One big stress is when one is a citizen of the country they both now live in, and the other one is a student, a visitor or on a work visa. There is stress when the permit is up, and the relationship is going strong.

  • Do we marry now, even if we aren’t quite ready?
  • Or do we split up?
  • We are not ready to marry and we do not want to split up. 

This is a stressful situation. These are painful decisions without a good solution. They require a calm place to talk it out.

If the couple marries, there is sometimes an unspoken question: “Did you marry me just to stay in this country, and not because you loved me?” “Would you have married me if there was no visa involved?” Even couples deeply in love can feel this an unhappy afterthought.

In other cases, one person is a professional in one country, say a lawyer or physician, but would be unable to practice at this level in their spouse's country without extensive retraining. This loss of income and status is challenging for couples.

Another problem moving from another country is that some people are not kind to the immigrant.

To be safe, sometimes the immigrant will try to blend in, when they are in public, but keep patterns of behavior, like dressing in traditional ways, when they are safe at home. Sometimes it is the reverse. This can be stressful if one partner wants to blend in, and the other partner does not.

For many women educated in Western Countries, they find it difficult to return to traditional cultural attitudes that restrict a woman’s movements or allow assault at the hands of her husband or other forms of family violence. They have learned that it is illegal in Western cultures to beat or rape women, but are now told that such behavior is proper under some circumstances.


I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons knocking on a door.  It opens.
I've been knocking from the inside!
Sufi mystic – Jelaluddin Rumi – 13th century

They have received confusing messages to be well-educated, while at the same time are unsure about how this knowledge is to be applied in her culture-of-origin. They want to be respectful of their families, but hold onto ideas that seem basically just and good, or are in closer keeping with actual religious teachings. Arranged marriages may be honored, while “forced marriages” are not. It is sometimes difficult to sort out all the subtleties of these distinctions. Yet, to be happily married, both the husband and wife must be in agreement.

#7 Challenge Loneliness as an International Couple's Struggle

Missing Friends and Family

International couples have to rely on each other a lot, because they have often left friends and family far away. Such closeness can help the couples to bond, but it may not be enough. They may also feel lonely without the rest of their family to help, support, and spend time with.

One partner may want to move home. Or they may want to have frequent extended visits. This may not be easy to do. If they do spend weeks or months away from each other, they might feel sad. They may need help to talk about such a painful issue.

Sometimes it helps to create new friendships with people of your same culture in your new country. These friends, if are older than you, can sometimes provide support. This can make people less homesick.

You may feel lonely without the rest of their family to help, support, and spend time with.

To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order;
To put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order;
To put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal lives:
We must first set our hearts right.       Confucius

#8 Language Challenges to the International Couple

Langu​​​​age

Language and dialects may vary. Slangs and idioms might cause misunderstandings. Is the disagreement over a misunderstood word? Does one understand the other’s language easily, but not the other way around? Does one “interpret” for the other in this new country? Even two English people from different countries might have trouble (“Randy” is a name in one country, but an adjective in another…)

One of our Australian projects had a customer rep on site for its duration. He was a friendly guy and we had to explain why he shouldn’t go up to staff (particularly female staff) and go “Hi! I’m Randy.” We may have saved him embarrassment or black eyes in life outside of work.

Which language do they speak at home? Sometimes there are three or more languages to choose from. Which do we teach our children? Who will speak which language to the children? Should everyone in the family be equally skilled in all dialects? If someone doesn’t understand what the other is saying, do they ask for help or keep quiet?

People with accents can also find that speaking with an accent is used to discriminate in hiring and housing.

When we think about culture, it is useful to think along seven dimensions:

  • Time
  • The Universe and how we got here.
  • The Meaning and Cohesiveness of Family.
  • Emotional Expressiveness
  • Interpersonal Relations and Power Dynamics
  • Dyadic Relations and Patriarchy
  • Gender Roles, and Elements of Gender and Orientation Expression in Safety

Culture describes a constellation of attitudes with a prized, second-rate, and marginalized set of beliefs about these topics. It is a social burden for each engaged member of a culture to filter all the possible ambiguities of the human condition through these interpretations. Frankly, some of these cultural presentations may be maladaptive.

Inner experience, as well as outer behavior, are shaped by culture, and this fact must be front and center in couples therapy as well. The seven dimensions become an endless source of comfort and conflict to the International Couple.

For example, let’s take the very first topic; Time.

Western-European cultures and their Anglo-American counterparts tend to be very future-oriented. Time is a relatively small unit of measure when you are always living on the edge of the future.

Traditional, present-oriented cultures tend to see time as described by the day that is given to you. When work is done, free moments are best used for restoration and renewal, for tomorrow is another day.

No one cultural ideal is ever purely past, future or present-oriented. It is more about the degree of significance and importance.

A difference in the appreciation of time can be a profound source of attraction in the early years in a relationship, but can also become a source of friction, such as when an International Couple become empty nesters.

The way these seven dimensions of culture play out can also impact what sort of multi-cultural foundation, over time, you are offering your children.

International Children

Kids may become primarily identified with the parent with the dominant culture or religion. They may or may not chose to acknowledge their other parent’s differing cultural identity. This issue of dominance and cultural identity is one of the areas where patriarchy sometimes wreaks havoc.

