When we first met and decided to get married, people told me I was a fool because international marriage is more fragile and likely to fail. So we eloped, but secretly I worried they were right.
The day we got married, I told him I felt happy. He told me he felt responsible (for me, my welfare and my happiness.)
We moved to London to settle on neutral ground (neither my hometown of New York nor his Mumbai). I quit freelancing, got a corporate job and, overnight, the power balance between us shifted as I became the provider and the protector of my husband. I didn’t mind supporting us for a short time while he figured out how to launch his photography business in a new international market. He did.
As weeks turned into months and years with no strategy or direction in place, I worried.
We argued a lot and a few friends thought we’d break up. But we didn’t. So now people ask me how we continue to overcome our differences. For what it’s worth, here are a few top tips from my own experience.
Learn about Power Distance because it shapes how you both relate to authority and leadership in your marriage.
Power distance index (credited to G H Hofstede) measures the extent to which the less powerful members of society accept and expect power to be distributed unequally.India is a high power distance culture, so it is simply understood that some people have more power than others. That can make it really difficult to collaborate at work, in government or, in a family.
Even though we both said we should have an egalitarian partnership, I am the primary breadwinner in the family and where he comes from, the one with the money has all the power and makes all the decisions. So he deferred to me, resented me, and loved me all at the same time. What a fine mess.
I wanted him to have ideas and opinions about what we should do with our life, but he didn’t even have an opinion about what he wanted for dinner. Knowing theoretically about power distance didn’t help me take any new actions, though. I still had more learning to do.
Understand that Individualism is not universal
American and Britain both value and emphasise the achievements and the rights of the individual. India, by contrast, is all about the collective, at work and at home. Even the language reinforces this. In Hindi, your family calls you by the title of your family designation. My nieces call me “Mami” which means wife of mother’s brother. My husband is “Dada” (older brother) and no one ever calls him by his given name, Kiran. He exists, to a large extent, as his role in the family: the elder brother and first born son.
Deferring to the collective also means you develop a willingness to adjust, which incidentally is one of the most popular qualities sought in brides when Indian families post matrimonial ads for their son. So you can imagine that when my husband hit massive culture shock after moving to London and I called in a shrink for help, he resisted.
Even though I explained that therapy is confidential and therapists are impartial experts, at first, he thought it was airing our dirty laundry to a stranger who would later use it against us.
There are great resources to learn theoretical differences between cultures like this one aimed at a business audience. The theory gives me good context for dealing with international markets at work and an international marriage at home. But when I had to put it into practice in my personal life, I was still out of my depth.
Learn about your spouse’s culture by talking to an expert (other than your spouse.)
On my own, I recently consulted an Indian-born psychologist who practices in the United States for a deeper perspective. She taught me, in detail, the profound self-defeating beliefs that can arise from being raised with the unquestioned belief that your destiny –your place in the world, your options for career, friends and marriage — are all set from birth. And if your family happens to come from a lower caste, you quickly learn not to fly too close to the sun because you will get burned. Ambition is risky. Success equals death.
My husband wasn’t ready to talk about this, but learning about it was invaluable for me.
The most important thing the Indian therapist taught me was how not to pity him. The line between compassion and pity is very thin. “I feel for you” is compassion. “You poor thing” is pity. Pity weakens people. And my husband interprets my attempts to help him out of a rut as pity or parenting, not partnership. So I have to notice when I want to disect one of our problems and fix it. It’s what I do for a living in business as a researcher and a strategist, but I have to stop thinking of my marriage as a project to work on.
The more I learn about intercultural and international marriage, the more I realise that it’s like any other marriage, but you just have more intense challenges around language, meaning and cultural beliefs. Sometimes I just need to be curious and ask more questions of my husband than my girlfriends who married the boy next door. They can assume and infer a lot when they talk to their husbands because they share more contextual knowledge and experiences.
The most common sentence in my household is, “help me understand what you mean by that.” Why? Because chances are, I just don’t know. But finding out is what makes it interesting.