Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Therapy Spot! On this week’s episode, I spoke with individual and relationship therapist Veronica Lax. Veronica is also the CEO of Turning Point, a center for the international and local community in Stockholm. As she grew up in both Sweden and the United States, Veronica is bilingual and offers counseling in both Swedish and English. Through her work at Turning Point, she has had lots of experience with cross cultural relationships. Veronica believes that “becoming aware of your needs and obstacles can help you make decisions that give more meaning and joy in life.”
During our time together, we discussed the challenges both partners face in a relationship where one person is Swedish and the other is not. While we focused mainly on this pairing, you can apply this lens to your own bicultural relationship. How do different cultural backgrounds affect a relationship? Listen along!
Differences in Cross Cultural Relationships
Since I have listeners all over the world, I’d like to ask you all a question right now. How would you feel about striking up a conversation with a stranger at the bus stop? While we have our individual personalities, your answer to that question has a lot to do with your culture. Americans are more likely to chat with strangers in public, whereas Swedes would find the interaction awkward. (Note: cultural differences can show up even within the same country! If you’ve spent time in both the southeastern and northeastern US, you know what I mean.)
Culture can affect a relationship in so many different ways. In cross cultural relationships, often one partner will leave their home country to be with the other. The expat partner may not speak the language, and thus rely on the native partner more than they did beforehand. This can change the relationship dynamic drastically!
Even without a language barrier, the difference in cultural norms can be challenging for the expat partner. This is where my bus stop question comes in! Swedes, for example, are more reserved and less direct than the typically assertive and forward American. In a romantic relationship, the American might see their Swedish partner as conflict avoidant. The key here, as always, is curiosity.
Getting Curious in Cross Cultural Relationships
You may remember an earlier podcast of mine about cross cultural relationships. To be successful, these relationships require:
I’d like to add something to that list: curiosity. When you leave your home country, you leave behind more than just geography. You uproot yourself from your established support network, both friends and family. Even the business world might be incredibly different. Making new friends can be difficult, because of unspoken social norms. If your partner did this for you, it’s important to understand where they’re coming from. Bring curiosity and compassion to your interactions.
Really, this is an incredible learning opportunity for both of you! Here’s a short example of how to bring in that curiosity.
American partner: I’m so embarrassed. I told a woman at the grocery store that I liked her blouse, and she barely even looked at me.
Swedish partner: Tell me more. Is that different from what might have happened back home?
American partner: Yes! Back home, I told people that sort of thing all the time. They usually tell me where they bought their clothing, or compliment something I’m wearing.
Swedish partner: You’re right, that’s very different from here!
American partner: Is that just the norm here in Sweden? Would you ever tell a stranger something like that?
Now, the Swedish partner could have said, “I can’t believe you did that. We don’t talk to strangers here!” Instead, they invited the American partner to share more about their feelings, and their experiences. The American partner, instead of assuming, “I guess I can never talk to strangers here,” asked the Swedish partner for more information. Remember: assuming things about each other won’t result in a positive, deeper connection.
Feeling “At Home” In Cross Cultural Relationships
If you’re living abroad, Veronica recommends joining an international group. Not only will you meet people in situations similar to your own, but natives who have lived abroad will often join these groups as well. Also, consider embracing your cultural quirks! Being from another country and having a different approach — to making friends, to building romantic relationships, and more — can be an asset to you. With time, your partner’s country will hopefully come to feel like your second home.
Veronica, thanks so much for joining me on the Therapy Spot this week. Thank you also to all of you who tuned in. Until next time!