Is love different in different countries?

Live with a partner from a different culture

Intercultural marriages and partnerships are no longer uncommon in times of globalization. Such partnerships represent an intellectual and emotional challenge. The partners in such a relationship, who get involved more deeply, are often exposed to minor to major narcissistic insults, since almost always their own accustomed way of living, thinking, acting etc. in Question is asked. The differences in world views must be cognitively processed and understood; the insults have to be dealt with emotionally. Such an intercultural partnership often leads to the ability to perceive cultural differences and therefore to become aware of one's own cultural imprint, which one may have confused with human “nature” beforehand. If my article is primarily about typical problems in intercultural relationships, I also want to point out the self-reflection and self-awareness that are usually set in motion by such partnerships.

In the following I would like to briefly describe what can be understood by “culture” in order to then point out common problem areas of intercultural partnerships. On the one hand, there are typical areas of conflict that have nothing to do with different cultures in the narrower sense, such as

  • Communication problems
  • Everyday racism
  • Problems with the legislation on foreigners
  • Power conflicts

On the other hand, there are areas of conflict that are related to cultural differences.

What does “culture” mean?

“Culture” is understood in the anthropological sense as a system of meanings, ie norms, values, belief systems, ideologies, symbols, etc. In the past, the homogeneity of “culture” was emphasized far too much. With the newer critical concept of culture, however, an attempt is made to point out the internal contradictions of culture. The mixing and interpenetration with other cultures that is common nowadays means that the differences between people within the same culture can be greater than between different cultures - especially because people have different socialization experiences due to different social criteria. These are not only determined by the culture, but also, for example, by social class, mother tongue, gender, regional origin (city - country), occupation, etc.

These considerations are so important because there is a great danger in attributing certain behaviors, values ​​or belief systems to people from the outset, because they come from certain countries. That would only produce prejudices and stereotypes again. To avoid this danger, it must be clear that it is never possible to make predictions about individuals just because we may know what "culture" they come from. All of the following explanations about possible cultural differences must therefore be understood as rough generalizations in this sense. The social criteria mentioned above, on the basis of which people have their socialization experiences, each cause different subcultures, in which the individuals participate to different degrees.

Problems of intercultural partnerships that have nothing to do with culture in the narrower sense

Most intercultural couples do Aliens legislation to create (Wittemann 2010; Association of binational marriages and partnerships 2012). The legal situation often leads to problems with the foreign partner's residence permit and work permit. If the couple wants to stay together, they are often forced to quickly get married and move in together. For the German or Austrian partner, this often leads to the feeling that they have been cheated out of the rapprochement phase or a longer period of getting to know each other.

Furthermore, such couples often have problems with Everyday racism especially when the other “cultural” background of a partner is also externally visible (Bielinski 2011). Racist remarks hurt, especially when made by your own friends or relatives.

They also count Communication problems on frequent causes of conflict (cf. Kumbier / Schulz v. Thun 2006). Even if the partners speak in a common language, misunderstandings can arise from the fact that they involuntarily speak the “common” but (for one or both partners) foreign language through the “glasses” of their mother tongue. As linguists have noted, our language also affects our perception. For example, the perception of finer color differences is sharpened by the fact that differentiated terms are available in a language that facilitate such a distinction. Problems arise when translating a term into another language in which there is no appropriate word for it or, for example, only a much "coarser" term.

In intercultural partnerships it is very helpful to know about such possible misunderstandings, because otherwise you tend to accuse the other partner of stupidity, ignorance or even bad intentions. Learning the other partner's foreign language also leads to a better understanding of the culture; It can therefore only be recommended to both partners in such a partnership. If, on the other hand, you agree to speak in the mother tongue of one of the two partners, this results in asymmetrical power relations.

Power conflicts also mostly play a role in these partnerships. Such conflicts are often carried out through the upbringing of children, when parents want to convey different values, languages ​​or religions to their children. As a result, the children easily get into conflicts of loyalty.

