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Dealing with Cultural Differences in a Long Distance Relationship

It can be extremely difficult navigating a relationship with someone who comes from a different culture to your own. There are several differences to reconcile and relationships to manage as you attempt to see eye to eye on key life decisions. Add long distance to the mix, and it makes for an even more difficult situation!

I’m an Asian male, and my wife is Hispanic. When we married, we had to manage our cultural differences, and our families differences as well.

It’s a difficult road to tread, but many others have travelled it before you, so it can be done!

This post will explore the differences you may encounter in your relationship, and outline some strategies to help deal with these problems.


Cultural identity

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Everyone has their own opinions, thoughts, values, interests, and ideas.

But how are they informed?

Everyone’s own cultural identity—the culture we personally associate with—shapes who we are as a person. Ever since childhood, we absorb and reflect the information given to us by the culture we were raised in. This influences the way we think, speak, and act.

As you can imagine, different cultures have different approaches to handling situations and life in general. For instance, there was a study which showed that Asian Americans and European Americans preferred receiving social support in different ways. The former preferred “implicit” or indirect support, whereas the latter preferred “explicit” or direct advice from their social networks.

Differences in cultural identity can have a noticeable effect on your relationship, too. Sometimes, you may not realize these differences until much later in your relationship.

Family expectations

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Have you met your partner’s family yet? Remember meeting them for the first time?

The first time I met my wife’s family was during Christmas. And it was her brother’s wedding as well, so everyone was there. It was certainly a challenge!

At the time, I felt like I had to be very respectful around everyone, especially her mom and her aunts and uncles. It was part of my upbringing; elders were afforded that extra level of respect, and you treated them as such.

It took me a while to ease up a little and be more comfortable chatting and socializing with her family on a more personal level.

Dealing with different cultures

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When you’re thrust into a different culture, chances are you’ll be unsure of what to do. Make sure to lean on your partner for support. Take cues from them, and outright ask for help when needed. (Thankfully I didn’t commit too many faux pas during the wedding!)

Families can also hold pre-existing beliefs or prejudices. This might be in the form of an unsolicited comment, an unconscious action, or adhering to stereotypes. When it’s directed your way, it can come off as a little grating. Try to see it as an opportunity for you to educate and enlighten others.

I recall a time when my wife visited me in Australia. We went to a Chinese restaurant, and everyone didn’t expect my wife to try some of the more…unique dishes. But she pleasantly surprised them all when she did.

Believing in those stereotypes helps to deal with fear of the unknown. For example, my mum doesn’t understand much about Mexican culture, particularly Mexican cuisine. One of her concerns whenever I went to visit my wife was if Mexican food tasted any good, and if it had enough nutrition. (Oh, if only she knew.)

Again, it was an opportunity for me and an educational moment for her. We’ve yet to cook her a Mexican meal, but it’s on the list whenever we go back for a visit.

Adding long distance

Introducing long distance can make it hard to manage family expectations and show that you’re not some scary outsider. Limited time together in-person can really affect your relationship with your partner’s family.

More traditional families may not see your long distance relationship as “genuine”. For a while, my mum constantly labelled my LDR as a “friendship”. Visiting each other in-person can help families recognize you as a couple.

As you’re communicating regularly, make sure you’re also keeping in contact with their family, and have your partner talk with your family as well. Even a few minutes keeps you fresh in their minds, and you can show that, ultimately, you’re just a person dating someone from their family.

You can’t reach everyone

Unfortunately, some people will be resistant to chatting online with someone they don’t know well. They might be shy, or even downright resistant to the idea of you and your partner as a couple. 

There’s only so much you can do from your end in this situation. In that case, your partner needs to communicate with their family and gradually get their acceptance. Let your partner know how important it is for their family to have a good impression of you, and that it will make things much easier in the future.

I’ll be honest: this is an uphill battle and your partner will need a lot of support to win their hearts and minds.

Cultural and lifestyle traditions

The traditions of a particular culture are a family’s bedrock. The events and rituals that your partner shares with you can be fun and unique. You should take every opportunity to learn more about them and experience them for yourself.

However, traditions can also influence the way your partner expects to conduct your relationship. It can be due to his own cultural influence, as well as the beliefs of his parents and his family.

Here are some issues that you and your partner may need to discuss if you haven’t already brought them up.

Gender roles

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Some cultures have different expectations for each gender. You should figure out how gender roles are perceived in your partner’s culture, as well as how they are perceived in yours. Do they match your expectations, and are you okay with adhering to them?

Some families also favor particular genders. For instance, in Chinese cultures sons may receive more preferential treatment than daughters.

Filial roles

Several cultures place a great deal of respect on the elders of a family. Are there expectations for you or your partner to defer to older generations, or to constantly meet their wishes? Is there a matriarchal or patriarchal structure?

