Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Bi-Cultural Marriages

We don't choose our parents, our countries of origin or our first languages but, unless you live in a world where  arranged marriages are the norm, we do choose our spouses.  Most studies seem to show that like marries like - spouses generally have a lot in common when it comes to educational attainment, socio-economic status, religion and other factors.  This holds true even in an era of fast Internet access, relatively cheap airfare and high levels of tourism and migration.

Globalization has made it possible and even practical to expand our circle of friends, acquaintances and colleagues to almost every country on the planet but marrying outside of our tribe or community is still not that common in most places.  And those who practice a most extreme form of exogamy by marrying outside of country, culture, and language are rarer still.  So, it's not abnormal that we "foreign spouses" (especially women) get a lot of queries about how we met our spouses, where we got married and what it's really like to live with a Frenchman (or an American, Chinese, Brazilian, or Pole).  I will probably be telling the story of how I met my husband well into my old age since it is a pretty good tale and always elicits smiles, laughter and the almost universal reaction, "How terribly romantic!"

Like all marriages, however, romance is simply the gate into the garden.  Once you've slipped inside, you have to make something of it.  Together.  Most of discover pretty quickly that our visions of how we are to exercise our horticultural expertise to mutual pleasure and profit (passed along to us by our respective cultures) diverge in important ways.  You're thinking cottage garden but he has his heart set on something a little more in the Renaissance style.

There is no sure method of making this work.  There are too many perils, pitfalls and pleasures - it is the Anna Karenina principle in action.  I would not presume to say that I understand a Canadian-Russian marriage based on my experience in a French-American one.  What I can do is tell you a few things I wish I had known beforehand and how I think we have muddled through over the years.

What Marriage Means:  There are many social and political arguments about what marriage means in a particular time and place and this topic has figured prominently in the American culture wars.  Different cultures have a different conception of the duties and responsibilities of each spouse and all have some sort of legal framework to enforce these things.  Is this a purely individual matter or is this a union of families?  Are you required to have a contract or is everything included in the act of marriage?  Are there unexpected requirements or obligations that don't exist in your home country that you should think about before you sign?

Some examples.  There are at least three kinds of marriage "regimes" in France which have important implications for how property is divided and for inheritance purposes.  Different U.S. states also have different rules - it may seem a bit bizarre to people outside the U.S. but getting married in Oregon versus getting married in Washington is legally very different.  I am married under the French regime Communauté de biens réduite aux acquêts which I, at the time, thought was the equivalent of Community Property.  Over the years I have learned that it is and it isn't.

How Nation-State Laws Apply:  In a bi-national marriage you are living at the intersection of two country's laws that may interact in interesting ways.  Where you are married and where you live does not necessarily make a difference.  The fact that you are citizens of different states does and the laws of both impact the couple.  In some countries, for example, the spouses are required to report foreign bank account information even for joint accounts.  Others may impose a higher tax burden on a foreign spouse that inherits property in the other spouse's home country.  The U.S. government requires my French husband's permission before issuing a U.S. passport to our dual citizen Frenchlings which means a family trip to the American embassy every time we renew their passports.

Treaties:  There is the law and then there is life.  It's almost impossible to foresee all of the things that you will need to negotiate over the course of your life together.  This is true of all marriages but there are some particular issues that come up in a bi-cultural marriage.  Some are obvious right from the start:  In whose home country will you live?  What language will you speak at home?  How will the children be educated?  How often will the non-citizen spouse go home for visits? Should the non-citizen spouse become a citizen of the other country?  Others are more mundane but equally important:  Whose cultural values and styles will prevail?  At what time will dinner be served?  Do you set the table French or American-style?  Who works and for how many hours a week?  How do you discipline the children?  Who teaches them to read and write in the other language?  How many movies in which languages do you watch together per week?