In relationship constellations between foreign men (e.g. from Africa or Latin America) and German or Austrian women, the men are often confronted with a reversal of their traditional gender roles. In Austria or Germany, men often have difficulties in finding good jobs - be it because of the less favorable legal situation for foreigners, because their certificates from their home countries are not recognized, or because a lack of German language skills often force them to take badly paid jobs. The German / Austrian woman usually has a far better chance on the domestic job market. It may be that, in addition to the home advantages, she also has a better education and therefore earns considerably more than the foreign man. This fact drains the self-esteem of men with opposing gender roles. In addition, there may be confrontation with xenophobia. Some men react to this by regaining their “lost piece of masculinity” in other areas and by behaving extremely “masculine” (Reif, 1996).

The cultural power of sexuality

The role that culture ascribes to sexuality is often of great importance for intercultural partnerships. It reflects the social construction of cultural theories about human "nature". In the West, too, for example in psychoanalysis, a tremendous power was ascribed to sexuality.

Different cultures differ greatly in their assessment of human self-discipline. For example, Edward Hall reports that in most Latin American countries it was previously thought to be impossible for a man to keep his sexual desire in check if he were alone in the room with a woman. But the woman was simply denied the ability to sexually resist a man if she were alone with him. Therefore, preventive precautionary measures are necessary to prevent this (Hall, 1990).

A similarly strong meaning is ascribed to sexuality in Islamic countries. There, too, there is a general belief that a man and woman who are not related will have sexual intercourse when the opportunity presents itself. The rationale for this is similar to that in Latin America: the sex drive of both sexes is considered so powerful that it is impossible for them to resist.

The preventive precautionary measures taken in Islamic countries consist in segregating the sexes. It is either brought about by women having no access to the “public sphere” or by separate public institutions for men and women, boys and girls. Depending on the “Islamic” or “Western-modern” orientation of the respective governments, gender segregation is implemented to varying degrees in countries with an Islamic majority.

For intercultural partnerships, cultural ideologies about the power of sexuality play a major role. The higher tendency of men from Islamic or Latin American countries to be jealous is well known. Western wives or partners who are serious and loyal about the relationship are also expected to avoid being alone with other men. If they do not do this, the trust in the couple relationship is at stake. Men who come to the West from Islamic countries also often have fantasies about the extreme promiscuity of European women. Often no assurances help: "Nothing happened anyway ..." These intercultural couple conflicts are based on completely opposing assumptions about human nature and the power of sexuality.

The tradition of gender segregation also stems from the fact that for many people from Islamic countries it is considered impolite when a man and a woman - who are not related - exchange caresses in public, hold hands or even kiss. Such tenderness is common, for example, between men in public (but also between women), so that these behaviors are often mistakenly associated with homosexuality by people from the West.

Avoiding caresses between the sexes in public or in the presence of other people is not only found in Islamic countries, but also in many African and Asian countries it is perceived as an insult. If a partner in an intercultural partnership comes from one of these countries, it may be that he or she is not used to exchanging tenderness in public or in the presence of friends or family members. The other partner can feel repulsed by it or even get the feeling that the partner does not really “stand by him”.

Individualism versus collectivism / familarism

Cultural conflicts in the narrower sense include, for example, conflicts about diverging values. The value dimension along which cultures differ and which has so far been best investigated empirically is the individualism / collectivism dimension. Simply put, means individualismthat the freedom of the individual and individual self-fulfillment are valued highly, while collectivism, on the other hand, means that the interests of the group in which the individual is embedded (e.g. extended family, clan or clan) are in the foreground. Here the attempt is made to maintain harmony in the group, even if individual interests have to be set aside for this.

While people from more individualistic cultures are used to taking responsibility for themselves and the closest core family, people in more collectivistic cultures feel jointly responsible for a larger number of people and allow themselves to be influenced more by family members (e.g. when choosing a career or choosing the Spouse), but they are also more inclined to influence others.

Such different areas of responsibility and obligations can easily lead to conflicts in intercultural partnerships. The foreign partner from an Asian, African or Latin American country may feel obliged to support their family in their home country and to send money home regularly. If the couple has little money to spare themselves, this is often the cause of conflicts. The Austrian or German partner may contribute more financially to the coexistence and can easily feel cheated as a result.