Family connections

Different cultures may place more importance on maintaining familial ties. Are there expectations from you or your partner on physically staying with family? 

If you’re in a long distance relationship, there’s an expectation that either one or both of you would need to relocate. Would there be a problem if either of you left the family unit?

Some cultures have intergenerational families living together. Will you and your partner be okay with an arrangement like this?

Finances

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Cultures can differ widely on how to handle money. For instance, some cultures expect the male to be the sole breadwinner, and the woman to stay home and raise children. Other cultures have the wife or mother handle all the money and balance the budget. Does this match both of your expectations?

Some cultures don’t see a problem with discussing financial topics openly, like salary. Are you okay with being so open about your finances?

Liberty and personal freedom

Do you and your partner have similar views on personal autonomy? For example, if you wanted to go and get a tattoo the next day, would your partner expect you to ask for permission?

If you are female, does your partner expect you to act in a certain way? If you are male, do you expect to be free to do as you please without consulting your partner?

Dating and relationships

You and your partner may have differing views on relationships. Perhaps you come from a culture where marriage and divorce are not so uncommon. On the other hand, you may come from a culture where it is held sacred and you avoid divorce and separation at all costs to avoid losing face. Where do you and your partner stand on this?

Long distance relationships are also fairly non-traditional. How do you and your partner feel about it? Will anyone need to deal with their family’s reaction to being in a relationship like this? Will it need to be kept a secret? Is anyone expected to be entered in an arranged marriage or matchmaking?

Language

It’s a challenge to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you. Long distance can make it even more challenging, since your ability to communicate without words will be greatly limited.

This also extends to your partner’s family as well, if you intend on building your relationship with them too. Your partner will either need to step in to translate, or you can take on the task of learning the language yourself.

When my wife and I went on lunch outings with my extended family, I would often find her sitting quietly while my aunts and uncles would chatter away in Cantonese. That was when I had to lean in and offer some quick translation so she wouldn’t feel left out.

As our relationship grew even more serious, she expressed interest in learning the language so she could communicate more with my mum, and also help pass on my heritage and culture on to our future children.

If your partner’s parents and family are non-English speakers, learning their native language is a big sign of respect to them. It shows your dedication to the relationship and to their culture, and helps them to communicate more easily with you (as opposed to having conversations about you).

Keep in mind that either you or your partner’s family members may be discouraged to communicate with you if there’s a language barrier and there’s distance involved. There may be excuses like “I don’t want to talk to them, I’m embarrassed about my English” and “They won’t understand me anyway”. 

Race

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We’ve come a long way since earlier times when interracial relationships were discouraged and even outlawed. In 2010, about 15% of marriages were interracial, and the number has increased 5 times since 1967.

Unfortunately, people can still hold pre-existing prejudices against races other than their own.

It can come from your family or your friends, or your partner’s. Even strangers that you don’t know may make ignorant comments on your partnership.

When you’re physically apart, you may not see this quite so often. When you’re together again, don’t be surprised if you get more attention than usual. 

And if you receive unwelcome comments when people see you together, try not to take it personally – not everyone can benefit from the same worldview you have.

If you or your partner are bothered by anything, be sure to voice your concerns to each other. You are each other’s best support.

Religion

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You and your partner’s spiritual beliefs may come up as a conflict. It’s a sensitive issue, but resolving them early on can save you both a lot of heartache.

  • Do you and your partner differ when it comes to religion and faith? If so, can you live with the differences?
  • Will your religion affect your future life together? Does your partner expect you to make concessions for them, or change completely?
  • If you do choose to get married, do either of you have a strong preference for a particular wedding ceremony? Also, if your families have differing beliefs, will it be a problem bringing the two together?
  • If you’d both like to have children together, how will you raise them? Do either of you have strong feelings about things like baptism or circumcision?
  • If it gets to the point where someone may need to change their spiritual views to make something work, how would you both feel about that?

Moving to another country and culture

When you both close the distance, chances are one of you will need to move to another country…and a whole new culture.

Everything might feel wonderful and different at first. You’re eating new foods, experiencing new things, and it’s all great. But how will you feel a year from now? Or five years from now?

Visiting your partner for the first time in their home country may also expose you to some differences that they took for granted. For instance, you may learn that it’s rare for women to travel alone in your partner’s culture. Does this change your outlook on the future? How does your partner feel about it? Do you agree?

As someone who has lived in multiple countries, there will always be something that takes time to adjust to. Either that, or you’ll just have to learn to live with it. Voicing your concerns to your long distance partner before moving can help you understand the reasons why things are the way they are.

