I was recently asked to dispense advice to some cross-cultural couples who seemed to think that my 20 years of living here (plus a divorce) had given me insight into Americans involved with Italians in relationships and marriages. I’m not sure their faith is warranted, but I agreed. While these thoughts concern American women involved with Italian men, they probably apply to other combinations, and in fact to any intimate partnership.
Before gender or nationality, we’re all individuals. Keep that in mind and you’re already one step ahead.
1. Before you move to Italy (or enter a relationship with an Italian), discuss the fine print. Every relationship has unspoken conditions and rules. Bring expectations about living in Italy into the open. All of us know of mono-cultural relationships that failed because one partner never truly expressed his ideas about wanting/not wanting children, or having an open/not open relationship etc.
2. Don’t be a victim. No one shanghaied you to Italy. You came for some reason. Be an adult, take responsibility for it and don’t blame your partner for being here.
3. Ask yourself why you are here. If you are escaping from yourself or a bad situation, Italy is not the answer. Solving that problem is.
4. Examine yourself. Perhaps you are the problem. Whatever you were at home you remain here; cheerful, depressed, aggressive or accommodating. Wherever you go, there you are.
5. Same goes for your partner, who may appear to have changed back here in Italy. He hasn’t; he is the same person he has always been. While environment can indeed affect a person, the core is always the same. A different setting may accentuate a characteristic, but that characteristic was there all along. Don’t kid yourself.
6. Deal with differences between you and your partner as personal, not cultural ones. Do not attribute personal faults to national stereotypes, even if characteristics appear to reinforce them.
7. Correlation is not causation. Being in a country that is not your home is an obvious change, but it is not necessarily the real source of your malaise. In every situation, constantly and consciously sort out and attribute discomforts to their true causes. Is it really Italy or something else? Would the situation causing your pain do so elsewhere? Most daily-life problems in Italy are problems everywhere; work-life balance, males who do not clean up after themselves, school problems, your mother-in-law. It is easy to forget these happen the world over — even at home. They may be easier to cope with if you are not burdened with the added complications of navigating another culture, but they are not Italy’s fault.
8. Knee-jerk blame of your new country will undermine your relationship and deviate attention from seeking local solutions that may be better than ones from home. Treat yourself to the satisfaction of facing a challenge all by yourself.
9. Distinguish between needing to vent or get short-term comfort and having your problem resolved. Only a truly callous cad will not feel a bit responsible for your plight. However, they are no more obligated to make it good than a mate from your own country. Let them off the hook when all you need is a hug or sympathy and seek concrete intervention only when you really need it.
10. Learn the language. Sounds obvious, but it isn’t. A thorough acquaintance with your partner’s language will create greater intimacy and help you understand deeper emotional and cultural cues. It will give you an Italian life and friends all your own.
11. Avoid friendships based on whining or nostalgia for your native country. Sharing pain and survival strategies is a great comfort, but talk to your friends back home instead. You may be surprised to see their problems are the same as yours (See point 7). Negative people who dwell on Italy’s defects may set you against your mate and keep you from finding the strategies that are right for you. Seek people who support your strengths, not indulge your weakness.
12. Do not rely on your mate’s existing social circle to find Italian friends. Make “desperation friends” on your own. These are the Italian equivalent of your freshman roommate, who you clung to until finding “real friends.” Don’t be picky. Even if you are not crazy about someone as an intimate, they will certainly have other friends or relatives, who you may end up liking very much.
13. Examine your own country. Is it really paradise, or is it just familiar? We are more tolerant of our own flaws than of those very same flaws in another person.
14. Learn negotiating technique. I suggest the Harvard Negotiation Project’s: “Getting to Yes” and “Difficult Conversations.”
15. Every person and couple is a unique micro-culture with its own rules and customs. Take good care of your micro-cultures and the foreign culture will take care of itself.
16. And last but not least, your mate’s country is like his mother. He may hate or criticize both. You may not. Period.