The recently-landed Anglo-Saxon expat might find the following tips and observations food for thought when addressing some of those problems which intercultural relationships with the French can bring. They’re based on my own experiences during more than 40 years of co-habitation with the same French partner.
1. As far as marriage is concerned the basic principles which govern intercultural relationships are not very different from those which go to make a happy and successful union between a couple of the same nationality living in their home country. It’s just that the sources of possible disputes are greater, can run more deeply and have, therefore, a higher risk of leading to argument, recurrent conflict and, in extreme cases, final separation. Religious, social, political and cultural variations can raise their potentially divisive heads, codes of behaviour can be at variance, language can be a formidable barrier, and even relatively trivial matters like eating habits or food preferences can pose problems. And if you have children, your views could diverge on how to bring them up. All the more reason why a big effort must be made to be open-minded, tolerant, patient, understanding and willing to seek a compromise, while not neglecting those values of mutual respect, honesty and sincerity which are essential to all healthy relationships. It also helps to have a sense of humour.
2. Even though hitching up with one of the natives is not necessarily a bed of roses, it’s the quickest and most effective way of integrating a foreign country as it will give you instant access to your partner’s friends and relations.
3. Though you might be convinced that love conquers all, be aware of the sobering thought that the friends, and especially the relatives of your beloved can make or break an international relationship. For reasons I won’t go into here, your French girl/boy friend’s maman and/or papa might be hostile towards you as a foreigner. At heart they might prefer their daughter/son to settle down with a native. She/he could be influenced by them.
4. Communication is an essential though difficult aspect of every relationship, whether cross cultural or not. Depending on your level as a non-native speaker, language can be an even greater barrier as it can prevent you from expressing in any great detail or with the required nuances what you really think or feel, or understanding what your partner thinks or feels. My only advice here is patience, patience, patience. Be aware, however, that even though patience is generally considered to be a virtue, it’s one which some French people don’t seem to have.
5. Being obliged to evolve in a foreign language can also be a source of conflict from a social point of view. For even though you can take a leading part in social life back home where you can express yourself in your mother tongue, you might find yourself in the frustrating position of having to play second, or even third fiddle when confronted with the same situations in a foreign language. And even if your French is well up to par the fact that the subject of conversation could be something or someone you yourself have never known could seriously reduce the the extent to which you can participate in it. So when your partner is a native speaker, at some time or other as an expat Anglophone you’re going to have to cope with the disagreeable feeling of being left out, or even ignored in the conversation your beloved is having with friends and relatives. This can be a source of exasperation and could put a strain on relations. It’s something you should talk about together.
6. You’ll also have to decide, of course, which language you’re going to use between you at home. This will depend very much on circumstances, your motivation and degree of fluency. In my own case French was a natural choice since I was a French schoolmaster in England and already spoke the language well on arriving in France. Not only did it correspond to my own desire to embrace the country, its language and culture to the full, but it suited my French partner who had neither the need nor the desire to speak or write English beyond the commercial requirements imposed by her job. If your French partner’s English is better than your French you might be tempted to speak English at home. This is the easy way out. If speaking French all the time would be too wearing for you both, why not schedule regular French-speaking sessions as part of your domestic routine? And if you have children, be aware that bringing them up in a bi-lingual context is an excellent way of giving them a head start in life. Discuss this between you, decide on certain rules, and stick to them.
7. Though it’s not really the subject of this article, when the person you’re sharing your life with is of the same nationality as yourself, living in a foreign culture and maintaining happy relations within a marital or live-in partnership can still be a challenging prospect. After all, it’s not because you’re really enjoying renovating that old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere that she necessarily feels the same. I mean, that cock which insists on crowing at the crack of dawn each day could be getting on her nerves, she could be fed up with not being able to find an interesting job, and missing friends and family back home much more than you think. Make sure your channels of communication are wide open.
8. In France great progress has been made over the last three decades in the name of male and female equality, and now most Frenchmen don’t consider it beneath them to help with the dusting or change baby’s nappy. Remember, however, that you’re living in a culture which only gave women the vote in 1945, and which as late as 1963 didn’t allow a female to open a bank account without her husband’s or father’s permission. Just be aware that the gallant Frenchie you’re so madly in love with may reveal he has a more traditional perception of gender roles once you bed down together.
9. A common Anglo Saxon misconception about the French male is that he’s always on the look-out for extra-marital gratification. While this was a little true in the past, especially among the bourgeoisie, where it was relatively common for the master of the household to seduce their naive, country-raised maid who feared that not letting him have his way would mean her losing her job, this would rarely be tolerated today.