Or children may choose to identify with their minority parent because of abandonment issues, or cultural proxemics. They may avoid embracing a dual heritage, minimizing contact altogether with their other parent’s religion or culture. But sometimes the marginalized parent’s lack of influence is self-inflicted.

Universalist/Disaffiliates may refuse to accept any notion of cultural transmission, or they might choose to create their own. The challenge for these creative types (which typically emerge in the individuation struggles of adolescence) is that cultural assumptions generally lurk unseen in the corners of a young relationship. Couples may not behave as culturally unencumbered as they would like to be regarded.

Synthesizers are people who are somehow able to incorporate and integrate some version of their actual cultural legacy. The diverse parts need not be balanced, but they have a real acknowledgment of the importance of all of their cultural inheritance.

Understanding your cultural pattern along these seven dimensions might trigger a great discussion with your partner about theirs as well.

  • How will you and your partner manage difference and honor shared values?
  • What languages will your children speak?
  • How will you both decide to move through time together?
  • Maybe an Intensive retreat would be the way to start. Call us today.

Getting Help for International Couples

We work very hard to be sure everyone we see online proceeds slowly, and that everyone understands what we are talking about. This is especially important when one of the partners speaks English as a native language and the other one does not. Or one speaks fluently in one language, and the other does not.

Being in a happy marriage can make it much easier to face outside stresses together. You might get help if you talk to an expert in online couples therapy with international couples.

Clinicians at Couples Therapy Inc. work with couples from all over the world.

We want to help you, too.

Our trained consultants are ready to confidentially and sensitively answer any questions about our Science-based marriage counseling.

Using a secure video-conferencing program is more than technology. It is knowing how to combine couples psychotherapy with online therapy, to get the best results. That’s why we’re studied online psychotherapy extensively.

Don’t Assume That You will Always Understand Each Other… Or Even Always Want to….

One of my mentors trained with one of the greatest family therapists of all time;  Salvador Minuchin. Sal was from Argentina and had an elaborate ruse out of acting like an exaggerated sexist South American patriarch, while not claiming to understand people. He used a “dumb” posture avoiding “big English words.” family members were compelled to spell their thoughts and feelings out emphatically. What they didn’t know was that Salvador Minuchin’s English was flawless. Sal had written more than half a dozen scholarly works in perfect English. But when it came to his clinical work, Sal didn’t want to be forced into the cultural constraint of the English language. .

While International Couples enjoy the miracle of a common language, they might not enjoy having to solely rely on it either.  It might serve us all to remember that we all communicate better when we slow down, to make sure we are communicating clearly and effectively. That was Sal Minuchin’s intent with his “foreign” posture.  he forced his clients to slow down, using a whimsical, confused stance. Playing dumb was useful in requiring clients to slow down.

Failure to slow down can needlessly complicate communication for an international couple.  When they rely on a common language, intimate partners frequently think they really understand the nuances of their partner’s position. When differences of understanding arise, (and they will), another great couples therapist Ellyn Bader advises…. be Curious. Not Furious.

Play verbal golf. Slow down. Clarify your understanding. Set up your shots. Talking to your intimate partner should not be a fast paced verbal hockey game.

Know Your C​​​​ultural Fuses… and value the Use of  “Time-Outs.”

Techniques for effective communication and repair are built on the critical importance of understanding diffuse physiological arousal (DPA). If your cross-cultural battles are characterized by rising temper, an Intensive Couple Therapy Retreat will give you the skills you require to break the cycle.

Having conversations about differences that remain respectful and honest are a core skill you will take away from this Intensive. Respectful conversations can sometimes be embedded in different cultural norms. I was struck with the power of culture when I once watched a South American feminist debate her New York counterpart. “How dare you complain abut the machismo of South American men, when you American women don’t know the first thing about how machismo can be employed to engage with our men which is as respectful as it is predictable. Which is more than I would care to say about American men.” Cultural fuses are personal triggers, and are best worked out with respect and care.

Remember That Dealing With Cultural Differe​​​​nce is, at the end of the day, an Unsolvable Problem.

Famed marital researcher John Gottman has told us that 69% of all of the problems in a relationship are fundamentally unsolvable.

What did he mean? Gottman tells us the matters of identity, culture, and closely held values are so fundamental, that it is folly to attempt to change your partner. Cultural behavior inhabits the realm of a “managed set” of behaviors. In other words, the problem with managing differences in cultural behavior and expectation is that we turn to cultural norms to light our darkened way. Respect, the ability to exert and accept influence, and norms of power and patriarchy settle in the blended aspirations of two human hearts, learning to be accepting of differences, while embracing core values. It’s how you manage difference. Not how you solve it.

Maybe a Couples Therapy Intensive Retreat is just what you need to honor this unsolvable problem?

Call us and see.

Introducing one of 30+ International Couples Therapists:  Dr. Maryanna Ham

Dr. Maryanna Domokos-Cheng Ham


Licensed Psychologist

Dr. Ham is internationally recognized for her work on understanding the strain of culture on family systems. She's been recognized by the American Psychological Association's (APA) as a "Fellow," a status for member who are honored for making a National Impact on the field of psychology.  She's a prolific author read in graduate psychology programs across the world.


Doctorate of Psychology

• Psychologist # 2957

• Marriage & Family Therapist #823

• Mental Health Counselor #3556


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