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. 23 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/advantages.
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 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 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.