It's a constant negotiation and re-negotiation because most of us can't answer all of the above in the beginning.  Discovery occurs over time - the utter shock you feel one day when you realize that your children can speak English reasonably well but are incapable of writing a simple email to their American grand-parents.  This sort of thing sends you straight back to the negotiating table because something you thought wasn't going to be an issue, suddenly is. It's less a one-time contract and more a series of treaties that you and your spouse negotiate over time.

Creation of a Third Space:  Unless one spouse agrees to radical assimilation, what usually occurs is the creation of something that is not quite one or the other but a synthesis of both. The balance shifts from one side to the other and back again depending on the country of residence and what stage of life you are in.  To an outsider it may resemble utter cultural chaos with children that start a sentence in one language and finish it in another.  Where the table is set American-style but we eat at the French hour, 8:00 PM.  Even the fights have a unique flair - a bi-national marriage being the only one where a spouse can start an argument with the other by saying, "Your damn government...."

Of all the things I've talked about I personally think that the last is the most important.  The creation of a space where two cultures can co-exist under the same roof in the most intimate of settings requires an extraordinary amount of patience and empathy.  It can and does break down sometimes in the face of utter incomprehension and frustration.  The legal framework of the nation-state is what it is and you have no control over it; the home, the family, and the creation of common values, purpose and meaning are almost entirely up to the couple.   Given the huge distance between two people of very different backgrounds, cultures, languages, it is a near miracle that such spaces exist and can even thrive under the most unlikely of circumstances.  What is amazing is not that such marriages fail (many marriages do after all) - what is extraordinary is how many succeed for so long.


JuliaLikesFrogs said...

I am an American married to a French man, who I've been living with in the US for 12 years. I see a lot of French-American couples fail, and I want to avoid all of the mistakes. Please continue to share your insight! For example, do you have any more thoughts about hiccups that are particular to the French-American relationship, and any suggestions on how to avoid their destructive power?

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Julia,

Thanks so much for visiting the Flophouse and for leaving your comment. I'd love to hear more about the French/American couples you've seen that failed. It's true that many marriages fail anyway (divorce rate in both France and the US is about 50%) but I think there is an added layer of issues when it's a bi-cultural couple. Let me think about this and I'll see if I can come up with a few ideas based on my experience.

All the best,


Anonymous said...

I am an American married to a Frenchman for 10 years now. We married in the US. Due to job instability we came to France after the birth of our first child, a year after our marriage. I can tell you it is a constant struggle. My biggest complaint is living in France. I feel like a "hostage" because we didn't write down the terms of the move and now it just so happens my husband is happliy residing back in his homeland. I cannot go back to America if I want to be involved in my children's lives. I do not want to live in France. I do not like the French life, the weather, the government, the inefficiency, lack of modern comforts (elevators/air conditioning, space), etc. Then there is the cultural element where French people and family members constantly want to undermine the american spouse because I feel like I've discovered that French are inherently anti-american. Lots of theories as to why. I believe French-American couples are generally bound for trouble, unless they are unitedly pro-"pick a country." I've met Americans who love France. And that works. I've met French who love America and that works. But when each spouse has disdain for the other's country....well....Good luck. Raising the children is, like you said, also a cultural competition and no consideration is paid to the importance of the children's English language acquisition (in my couple). Biggest mistake of my life.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi there, thank you so much for the excellent comment. I have been exactly where you are and I know other American women in the same boat. It's tough and, as you point out, this is not something that is easy to back out of when there are children involved. In retrospect there were a lot of things I should have negotiated before we moved here and ended up having to work out on what I felt was an uneven playing field. In the end I found two strategies that helped resolve things for me. The first was building a life of my own by having a job (and later a career), by making my own friends and by being as independent as possible (I have my own French lawyer, for example). Gave me back a sense of control and gave me some power. The second was to make a short list of things that were so important to me (like English for the Frenchlings) that I was willing to fight (and even walk) over them. And we were able to work it out to everyone's satisfaction. Doesn't always happen though. And that contempt you talk about is absolutely deadly. I wrote another piece here that talks a bit about that:
I's sorry that you are facing this. Feel free to email me if you want to talk further.