Strategies for dealing with cultural differences

Discover your preferred way to communicate through difficulties

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There’s a good chance you’ll encounter differences in your cultural norms, or have your families imposing it on you. Whenever they come up, you’ll both need a way to talk it out.

It can be tempting to point out flaws in the other person’s culture, especially if it doesn’t fit in your worldview. It’ll help being patient with each other and explaining the reasoning behind your actions.

Remember that it’s going to be a hard journey: you’ll be working through your cultural differences over a long distance. Take heart and remember that you should have each other’s back.

Discuss your position on certain things to avoid surprises

It’s worth anticipating common questions or topics that you might be asked by friends or relatives. It could be things like religious rituals or prayers they do regularly, or their diet, or even small cultural things that might come up in conversation.

Having a shared understanding can minimise any surprise conversations. It can also lower the potential of saying something that’s hurtful to your partner.

Learn each other’s love languages

Even though there are cultural differences between you, remember that you are both attracted to each other for a reason, and you share a loving relationship that sees past that.

Discover what makes you and your partner feel loved, and make an effort to show that love with those particular actions. If you’re apart, the “physical touch” love language might be a challenge, so you might need to get creative!

Give and take – share your culture, and explore theirs

Having differences doesn’t have to mean you have to try and avoid them entirely and grasp for similarities. Embrace the differences – get to learn their culture and find out more about your partner’s history and upbringing. Doing this shows a huge amount of respect to your partner.

Don’t be afraid to share yours, either. You might find some aspects of it embarrassing, but who knows – your partner might actually be curious and dying to know more.

My wife, for instance, loves it whenever I speak in Cantonese to my family or when I translate things. I always get a little embarrassed whenever I speak it, but she finds it fascinating. 

Finally, be prepared to compromise on certain things. You shouldn’t expect to have your partner change everything about themselves to fit into your culture, and vice versa.

Don’t assume anything

If you’re aware that you do certain things in your culture, don’t assume that your partner will immediately be okay with it.

Your norms aren’t their norms just yet, and while it might be fine most of the time, there could be instances where it’s not.

If in doubt, just speak out about it.

Educate others and challenge people’s beliefs

Throughout the course of your relationship, you’ll encounter people who are either curious, misinformed, or just plain wrong.

That’s fine! Rather than acting defensive or confrontational, it’s an opportunity for the both of you to educate others. Share what you’ve learned about your partner and their culture. By doing so, you can gain a deeper understanding of them, and they’ll appreciate you even more.

Support each other, especially if others don’t support you

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Unfortunately, you may encounter people who just don’t like the idea of two different cultures combining, and no amount of convincing will change their minds.

People like this are everywhere, so you can’t let them get under your skin.

Having said that, it’s important to continue supporting each other and communicating regularly, particularly while you’re both living apart.

Diffuse with humor, but remember to be kind

My wife and I come from different cultural backgrounds, and there can be some casual jokes and teasing between the two of us. This helps us navigate each other’s cultures and call out things we find different in a light-hearted way.

Sometimes, either one of us may come across strange cultural situations we weren’t prepared for, and we can joke about it later to relieve some of the tension of the situation.

What we never do is take it too far and belittle or talk down on the other person’s culture or beliefs. Carry out your actions with kindness.

If you have children, share your worlds with them

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Children are naturally curious. If either of you are bringing children into the relationship, don’t be afraid to share your partner’s world with them.

Even simple things like learning vocabulary for basic items or responses can be useful. Introducing them to special events or holidays are also a great way to expose them to this new culture.

Be prepared to work after moving

Moving to a new country and culture is a difficult undertaking.

When I moved from Australia to the U.S., I thought it’d be a piece of cake, since they’re both fairly affluent Western nations. But there were still several differences that years of American TV still couldn’t prepare me for.

My wife had to put up with me struggling to understand why things were done a certain way, or why people acted the way they did. I’m still learning to be more open about things that affect me, and I really had to do this so I wouldn’t come away with any wrong impressions.

I also had to learn to be more true to myself. Instead of thinking “this is okay, I just have to get used to it”, sometimes I had to be honest that something wasn’t working out, and I had to talk about it with my partner. 

Again, it can be difficult to do, because you may be trying to make the best of the situation you’ve put yourself in. Doubly so, since you may have been in a long distance relationship for so long and you just want things to work out.

However, being honest with your happiness and how you’re feeling are just as important.

Finally, you’ll be exposed to new experiences and a new way of life, but it’s also key to maintain a sense of who you are. Pay respect to the new culture you find yourself in and integrate where possible. 

At the same time, integrate the old with the new and don’t be afraid to live your own cultural identity too. Your history, past, and beliefs form a very important part of you, and are just as important as those you’ll adopt in your new home.