We all know THAT girl who doesn’t want to “catch feels” abroad and comes home meeting the love of her life. Hello, me.
I met a special someone while studying in Croatia, and three years later we are living together and still going strong. We did long distance for a year, lived in Ireland together, and now we are building an apartment in Croatia!
My experience with my cross-culture relationship has been both extremely challenging and rewarding. I wouldn’t change anything – except I wish that this sort of thing came with a manual.
Since I get messages and some e-mails from women in similar situations, I thought that I would give my tips for dating across cultures and borders for Valentine’s Day.
Here’s what three years of cross-cultural dating taught me:
1. Take things slow
Who wouldn’t want to be Lizzie McGuire on the back of a vespa with a hot Italian man? But girl, don’t go riding off into the sunset together just yet.
Yes, cross-cultural dating can feel super spontaneous, especially if you’re traveling or living abroad at the time. Yes, hearing someone speak your native language with an accent is the cutest thing. But don’t get caught up too fast.
The reason I say this is because it’s so easy to overly romanticize cross-cultural dating, because of the prominence of this whole “let’s run away together” narrative. Maybe it’s because the feeling of going against all odds and rebelling against our own cultures that bring this out. But it’s crucial to take a step back and learn about each other just how you would in “regular” dating culture.
For us, we took things pretty slow, but I’ll admit it was easy to get caught up. I met Domeniko three years ago today when I came to study abroad in Dubrovnik, Croatia. We were classmates and he agreed to teach me Croatian if I taught him how to play guitar, and the rest was history.
We kept it casual and weren’t exclusive, because in the back of our heads we knew it would never work. But then over the months, we started to think, well, maybe it could work. (It actually wasn’t until I left that we became “official” and we visited each other until I came to Europe after I graduated college.)
2. Educate yourself about each other’s culture and history
Exerting an equal amount of effort into learning about each other’s culture is a must, no matter what country you are in.
Getting to know someone’s culture and customs is integral to getting to know them as a person on a deeper level. This can be done by attending cultural events together or having conversations about the impact of your culture on your values.
Domeniko and I spent a lot of time doing this during our first months of dating, which ended up building a pretty solid foundation for our serious relationship to come. Since I have Croatian heritage myself, I already had somewhat of an understanding of the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 90s. But it wasn’t until I heard Domeniko’s story of being born in a refugee camp and his family returning to his house being demolished that I started to understand his culture and upbringing on a deeper level.
Even though my upbringing was maybe more mundane, we’ve made it a point to talk about my experiences growing up in the Midwest with a semi untraditional family. I never considered myself really a typical American until I realized that a lot of American traditions were still pretty important to me.
3. Be willing to go the distance
I think as dating progresses into a relationship, you’re going to have to have the talk about doing the long haul. And by that I mean long distance.
Long distance gets a reputation for being a death sentence to a relationship. But honestly, I think it can strengthen a relationship even more. Sure, if the relationship itself is already unhealthy and you both don’t trust each other, or are WAY too reliant on each other, it will be a death sentence.
But long distance can give you time to evaluate your relationship while working on yourself. It can also force you to get to know each other in different ways, since it’s much different than being in person all the time.
We did long distance for a year, and went 6 months without seeing each other. It was difficult but worth it. I was in my senior year of college so I could focus on school and my friends.
I don’t think I would have stayed in a relationship my senior year if it weren’t for long distance actually, because I didn’t have to juggle when to hang out with my boyfriend and when to hang out with my friends.
4. Evaluate outside opinions carefully
Whenever you start dating someone new, people will always have an opinion, whether they tell you or not. I do think it’s important to evaluate thoughts from your close friends and family in any relationship.
But sadly, you may notice some people’s true colors when you date someone from a different country or culture. Especially if they haven’t met your “mysterious foreign lover”, people can get skeptical and judgmental pretty quickly. Some people may be coming from a place of caring. But others are clearly coming from a place of xenophobia (fear of foreigners).
Americans will always say the latter isn’t the case, but it’s deeply engrained into our mindsets and institutions.
It was very difficult for me to explain to some friends and family that we were “legit” at first, and it was exhausting answering so many people’s questions. Until I realized I was an adult and didn’t have to.
This is an externality of dating someone who is from a different country or culture. Just know what you will and won’t stand for
5. Pay close attention to how you get along with each other’s families.
How you get along with each other’s family will make or break a cross-culture relationship. Take the time to get to know each other’s families and watch how things go. Don’t force things, but be patient in how things unfold.
For me, I’ve gotten long very well with Domeniko’s family and friends, but it did take some work. It then became more difficult that he hadn’t met much of my family.
Then when my mom got married in Croatia, all of our close family came into town (we were actually living in Ireland together at the time). It was at the wedding I realized how important it was for me to have our cultures combined into one.
6. Be willing to address and challenge your privilege.
You can’t go into a cross-cultural relationship without addressing your own privilege. Most likely, you will need to work extra hard to look past your own internal biases to understand their background, circumstances, and worldview.
For example, one of my privileges that I’ve become aware of through this relationship is being an American from a middle class family. America is not perfect, but the benefits of being an American citizen are undeniable. I’ve come from a place with a wealth of opportunities and a relatively stable financial background.
It’s much harder to achieve that level of financial stability in Croatia, and there’s not the same amount of opportunities available.
7. Don’t play the “I moved here for you” card
This old chestnut…. If you ever get to a point where you decide to make the leap and move to your significant other’s country, don’t pull this card. Believe me I tried and realized it’s toxic.
Look, if you’re going to try living in another country, that’s great. But it can’t be solely because of your relationship. I came to Croatia (and then Ireland) with my partner because I wanted travel and be in Europe AND because I wanted to be with him too. BUT I noticed that sometimes I would pull this out as a trump card.
It never works because it just proves the fact that you shouldn’t ever move somewhere for someone entirely in the first place! Unless you learn to at least like the place, the relationship in itself will be very tough.
This part can be extremely difficult for me. As much as it seems I am still madly in love with living in Dubrovnik, there are some days I honestly can’t stand it. Some days I feel like I could never live here long term. Some days I feel super tempted to say something along these lines again.
But then I remember that I didn’t just move here for romance, and at the end of the day it was my own choice.
8. Put yourself first. Always.
I recently listened to a Ted Talk that discussed how to find the person you should marry. Come to find, the speaker explains that person is yourself.
Anyone can get lost in a relationship, but when countries, cultures, and foreign languages are involved, it gets even more confusing. To simplify things, remember to put yourself first.
You SHOULD be willing to make sacrifices in relationship. But that sacrifice CANNOT be yourself. You have to make a commitment to your own well-being and happiness among all things, and really dig down and listen to yourself.
If putting yourself first means saying screw it to a 9-5 corporate job and making a new life in Europe with your Croatian partner (hello, me again), do that. If putting yourself first means leaving the cross-cultural relationship that isn’t working, do that.
At the end of the day you’re allowed to change, even if it means changing your plans. But just don’t let borders and culture get in the way of your chance at a raw and rare type of love in this world.
Happy Valentine’s Day!