Rahel W. said...

HI there, Just happened to look for info on Raymonde carroll and found your blog. Very nice, I also am a French woman but in my case I have moved twice, once to Israel in my teems to study and the second time with my American husband. I am not sure what is French in me, anymore. I am an anthropologist and thought that my work and my ability to do cultural analysis will help me out. I found that as I age, and my American children become adults, the disjunction with the American culture is more prominent. Interesting. In any case keep up. There is a need to understand these issues better, best Regina

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Dear Regina, I'm so glad you stumbled on the Flophouse during your research. Thank you for reading and your comment. I have often asked myself the same question about how much American remains in me at this point. When I go "home" to Seattle it is a little like entering a foreign country. Everything is so strange. And I liked what you said about the disjunction becoming more, not less, as you ago. The situation is never static - at each stage of life things change and I've found that it's an ongoing negotiation. Our last major rethinking was university and what system we (my spouse and I) and my elder Frenchling would choose. Much pressure from the French family to choose France. Equal pressure from the U.S. to choose an American university. I had not anticipated that. In the end our daughter said, "None of the above" and went to Canada. :-)

I wholeheartedly agree that there needs to be deeper understanding. Anthropologists like yourself have done some very good work. I'm also seeing some work by psychologists that looks at the long-term psychological impact of migration. Still looking for literature on this from both (and other) fields. If you have any titles to recommend, I would be most grateful.

All the best,


Sean said...

Hello, I'm an American guy (35)married to a French woman (40) for seven years now. We have three daughters (7, 5, and 3). Regarding this post and comment thread, for the most part things have been fine.

I do often feel the odd man out when we stay at my in-laws. I do not feel that they have disdain for me at all. I disagree with the comment that French people are inherently anti-American. That has not been my experience.

But, I am much more flexible than my wife (and probably most people)when it comes to navigating foriegn surroundings. On a recent family visit my wife and step-mother were ready to kill each other over air conditioning, yogurt, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I'm not joking. My wife was annoyed with the a/c levels which my Dad, step-mom and half-sister are accustomed to and had set in the condo. She turned it off because she didn't want the girls to get sick (although it was probably just as much for her because she detests blasting a/c); my step-mother turned it back on later in the evening. One day my wife asked what would be for lunch and my step-mother told her she could just make PB&J sandwiches; my wife found this to be an outright slight and insult and despite my efforts to convice her that my step-mothjer was guilty only of tackiness, she remained put off by it. One evening my wife gave the girls yogurts after the dinner my step-mother made and my step-mother was offended by that move, not knowing that dairy after meals is a staple in French families (I do this with our family now, but even after seven years I could easily do without it, I guess it's just a question of rearing).

The truth is that American people and French people are incredibly alike in being quite attached to their ways. "Their" ways are unquestionably the best ways, and considering other ways hardly merits discussion.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Sean, Thank you so much for stopping by and I laughed so hard when you described the war over the a/c. In my family it was all about the curtains. My mother would show up and open them. My mother-in-law would come by 5 minutes later and firmly close them. Open. Close. Open. Close. :-)

I've known some pretty anti-American French here in my time but it's the exception rather than the rule. Those happy few were people who had an inflexible deeply held view that the US was by definition evil and responsible for all the sins of the world.
Pretty rare but it has happened. What happens more often is a discussion about something (like free speech, for example) where they expose what they think. When our deeply held beliefs are challenged it's easy to say "anti-Americanism" (or anti-French) but that's not it at all. In fact we do ourselves an enormous disservice because we've blown an opportunity to learn something.

As you so rightly point out that gives you all kinds of flexibility and the skill of moving from one culture and one context to another more easily. Certainly keeps the blood pressure under control. :-)

Do you live in France, the US or a third country?

Anonymous said...

