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Cross Cultural Marriage – The Things I Wish I’d Known

For most of us for whom the UAE isn’t where we were born, the reality is we will be working and socializing with many different nationalities, cultures and religions and we’re leading our lives in a real melting pot of people which is a very wonderful place to be most of the time. The very nature of living our life in a foreign country means, gone are the days when we’ll get married to someone from the same community or tribe and for many of the chances are high that our other half will be from a different country or culture to our own and so our relationships will have a whole other added element thrown into them as well as all the usual things as we navigate our way through cultural differences.

I met my husband 10 years ago and we’re from different countries and parts of the world, different cultures and different religions. Yes, that’s a whole lot of differences going on there that we have to deal with daily, as well as the usual realities of personal relationships we all have to deal with.

I’m grateful for my husband and the diverse life we lead almost every day and I genuinely feel my life is richer for having him in it and broadening my views on the world, but I’ve definitely learnt a lot the hard way too. So, after giving it a little thought, here’s my musings on the things I’d wish I’d known before entering into a relationship with someone from another culture to my own.

- The majority of problems you will face will come from other people

When we got married my aunt and uncle stopped speaking to me because they didn’t “approve” of our relationship. When my husband’s family visited I was told I didn’t “serve” him enough. And I lost track of the number of friends and associates who all had an opinion to make on us being together – “Arab men are controlling”,… “ It will end in tears”…”It will be ok for a few years and then he’ll change” through to “He’ll lock you in the house and make you cover up” – yes I kid you not.

My biggest learning from my relationship is definitely that the majority of challenges have come from other people and external factors. Of course, the very nature of this means it’s a little harder to prepare for and control, but being aware so it doesn’t side swipe you is my best advice here. Expect the unexpected and honestly expect the worst from people as often it comes from the most unexpected places.

Dealing with those who suffer from true xenophobia can be rare these days, but it is common for others to be wary about foreigners in their family and social circle and it’s hard to know how to tackle this especially when racist behaviour comes out to play. We want our friends and family to be happy for us and to celebrate our relationships as much as we do and it can be upsetting when they don’t.

My learning here is that if you are marrying a foreigner, learn to take such remarks in your stride as it will happen however hard you try. Some people may shun your company or not invite your spouse or you for an occasion. You can’t control them, but you can control how you react and think it through carefully. Ignoring these people and what they say is a good approach. As cliché as it sounds, in time, when they see you’re together for the long haul and that you’re happy and thriving together, they tend to soften and get over it. Time is a healer. It took me 4 years, but we’re now back on speaking terms with my aunt and uncle again. I’m not sure it will ever be the same again, but we have a relationship with all of us in it.

It can actually be really hard to legally marry someone from a different culture

I never knew how hard it could be to get married until I tried. Those tales of “one night in Vegas” I now conclude are something only of fiction. The reality is that if you’re of different cultures and faiths in the UAE, it can be a minefield to work through to get you up that alter.

Every country has its laws, rules and regulations and you need to check with your place of residence and that where you wish to get married. There are so many variables too as I was to discover with different nationalities being one thing, but different religions a whole other matter and then it can vary on gender and who is from which country too. Complex and confusing – yes totally!

When it came to us getting married in Dubai, the whole process was honestly so overwhelming and complex it nearly put me off doing it all together. It proved beyond difficult with the courts wanting my father to come in person to give his approval, who couldn’t due to health issues, or if not we needed to get a legal power of attorney granted. After months of trying to figure it out, we cut our losses and headed to the Seychelles where we had a dream beach wedding, a holiday and a lot less paperwork and headaches. Until we got back to our adopted home country that is and then we had to go through registration with the courts and then as we were living in another country, we both had to register our marriage in our own home countries too. Regardless, I think getting married is a lot of admin and paperwork, but even more so as an expat and with a foreign spouse.

And while we’re here, don’t even get me started on the practicalities of residence or citizenship of your children as this is a whole other article in itself. So, if I learned anything here, it’s not to assume anything or take anything as a given. Just because you’re married rarely entitles you to anything in the other’s country and so the reality is you are signing yourself up to a lifetime of paperwork, admin, application forms, proving the authenticity of your relationship and weighing up pros and cons.

Cultural different are alive and well

All the legal and practical matters aside when it comes to marrying someone from a different culture, there are a lot of very practical differences to be faced both before and after marriage. You have been raised in very different ways with different customs after all and for many years before you both met.

One silly example, but something that has thrown me is eating out with friends. My husband has very firm views here and always asks me, “who invited who out for dinner” before going out as to him, the inviter always hosts and pays the bill. Raised in the Uk, I’m a whole lot more relaxed on things and I don’t really care who pays or 50/50, it’s the same to me. As strange as it sounds this has caused a fair few arguments in our house.

Other things I’ve discovered over time include views on death and burying/cremation, birth rituals and the need to circumcise boys, all the things he needs to observe and mark religion-wise I never knew about and even how his sisters come and ask him permission to marry still as head of the house. It’s a lot of things that feel very alien to me, but I’m listening, learning and taking it all in my stride.

Ask them what they want to call their kids

I joke about this now and it is a bit light hearted but it’s of great importance and I do wish I’d had the conversation with my husband about what we’d call our kids before we signed on the dotted line!

A name is one of the most important things you can give your child and so you want a good one – right?! The first time we both sat down to discuss baby names, we agreed that we needed to find names that worked in both our cultures given we didn’t know where we’d end up living – the UK, UAE or well anywhere. Raf’s suggestions based on this criteria were Fatima for a girl and Ali for a boy, both of which I looked in horror at much to his displeasure. We had months of arguing over names and it did turn into a real sticking point in our relationship. Families and friends got involved (again!) and it got worse too.

I can’t say we’re still completely aligned in this area even today, but we’re getting there and compromise is definitely the way forward – sadly it’s fair to say whilst my husband isn’t getting Fatima or Ali, I’m also not getting the names I dreamed of for my kids since I was a child either.

And so my final thoughts…

You never know where you’re going to find true love, but for many of us we’re just grateful when we do. Being an expat and living in another country means the likelihood of meeting someone from another culture is very likely. All relationships require continuous work, commitment and effort regardless of culture and have their challenges as we all know, but throwing in the additional element of dealing with a different culture can definitely add a whole lot of extra considerations that many of us would never have dreamed of.

However daunting it may feel, I firmly believe you should follow your heart and provided you can overcome all the legal wrangles posed by the laws and requirements of different countries and you can adapt and learn to overcome the cultural differences, there are millions of couples around the world leading very happy, fulfilled lives together.

So, rather than thinking of what could do wrong, why not congratulate yourself on meeting someone special who makes you want to jump over all these hurdles and think of all that can go right instead.


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