Whenever I meet someone new and the topic of relationships comes up, they soon discover that I’m Canadian and my partner is Dutch. The question that tends to follow is: “So which country did you meet in?”
People are surprised to learn that we actually met in Bolivia, where we volunteered out of university and made friends in the same international community. Let’s just say I was struck by this man’s impressive baking skills (stacks of apple, cheese and other heavenly pancakes piled up for a house full of volunteers), and it wasn’t long before he fell for my flirtatious dance moves during our group’s nights out.
Magical to complex
Our international love grew from there and spanned trips together to Barcelona, Costa Rica and Budapest, where we tested our feelings and finally made it official. The beginning stages of our relationship felt truly magical, like the universe had conspired to align our travel plans and bring us together time and time again.
The memories from our first trips are the most vivid of my twenties, including ziplining through the jungles of La Fortuna and a twinkling boat ride down the Danube. My belief that we were somehow destined to be together clouded any hesitations I had about how this cross-continent relationship would work long-term.
Fast-forward four years later, and my partner moved to Toronto for us to be together, followed by my taking the leap to move to Amsterdam. Two years into my new life in The Netherlands, and I can safely say that our international relationship has become more complex and challenging than either of us anticipated. I have felt emotionally drained, alone, and at times torn about whether we would make it through the unrelenting waves that come with this type of love.
For a long time, I fought with myself about why I couldn’t be stronger while living abroad, questioning whether I was too sensitive to thrive and too much in need of my partner’s support. Why couldn’t I rely on myself for my happiness? Alternately, I took out my frustrations on my partner, expecting him to understand the depths of my emotions and sacrifice more, as I needed to do.
It felt as if this new life spent in each other’s countries wasn’t going to work for either of us, like we weren’t enough anymore. Where were the carefree days of our holidays abroad, and the fun of first living together as a couple?
Recently, we have entered a new phase, one that is ripe with uncertainty and (at times) tension, but feels healthier nonetheless. It comes from a place of facing our relationship challenges head-on, the ones lurking below the surface of most international relationships.
When partners split their lives between two countries, a set of inseparable challenges arises over time. It is how you confront these difficulties in the moment, and the uncertainties of your future together, that decide how your international love story will end.
Whether you’re navigating an international relationship, or trying to understand and support a loved one in a similar situation, I want to share some of the tough lessons we’ve learned along the way.
3 tough truths we’ve learned
“Home” means two different things to you
One of you will always live away from family and friends, and feel the sting of sacrifice. The other will battle emotions of guilt over having so many options to engage in social life, particularly those plans without your partner. Over time, there will be tension ingrained in plans to meet up with loved ones, since only one partner gets to experience the true connection and support they need.
Spending time in your partner’s social network can feel taxing over time, as every additional holiday and event is coupled with missed opportunities back home. Resentment stems from the sense of injustice you feel when life no longer seems fair. If you’re honest with yourself, there is a part of you that blames your partner for this lacking reality.
It is hard to admit that “home” is clearly in two different places for you, one of the many complications of international love.
In my case, while I was welcomed by my extended family and my partner’s friends abroad, it never felt like our connection grew deeper. I craved the emotional intimacy of a deep conversation with my best friend over a vodka soda, and the simplicity of one of my Mom’s home-cooked meals.
I missed the ease of driving through the countryside and the independence I once had, alongside the comfort of knowing that people were always in my quarter. Meanwhile, my partner began to feel trapped in our love, as if making his own social plans could be misinterpreted as a lack of care, or worse, a personal attack.
Over time, we learned to balance my need for support living abroad and his need to live a normal life in The Netherlands. It didn’t come effortlessly. One thing we studied is how our love languages differ, with my need for “words of affirmation” having been once satisfied by close friendships.
My partner’s increased efforts to affirm my feelings helped ease the pain of loneliness. With my way of receiving love more fulfilled, I became more understanding when it was time for him to spend an evening or weekend away with friends.
Cultural differences go deeper than you think
At the beginning of an international relationship, a fusion of differences between partners can be attributed to culture, upbringing, personality or a number of other enticing factors. Differences with your ‘foreign’ partner are exciting early on, as they suggest unknown territory you are eager to explore.
Upon living in each other’s country for some time, though, you begin to understand that cultural differences are real, the implications of which can be emotionally taxing. I naively underestimated this divide between two ‘Western’ countries, thinking that Canada and The Netherlands couldn’t be that different after all.
For me, what began as lighthearted observations about how bikeable The Netherlands is, along with how much more organized the society and less friendly the service is, became deeper considerations as time carried on. What I initially thought to be a unique disposition of my partner’s family, I was later advised is common to the more reserved Dutch culture.
In my experience, Dutch family gatherings consist of much quality time together, with little attention given to discussing personal lives and feelings. A ‘feeler’ at heart, this difference has made me doubt being accepted by my extended family abroad. Add a language barrier, and my expectations of smoothly integrating into my partner’s everyday life were more unattainable than I first thought.
Feeling like an outsider in each other’s home is a struggle both my partner and I have dealt with, regardless of the country. We have needed to accept and respect such differences that are inherent to living abroad.
A silver lining, besides adopting some of the Dutch traditions I love (Sinterklaas), has been embracing the conversations that cultural differences have sparked between us. We have learned to look past what is ‘normal’ and seek to design our relationship and life together to reflect the values we consciously choose.
The future is unclear and it demands your attention
The reality of an international relationship is that you will likely feel the need to make long-term decisions before one or both of you is ready. Marriage, children and especially deciding where to live and settle will seem to come more naturally to ‘normal’ couples who already enjoy their lives unfolding in one place.
One of the glaring complications of international love is deciding in which country you will stay together or how to make a life between two countries work. Through the process of living in each other’s country, you may inconveniently come to realize that you each prefer your own home.
The question begs, where you will establish your life together? Who will be the one to miss out on having their family and friends around for the major milestones?
In our relationship, uncertainty led us to unknowingly delay the types of conversations needed to plan for our future. We each preferred to believe it would naturally work out on its own, as it always had before. Then, when the time came to make decisions on the next steps, we could no longer avoid diving into the underlying fears and frustrations we had about continuing to live in each other’s country.
A form of self-protectionism emerged, each of us defending our own interests in an attempt to convince the other. Suddenly, the joyful future we assumed we would share seemed to unravel, alongside the hope that our relationship was somehow guaranteed to work.
International couples must be cautious not to place undue pressure on one another to make life decisions prematurely. The tension your relationship undergoes in return will not make future planning any easier. While we are still figuring out our future, we have learned to slow down and take life together one step at a time.
The same unspoken rules for other couples simply don’t apply to us. Sometimes we will need to test the waters, individually and together. Sometimes we will have to let go of control. If there’s one thing worth fighting for, it is love. Our journey across countries has illuminated a beautifully unexpected path thus far. As adventurous souls in international relationships will know, you ultimately need to embrace the complications to conquer the odds.
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