Victoria, as an American woman recently engaged to a Frenchman met during a semester abroad, I'm delighted to find your blog. Here in the Midwest, relationships like ours aren't so common that it's easy to find information and advice from more experienced couples. There's still so much that we have to talk through and think about... Thanks for providing such a useful (and beautifully written) article!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@anonymous, Congratulations on your engagement! Thank you for stopping by the Flophouse and for your comment. 23 years later I still think marrying my Frenchman was one of the best things I ever did in this life. :-)

Anonymous said...

I accidentally fell upon your blog and its refreshing :) Am an indian married to a french woman. And it ain't easy either.
Thanks and keep writing :)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@anonymous, thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a comment. Really glad you are enjoying the blog and this post.

It isn't easy, is it? I think I will be revising this topic soon but I think I will broaden the perspective to the extended family.

Take good care,


Marie Poppins said...

Dear Victoria,

Thank you for your blog and all the interesting insights I found in it. The comments were also very interesting. I was happy to read one by an american man as well.

I'm a french woman, not married to an american man, but considering it. It would make it so much easier for us to be together and fully enjoy our relationship.

Long distance relationships are for short terms only.

I already know that I don't want to live in France and I currently live in Montreal where I would happily settle for a while if this american babe didn't persist in my heart.

Funny how wometimes we end up doing things we said we'd never do... I never say never anymore.

By the way, our one-night encounter in Thailand would seduce hollywood script-writers as well. I'm really curious about yours !

After 3 months online following that special night, he came stay with me here for 4 months and I'll go to Denver this summer for 3 weeks. We'll see how things go from there and how we see ourselves in the long-run.

The challenge is that in order to find out, we both have to make bigger commitments faster than in an ordinary relationship. It implies moving somewhere else, being able to do a job we love, etc... It puts more pressure on us but deep down it teaches me a lot.

I really believe a marriage or a relationship works when both are happy as individuals, doing a job they enjoy, expressing their creativity in a place they enjoy. I'm not so worried about us as we have a great connexion. I'm concerned about finding a common ground (literally) where we can work without depending on each other.

If you have any advice, you are welcome.

Thanks again for sharing your experience,

Take care


Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Marie, Thank you so much for your comment. I wish you all the best in your relationship. I've been married now for 23 years and I still think that my spouse and our children are the best things in my life.

Can I propose a book that you might find interesting? It's called Evidences Invisibles by Raymonde Carroll. I wrote about it here:

It's one of the best books I've read about the differences between French and American culture.

If you do read it, please come back and let me know what you thought of it.

All the best,


Andrew said...

Wow, what a cool blog! I'm an American and I just started dating a French girl so I really can't wait to go through all of your posts and read about all the excitements, difficulties, trials, and laughs! Keep posting!


Melissa Newton said...

Beautifully written article! The last paragraph in particular really hit home with me. I am an American woman married to a Colombian man for nearly ten years now. Creating a home where two cultures can co-exist is extremely challenging yet so rewarding. Looking forward to reading more of your blog.

Anonymous said...

French american couples/relationships never (or i should say rarely) work was my experience and many around me. Thats fine with me.I realized it. I live in the us and dont want to date with american men anymore. the experiences i had and so many of my friends not necessarily french has been traumatizing to say the least.

Anonymous said...

I even want to add that I strongly discourage those types of relationships. With that said im wishing all the best to the french/american couples that can handle it. Good luck.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@anonymous, Thanks for your comment. It's not easy, I can attest to that. Something that I truly believe helps is going the Third Country route at least once. That way both are foreigners and no one has the home court advantage. :-)

Philip said...


I'm American married to a Frenchwoman. We live near Paris and have a 2 year old son. I feel quite fortunate to have met my wife. When I look into my son's blue eyes I realize that I am a lucky man...none of this is because they are French...however none of this is because they are not French either. We live in a Franco-American household. My wife and I take this to be an advantage rather than a heavy burden. We find the biculturalism has a richness to offer...but you have to be ready to take it. None of us entered the marriage with our patriotic luggage or the intransigence that can accompany it. My wife wanted to learn more about the US and improve her English. I came to France not to speak English nor to want to hold on to my anglophone ways but to learn something add more to what I was. As for my son. My wife speaks to him in French and I in English. If he ends up with a slight French accent when he is long as we are living in France. If we were to move back to the US, my wife would agree to a priority to English.

