The number of binational marriages in Austria ranges between 23-30% annually. This puts Austria in second place in Europe, right after Switzerland.
At the beginning of a bicultural relationship, there is often a great attraction and fascination, but also a number of possible projections or unconscious motives. Each partner has themes, conflicts and resources from their own biography, as well as family influences from childhood that have influenced their personality development.
Cultural identity is formed within the framework of social, economic, political and historical factors. A map of meanings, which is only accessible to members of the culture, emerges. How love is handled, is also very culturally dependent. This type of cultural transfer is largely unconscious and only becomes conscious through an encounter with a foreign culture or in a conflict situation.
In the case of binational or bicultural couples, however, there are additional aggravating factors that influence the couple dynamics and often lead to the emergence of a power imbalance:
- Implicit cultural relationship concepts and family models
- Issues of migration
- Legal hurdles
- Experiences of discrimination or racism
- Additional financial burdens
A binational marriage often involves a lot of effort and stress. Due to the complicated foreign law conditions in Austria, many partners do not have the opportunity to decide freely whether they want to live together in an undocumented cohabitation or a civil marriage / registered partnership.
That is why many binational couples make the decision to marry faster than is usual nowadays, so that they can live together. Often there is not enough time to get to know each other, with the different life goals, ideas and expectations. The procedure for family reunification of partners from third countries is subject to considerable legal and administrative restrictions (e.g. A1 German before immigration, sufficient income, application and waiting in the country of origin). The partner who has moved to Austria remains bound to the spouse for the first 5 years. The binational constellation creates an objective asymmetry of power between the partners, which can have negative effects on the couple dynamics over the course of the relationship.
The entry of the foreign partner is often preceded by a lengthy bureaucratic process, which continues after the migration has taken place. In this initial phase, the local part usually assumes a high degree of responsibility, since they have the necessary language and administrative knowledge. Many couples get stuck in this phase in some way. They do not succeed in finding a new pattern of responsibility distribution as the relationship progresses, so that no lasting balance can develop. Often both partners experience this dependency as a burden – one is overwhelmed, feels used and not valued enough, the other is hurt in his self-esteem and withdraws.
Another important factor is the gap between modern western culture and traditional cultures – with the different ideas of family, partnership, the role of men and women, education, friendship, dealing with money and each other, as well as obligations to the extended family.
The societies of the western world see a very high value in the freedom, independence and autonomy of the individual, in personal and individual self-realization. Accordingly, the formulation and implementation of one’s own ideas are positive behavioral norms. Dealing with conflicts, naming them, and enduring them are important skills and strategies for achieving one’s own goals and getting along in the social structure.
Diametrically opposed to this is the view of collective societies, in which the wishes and needs of the individual are put aside in favor of a harmonious functioning of the community. Loyalty and commitment play a major role, in return the social group offers protection and, under certain circumstances, privileges. Own ideas, even criticism of others, are only expressed indirectly and very vaguely, so as not to endanger the harmony. Expressing your opinion can be perceived as rude or inconsiderate, expressing feelings or losing your temper and crying can be experienced as a loss of face. Respect and obedience are important dimensions in the relationship between parents and children.
The cultural differences can become noticeable in perception, verbal and non-verbal communication, in the expression of feelings, in dealing with time, money and property as well as in closeness and distance in different relationships, forms of politeness, discussion and taboo topics. The importance of the family and the position of the children in the family, as well as the distribution of roles and age hierarchy can be very different between two cultures.
In society, partners often have to defend the choice of the “foreign” partner and their culture, and fight against stereotypes and whispering, discrimination and racism. They often experience that their environment discriminates, devalues or excludes them because of their external appearance or their choice of partner. In everyday relationships, they sometimes have to defend their own culture or religion, their own country against their partner or friends and family. Intercultural couples often have no role models for dealing with these issues, so that they can feel overwhelmed in everyday life.
The key issue for bicultural couples is appreciation and recognition. If these are missing, couple of conflicts arise. If one partner or both partners miss the appreciation of the other for a long time, it is reflected in complaints, accusations or withdrawal behavior. The partners go in search of new sources of recognition that they miss. At this point, one’s own religion or community can take on a special meaning, just like after the birth of a child.
What can be done against imbalance?
A balance between the two only exists when both are present with their language and culture. The couple must learn to cope with different cultural patterns, with divergent expectations and ideas.
In order to be ready for an intercultural relationship, everyone has to overcome their natural ethnocentric attitude – the assumption that only their own behavioral patterns or those of their own cultural group are good and correct – and learn to understand the respective concepts of life as relative. Allowing, accepting and respecting the other culture is the primary basis for the success of binational relationships.
The success of a bicultural partnership often depends on whether they manage to create a common reality, to build up a common cultural reference system that will serve as a framework for orientation in the future. What matters is how the couple negotiates, how to deal with such differences in everyday life. It is often helpful to look at different contexts, values, goals, desires and fears. Conflicts arise from the superimposition of values and attitudes.
It is essential to look for similarities instead of what separates you. An important and necessary stretching step is to learn to accept being different as equal, to let the differences stand and to endure the opposites. Also important is to make the different wishes and needs visible, to clarify the meanings, to find common values and thereby open up new perspectives and options.
Stanislava Schraufek Merdinger is a clinical psychologist, and psychotherapist and works as a counselor at Fibel Counseling Center – a women’s initiative for bicultural marriages and partnerships.