What role does the family also play in shaping the leisure time together, e.g. on vacation? How often do you go “home” to the family of your foreign partner? What presents do I have to bring? What do family members who visit Germany / Austria expect? Conflicts are often sparked on the topics: "financial support for the family", "buying gifts on the occasion of a trip home" or, for example, "visiting family members in Austria / Germany".

Romantic or pragmatic idea of ​​marriage and partnership?

In individualistic cultures the ideal is the couple's romantic love and togetherness. It is considered ideal that the spouses spend a lot of time together, whether as a couple or with their children. In many African or Arab cultures, however, the couple does not have this great - and such romantic - meaning. The spouses often don't spend that much time together; their areas of life are more separated from each other. Often they do not see each other as the most important caregivers. In addition, they are embedded in a wide network of relatives and friends.

In constellations between German or Austrian women and men from the African or Arab region, it often leads to a bitter disappointment among women when the man does not have as much need for togetherness as she does, and is used to staying away for a long time in his free time without notice to say, and maybe even prefer to spend the weekend with his friends.

The idealized pair of lovers in the West has a contrary counterpart in the Islamic world: there it is the mother-son relationship that is idealized, not the couple relationship between the spouses. From the point of view of Arab women, too, the man's mother often has a disruptive influence on her son's marital relationship (Mernissi, 1987). This pattern is also common in Europe and often affects first and second generation migrants.

In many non-European cultures, marriage is not a private matter for both partners. The widespread practice on earth that spouses are mediated by their parents and that they cannot get to know each other at all or only briefly before marriage reflects a form of collectivism. In such societies, marriage is primarily about the relationships between the two families who mediate their children. If the spouses do not get along well afterwards and a divorce is threatened, these families feel jointly responsible - after all, they have chosen the spouses for the young people. And so the divorce can become a collective family affair, which such societies usually try to prevent for as long as possible. When this is not possible, the divorce is often "negotiated" by family members.

Naturally, the idea of ​​“love” is completely different: In societies in which marriages are often mediated, one does not believe in love “before” marriage or even in “love at first sight”. How are you supposed to love someone you don't know so well? According to this theory, love does not occur but occurs after marriage. According to this view, love only grows gradually when the spouses have gotten used to each other and know each other well.

Gender roles

Different cultural systems of meaning also include different social roles. Of course, gender roles are the most crucial for intercultural partnerships. In Europe, the last few decades have seen major changes in gender roles. While the trend towards equality and gender equality continues in Western Europe, a conservative turn is taking place in many Eastern European countries.

Under communism, women were mostly fully employed, but were often not supported by their partners with household chores and therefore suffered from a heavy double burden. Now they often long for the traditional housewife role, which at least saves them the double burden. Because of the increasing scarcity of jobs in Eastern Europe, many families prefer again that the man goes to work and the woman stays at home.Often, however, this remains only an ideal, as many families cannot live on an income alone. However, it tends to be possible that women who come from Eastern to Western Europe have more traditional wishes regarding their role in the partnership or family than their female counterparts on site.

Changes in gender roles not only bring new freedoms, but also uncertainties for both genders. Specific constellations in intercultural partnerships can either counteract these social changes or reinforce them. Both men and women who are unsettled by these social changes can - often unconsciously - look for relationship constellations in intercultural partnerships that correspond to the more traditional gender roles. Corresponding expectations that people from other cultures face can of course also be disappointed.

Unfortunately, some marriage agencies involved in international trafficking in women specifically target such uncertainties as a result of changes in gender roles: "Asian" women, for example, are praised as particularly cuddly, submissive and childlike; German and Austrian men are recommended to marry them "because they are completely problem-free and not yet as emancipated as European women ...". Here the danger of stereotyping cultural differences becomes clear, which in this case already assumes racist proportions. In addition, such marriages are often anything but problem-free - possibly precisely because of the expectations raised by these clichés on the part of men.

