Opinion: as more and more people find love beyond their home countries, what are the challenges facing couples who come from different cultures and nationalities?

With the announcement of British royal Prince Harry’s engagement to American actor and model Meghan Markle, the focus of international media attention is a romance that has transcended geographical and political borders. The newest royal couple follow on from a traditional of international pairings that have fascinated people, from the Spanish singer Enrique Inglesias’ marriage to Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova all the way back to Othello and Desdemona. But as more and more people look beyond their home countries to find love, what are the unique challenges facing couples who come from different cultures and nationalities?

Already it seems that regardless of cultural inheritance, there are some things that are universally understood. When an intercultural couple are asked how did you know you were "in love", nobody says: "what do you mean by ‘in love’?" Everybody knows what that means. Nobody has to seek verification, no matter where they’re from.

When intercultural couples  are given three scenarios to describe their experience of love - a romantic instant connection, an arranged marriage or a practical arrangement based on factors like age and time spent together – everybody rejects all three of them. Even those from places like Bangladesh where they have arranged marriages. While many see the first option as over-simplified, the more cynical alternatives don’t match their experiences either.  

The decision to move your life to another country for love makes the power dynamic in a relationship very uneven

When asked "how did you fall in love? How did you know it was serious?", it was often shaped by Irish citizenship for some. In other words, many cross-cultural couples may have been in the initial phases of euphoric love, but took a decision to make a commitment so that the non-Irish partner could make a home in Ireland. In these cases, love is also a motivation for migration.

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The decision to move your life to another country for love makes the power dynamic in a relationship very uneven. It ascribes huge responsibility and puts huge strain on the relationship. Added to this are the complications of keeping up connections with the families left behind in such a move. Trying to maintain ties with the home country becomes incredibly complex and trying to link kids with those grandparents in the home country is complicated and expensive.

Speaking in tongues

When a language difference is added in, the situation becomes even more complex. It complicates the family relationship, particularly if the Irish person doesn’t speak the non-Irish spouse’s language. What happens then is that they’re left out of the conversations that are going on. Yet for the children of such couples, growing up bilingual can have distinct advantages, giving them multiple languages at an early age. 

The advantages of intercultural relationships also extend to a wider society. International couples and particularly intercultural couples are at the frontline of integration, social integration and multiculturalism. The increasing numbers of intercultural relationships in Ireland present increasing opportunities for the Irish government too. If you look at the world from a broader perspective, these people bring huge resources, and their social networks are quite important. Their ties are already there and somebody on the Irish side just needs to recognise and capitalise on that.

Opposites don’t necessarily attract and many of the couples have a lot more in common than might first appear

Another area of investigation is how people in cross-cultural relationships define home. They talk a lot about the fact that home isn’t the physical space, it’s not necessarily the tie to land. Home is where the heart is, and the heart is with the partner and children. It’s about the creation of family. While you might think there are cultural miscommunications about love and what people expect out of it, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Gender and class seem to be a big factor too.

As it turns out, opposites don’t necessarily attract after all and many of the couples have a lot more in common than might first appear. On the outside, these people may seem very different. They may be different races or ethnicities, they may be from different countries and cultures or they may speak different languages. But when you scratch the surface, you find that they’re from a similar educational background or that both grew up in the suburbs or a rural setting. There’s a parallel of experience that is part of the attraction. They recognise themselves in the other person, and they have common values.