We all know THAT girl who doesn’t want to “catch feels” abroad and comes home meeting the love of her life. (*cough* it’s me.) Or perhaps you’ve fallen for someone outside of the culture you grew up in.
I met my current partner of five years while studying in Croatia. We did long distance for one year afterwards (with visits ever six months), then moved to Ireland together, and almost three years ago we moved back to Croatia together. We now built an apartment, business, and entire life together! However, currently due to Covid-19, we are both doing long-distance once again until I can travel back to Croatia safely.
I’ve found cross-cultural dating is both extremely challenging and rewarding. But there are sometimes I look back and wished I had some sort of manual.
Here’s what 5+ years of cross-cultural dating taught me:
1. Take things slow at first
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 five 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 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, my biggest privilege is that I’m a white, American woman from a middle-class family. Not only did I grow up in a stable financial background, I also benefit from passport privilege while traveling and living abroad. Meanwhile, Domeniko definitely has white male privilege. We still have on-going conversations about the rampant sexism in American culture, and even in Croatian culture that he doesn’t experience.
Our conversations about privilege extend to class and gender, as we both benefit from being white privilege and racism is not an obstacle we’ve had to overcome.
4. Be willing to go the distance
All of our postcards from traveling together and long distance over the years
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.
5. Pay attention to how you get along with their family
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 a 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. …But be prepared for pushback
You may find that your family is more skeptical if you’re dating someone from another culture, ethnicity, or race. Or, it’s also sadly common that your family won’t approve or accept of your relationship.
My family and now my close friend’s love Domeniko, but at first some were skeptical. I even let go of some people that weren’t supportive. While these people often think they are coming from a place of caring, it can also be from a place of racism or xenophobia (fear of foreigners). Americans will always say the latter isn’t the case, but it’s deeply engrained into our mindsets and institutions.
This is an externality of dating someone who is from a different country or culture. As things get more serious, you may end up seeing some people’s true colors when they aren’t supportive. Just know what you will and won’t stand for.
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.