All to often my British friend and I agree that there are too many Anglophone expats in France that are unwilling to "let go" and integrate. We see them all too often in pubs watching sports on tv talking with other English speakers.

As far as anti-Americanism or my 15 years in France I have hardly ever run into it...and I have travelled a lot. Having lived in the US, I can say I have come across anti-French sentiment not just politically from conservative commentators such as Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter or Late night comedians Jay Leno, Stephen Colbert, or radio talk show hosts Howard Stern but from everyday people...who still say "why are the French so anti-American"?. I would ask "why do you say that"? The answer is very often: ""They don't do what we do", "they don't have what we have", "they don't eat like us"...and of course I would interrupt and say "...and they don't speak the same language either" .

In my humble opinion, for a couple to succeed you will need to ask yourself "am I willing to make concessions"? For a multi-cultural couple it will be the same. Can you let go? How important is it to what you are holding on to? Is making a concession a sign of weakness or failure? if you live in a country orient yourself to that country.

If I can be happy and so can you.


Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Philip, Great comment and thank you for sharing a bit about your life. Yep, "letting go" is a big part of it. The fun/challenge is that you can't know what you are ready to give up until one day it smacks you right in the head and you realize, hey, I do care about that.

One of our ealier issues, for example was about bank accounts (oh, the irony). My husband refused to accept that I could have a separate bank account. And we went round and round for years on the topic. It just made me feel terrible to not have just one account that was in my name only. It took years but we eventually compromised and now I have one and accept that all the others are joint. Stuff like that. On some level it didn't really matter because we are married under community property but on another level it mattered a lot. See what I mean?

Philip said...

Thanks Victoria,

I f I may leave one little piece of advice to all bi-cultural couples preparing to move to a spouse"s country...ask yourself whether or not you are prepared to embrace that country's way of life without always arguing or resisting. If you go into the adventure fresh eyed and bushy tailed without being naif & always being respectful of cultural particularities then you should be well prepared for a pleasant experience. You are a reflection of what you feel. You may not think it shows, but people can be very sensitive to body language as well as other hints we let escape.

Keep in mind it is not easy. I admit that whole heartedly. Nevertheless, the love a couple has for one another and the real desire to "give a little" on both sides is fundamental. In fact it is essential for everything in life as far any kind of human interaction is concerned.

One last country has a monopoly on what is good or else that country would have a really serious immigration problem (full to capacity)...and no country has a monopoly on what is bad or else it would be empty.

When I first came to France to live with my wife, my father said to me: "son you're going to leave the nest for the second time. You know what is like except this time its a really big nest. You'll be giddy at first then you'll begin to miss your mom's cooking. Hang in there. If you can get by on mom's cooking, you'll be fine. Ask yourself everyday what was good about your day...not what was bad, that's too easy."

Thanks dad.


Anonymous said...

Hi there,

Leaving in the US for more than 3 years now. I hate it. And probably having to stay because threaten to be able to go back in France without my son. This is also one of the reality of mixed couple: taking the risk of being an hostage, isolated financially and morally.

I let my job (PhD), my family, friends, and house to follow the man I loved. We wanted to have a kid and I got pregnant. We had to get married as we were almost bankrupt with medical expenses (we could have been covered through my husband employer policy if we were homosexual. We were heterosexual and had to get married. Wow!). It is called "self-paid" and you can negotiate 50% of the bill ... but you need to know the system for that. Understand, to pay enough. This is also about explaining to my son that whether he is very poor and can have health care, very old and can have health care too ... or very rich. The Obama care is just a joke and put more pressure on middle class. I am terribly french and would like not to have to explain to my son that health care is not a right. Would dream America to wake up for its sanity, be standing up in the street and report the guilty ones: doctors and lawyers ... that give fundings to party that ...
I learned that being part of the 10% higher income here, I can exploit the others, pay almost nothing for their work and enjoy how grateful they are (because they are grateful here, big difference with France).

