4 Things I’ve Learned from my Cross-Cultural Marriage

By Rachel O’Neill, Contributing Writer

Hello, my name is Rachel. I am an American. Meet my husband Niall (pronounced like the river) – he’s from Ireland.

We’ve been married for four years, we live stateside, and now we have a little daughter.

The Lord has taught me many lessons about life and people and Himself through our cross-cultural marriage. If you’re married to (or thinking about getting married to) someone who grew up in a different country, there are a few things you need to be aware of.

1. You think on different wave lengths

Yes, its true that men and women already think differently (men are from Mars, women are from Venus, remember?). But when your spouse hails from another part of the globe, this is going to be magnified to a much greater degree of intensity.

It may not be obvious at first. For example, Niall and I both grew up speaking English (though he also speaks Irish). He has been here for eight years and even sounds like an American. But I have to remember that he’s not.

Certain things he would say or do struck me as weird in the beginning of our relationship. Then I went to Ireland…. and he made perfect sense within his own cultural context. He wasn’t weird- he was just Irish.

Because he grew up on the other side of the Atlantic, Niall had a different perception of the world than I did. On topics like American politics, Christian “culture,” education and child-rearing, to name a few.

As we’ve grown together in our marriage, we’ve both shifted in our understanding. There is a greater blending and balance of the ideas we held before marriage, which brings me to my second point.

2. “Different” isn’t bad

In fact, it can be really good. Left to ourselves, humans tend to have a narrow view of things. We can be so opinionated and so confident that we have everything nicely figured out. While the truths of Scripture are everlasting, unchangeable, and authoritatively binding, the Lord has left many areas in life where we must use discernment and prayer to develop our own conclusions and convictions.

“Different” teaches me that everything in life isn’t as black and white as I’d like it to be. “Different” invites me to become more gracious, a better listener, and quicker to embrace understanding. “Different” tones down my arrogance, checks and balances unnecessary dogmatism, and reveals my blind prejudices for what they really are.

Because I married a foreigner, I (hopefully!) have a bigger view of the world. I’ve learned that the way people look at and process life varies greatly from country to country. While each culture has its own sinful tendencies to be wary of, they also have different strengths we can learn from. My culture is not perfect or best, it is not exempt from serious flaws (quite the contrary!). This has been revolutionary for me.

3. Someone will always be homesick

This is especially key at this time of year, when families around the globe celebrate different holidays in different ways (Ever heard of St. Stephen’s Day? How about Three Kings?).

If you are the spouse living at home, be mindful that while your spouse may seem at home, culture shock and homesickness can hit at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. It can be especially tough during the holidays!

Just ask your spouse how they are doing, and how you can help. See if you can surprise them by making or buying (online? in a specialty store?) special treats from their homeland.

If you will be spending the holidays overseas, be gracious and willing to leave your own family and traditions at this time. Think: your spouse gives up the familiarity and comforts of home on a daily basis for you. Marriage is about sacrifice, and serving your spouse. Do it with a joyful spirit!

Homesickness can be greatly healed by a supportive and loving spouse. You are each others’ home now! Let home be a place where you speak kindly to one another, respect the different understandings from which you came, and blend your two unique and beautiful cultures together.

4. Follow Christ’s example

Christ left the glories and riches of His home in heaven for love of His bride. Whether you are living in your homeland or your spouses, you can follow Christ’s example of looking not to your own interests, but the interests of your spouse, and considering them more significant than yourself (Phil. 2:3-5).

I’ve heard spouses of foreigners declare that they could NEVER live in their spouses home country. Thank God that Christ was more willing to come down to us! Please be gracious enough to never say never. Keep a willing and open mind to whatever the Lord might have for your future. Remember that as a Christ follower, this world is not your home.

Consider Him who laid down His crowns and traded them for a cross. Follow the example of Jesus, who for the joy of procuring His bride, humbled Himself and came down to earth.

Every Christian marriage is supposed to represent Christ’s relationship to His Church. It is a relationship that ought to be marked by sacrificial, servant-like love. Cross-cultural marriage is a special opportunity to leave your comfort zone for the sake of your love, and to serve your spouse, at home or away.

Let’s magnify Christ in this unique pursuit!