Help and advice for partners

Self-help groups and advice are available to deal with problems, such as those offered by the Association of Binational Families and Partnerships, IAF, in Germany and by the women's initiative for bicultural marriages and unions, FIBEL, in Austria. Legal advice is usually also possible with these and similar organizations.
In the case of conflicts in the partnership, mediation is often useful. A few sessions with family mediators who specialize in intercultural mediation are often helpful.

If you or your partner are a victim of racist abuse or even violence, you can also get advice for victims of racism. Such is offered in Austria by the ZARA association and in Germany in CIVITAS counseling centers.
The Association of Binational Families and Partnerships in Germany and the FIBEL Association in Austria operate a comprehensive archive of publications on the “Books and Brochures” and “Downloads” pages, some of which can be downloaded and purchased for free.


  • Alber, J.L / Ossipow, L / Outemzabet, V./Waldis B. (2000) Getting married across borders. Freiburg: University Press
  • Al-Sultan, L./Rieck, J. (1994). Marriages across borders. Munich: Piper
  • Beer, B. (1996). German-Filipino marriages. Interethnic marriages and migration of women. Berlin: Reimer
  • Bielinski, J. (2011) Bicultural Partnerships in Germany. Stuttgart: ibidem Verlag
  • Curvello, T.L. (2012) Psychological counseling for bicultural couples and families. Frankfurt: Brandes and Apsel
  • Englert, A. (1993). Love comes with time: intercultural coexistence using the example of German-Ghanaian marriages in Germany. Münster: LIT Verlag
  • Hall, E. T. (1990; orig. 1981). The Silent Language. New York: Anchor Books
  • Hecht el-Minshawi, B. (1988). "We look for what we dream of". To motivate German women to choose a partner from the Islamic cultural area. Frankfurt: Nexus
  • Kumbier, D./Schulz von Thun (ed.), 2006, Intercultural Communication, Reinbek: Rowohlt
  • Larcher, D. (2000). Love in the times of globalization. Construction and deconstruction of strangeness in intercultural couple relationships. Klagenfurt: Drava
  • Mernissi, F. (1987). Gender, Ideology and Islam. Women's bookstore Munich
  • Parsian, D. (2008) Marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims in Austria. Final thesis for obtaining the title Academic Orientalist. Available online at: Parsian_Ehen_Musl_NichtMus.pdf (May 21, 2008).
  • Pusitz, H. / Reif, E. (Eds.) (1996). Intercultural partnerships. Frankfurt: IKO publishing house for intercultural communication
  • Reif, E. (1996). Understanding and misunderstanding in intercultural partnerships. In: Pusitz, H. / Reif, E. (Ed.) Intercultural Partnerships. Frankfurt: IKO-Verlag for Intercultural Communication, 31-46
  • Thode-Arora, H. (1999). Interethnic marriages. Theoretical and methodological foundations of their research. Berlin: Reimer
  • Urech, Ch./Schiess, I./Stucki, V (2005) Binational? Brilliant! The guide for binational couples with children. Atlantis Publishing House
  • Association of binational families and partnerships (2012) Binational everyday life in Germany: Guide to immigration law and international family law. Frankfurt: Brandes and Apsel
  • Wittemann, S.C. (2010) Binational marriages of Austrians with third-country nationals in the light of the judicature of the ECHR, VfGH and VwGH on Article 8 ECHR. Thesis University of Vienna


Mag., Dr. Elisabeth Reif, born 1962 in Vienna, psychologist, ethnologist and freelance mediator, lecturer at various universities of applied sciences in Austria on the subject of intercultural / transcultural communication; Previous work at the Vienna Integration Fund (intercultural couple counseling center), at Südwind NÖ Süd (intercultural educational work) at the Society for Threatened Peoples - Austria (anti-racism work). Current focus of work: intercultural / transcultural communication and mediation.


Dr. Elisabeth Reif
Billrothstrasse 45/4/14
A-1190 Vienna
Tel .: 00431/3686286


Created on September 14th, 2004, last changed on July 30th, 2015