I would also like not to have to explain to my son the concept of eating in the car.

I would like not to have to look at Churches to find a decent preschool at about $1000/month. Or I have to be very poor too, then it is free.

I would like America to take little care of its women. Its teens (mom at 16 here in NM), its moms (no pregnancy time off, no daycare structure that is affordable) and its "soccer moms" that are stuck home with no alternative if they don't want to disappoint ther church and family. I'm terribly french: religion has to stay in churches, OUT of schools, and that would be great if I didn't have to see all these stickers on the cars telling me what your opinion/church/ whatever is. I feel aggressed. To be expat is also about finding a school for your kid. Be also OK with the idea that they will have to sing facing a flag (cerise sur le gateau comme on dit).

What else? I would like to go back home because it will never be home here. I would like to speak french at home. I would like to have dinner at 8:00 pm out, see people in the street and have good food. Sorry, lived in Paris for a while. The West is for the less quite different.

What else?
A mixed couple is about meeting in your difference. I loved an american man and may be still do. I was happy to move here because of him and had no bad idea about the US. Living here, I probably became some kind of racist but I honestly don't share most of the values of this country. I am hurt as a woman and as a mom. I miss food and mess. I want health care and public school. I don't want money to run my life and this is also what you have to consider: the french salary are about 4 times smaller for equal qualification. If you come here, you won't go back because university to pay, mortgage , ... You'll have to sell or own (30 years mortgage ...), reduce your lifestyle and have enough money to self pay your retirement. Money calls for money everywhere but much harder to stop the cycle when you have a lot. I should fit better the system: making a lot of money, I could may be get a very good lawyer and a flight back with my son.
A mixed couple is also about that. Agree with your spouse/partner before check in your flight. Have it written done doesn't sound romantic but could become useful for future.

Sorry. I met many nice people here. Just dreaming of leaving them, as nice as they can be. We just haven't been able to meet.

Evolving said...

Hello there,

I stumbled across this looking up how to divorce a Frenchman in the USA. I'm an American. I met my Frenchman 27 years ago. We were just friends for the first 2 years. We lived together for 13 years and then we married and it's been 12 years. I wanted to marry him for all of the years while living together. The only reason he married me was for me to be able to live in France. That lasted 4 years before moving back to America.
My story is long so I will try to make it short. I adapted well to living in France. The problem was that he had complete control of everything. He was verbally abusive. The verbal abuse started after being together for 3 years.If I wanted to buy anything he would have to go see it first and approve. When I got back to America I wanted to kiss the ground!! He was raised a Jehovahs Witness. He decided not to stay one at the age of 18. I think this is one of the big issues with him and the person he is.
I begged him for years to be affectionate. I begged him to be nice for even one day. He is also beyond frugal. I bought something out of a bubblegum machine and he got upset. Yes!!! It's that bad.
We have been separated for over a year now. He can never say the words, "I'm sorry." He could never be affectionate. It was just sex and turn your back and go to sleep.He can be nice to others. Especially French people!!
He is now holding money over my head. I can't take it any longer. I worked on and off, but was mainly a housewife. He complained about money whether I worked or not. I have been unemployed for seven years. He sends me a nasty text the day after I go to the grocery store every time. That's pure and simple abuse! He threatens to leave and go back to France and leave me penniless. He says it's all his money and not mine. He can't grasp the concept that I'm his wife and it's mine too.
We own 4 houses. Two in France and two here in America. We agreed before marriage that what was here would be mine and what was there would be his if we ever divorced. I was very involved with helping moneywise..
I wanted things to work out. I literally begged and cried. When a man can't show affection or apologize for being mean it's time to let go. Way past time.
So much more to the story, but I'd have to write a book.
Thanks for reading this.
I will add that I am truly sad about this... Well, I was and now I'm just angry!!I have to value myself and try to find happiness without him.