  1. Amy Heitner says:

    Rachel, this article summons up cross cultural marriages perfectly! My husband, Douglas, is Brazilian and we have gone through much of what you are talking about. Having a spouse that is from another country is not for the faint of heart. If you ever want to know what areas you need to work on in your life, go and visit your in-laws. Trying to adjust to a new country and the way they do things is already a challenge. But then if they don’t speak English it just adds to it! I saw insecurities and glaring problems in myself that I didn’t even know existed!

    One of the biggest things that I have been working on is being courageous enough to talk with his family in Portuguese. No one speaks English, so I have been studying off and on our entire 6 years of marriage. I still have a hard time being confident enough to talk with his family. There have been times where I have literally dived behind the dining room table to avoid being seen on Skype! Over the years, here are the keys things I learned.

    1. Remember that even if you mispronounce every word, his family will still be overwhelmed with joy that you are even attempting to speak their language.
    2. Just because you sound like a 5 year old does not mean that they will think you have the brain capacity of a 5 year old.
    3. They already loves you because you are a part of their family now and are taking care of their son. You do not need to earn their love by saying the right thing.
    4. They want to see your face so don’t be shy, just say hi and that you love them and then go back to what you are doing. They don’t expect a full detailed report of what has happened over the last month.

    Google Translate and Facebook have been a game changer! I can type a message in English, Google will translate it to Portuguese, and I copy and paste it in a facebook message! That has allowed me to tell Doug’s family what has been going on in our lives without being restricted to the words I know!

  2. Lillace Christianson says:

    Very thoughtful and lovely! Applicable principles for every marriage.

  3. I loved this article! I agree! I used to think every marriage was cross-cultural in the sense that two family backgrounds merge and therefore family cultural diversity. However, in retrospect, I think that was too broad an assumption. I think more and more marriages are cross-cultural because our world is becoming much more diverse in values, understandings and traditions. Lately I have seen mono-cultural marriages and understand why that makes it much easier in a sense. Probably 90% of potential disagreements are eliminated when couples form from very similar cultural heritage/backgrounds. But that doesn’t mean the cross-cultural marriages are doomed! On the contrary – it the brave and tough and courageous ones who enter and are willing to ‘jump over’ many hurdles to accomplish onenness in a marriage that challenges ones assumptions and deeply held values. With Christ as the unifying Lord over marriage any two people can come together and form a God-honouring union if both are willing!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts – what a blessing!

  4. What a beautiful article! I especially loved how perfect the photos you chose were for each point. Thank you so much for your uplifting writing, and the strength your words gave me today.

  5. Wow, Rach!
    I am married to a Mexican American and he was raised in the US. However… His cultural view has a huge impact on who he is and our marriage! Though from this country his parents were not and they have brought their own culture into the home. For instance language. Spanish is Ramon’s first language and that plays into communication all the time. I think I have to be more patient and understanding when we are working through something. Another wonderful new part of life for me is the new foods! I have a love for spicy! I think being able to learn how to make his taste pallet choices is fun and just yummy! Thanks I am glad we get to share this in our marriages!!

  6. I love this post. While my hubs and I are both Americans, your points really touched my heart. Thanks for sharing. Y’all are just too precious.

  7. These are some really good points. I am German-American but mainly grew up in Germany with my German mom. My fiance is American. Of course I know all the traditions but I still put more emphasis on the ones I grew up like Christmas on the 24th… And since he is moving to Germany he will be the one to be more homesick.

    Already trying to keep this in mind as he missed his first missions conference last week and spend his first Christmas here with me… :)

  8. Great words of wisdom Amy! I especially appreciate #2 :). Man, I have to hand it to you- cross-cultural marriage is one thousand times trickier with the language barrier! Keep up all of your good work in communicating and learning Portuguese. It will definitely pay off!!! :)

  9. Thank you Lillace! I sure hope so- we’re all called to model Christ in this way, sacrificing ourselves for our beloved.

  10. Thank you Sarah! It’s true- every marriage involves some differences in background, and every couple has to work through these things! I am so thankful that the Word of God is our common meeting ground- amen?

  11. Thank you for your encouragement Michelle! I’m glad you got a kick out of the photos- I had a fun time picking them out :). Praise God for His grace if you were encouraged! So thankful!

  12. Thank you as always friend :). It’s true- your marriage may be more cross-cultural than mine, even though you both were born in the USA! Funny how that happens :). It is a blessing to be exposed to all of the different things our marriages entail- whether its food or philosophies :). Patience is an excellent point! Something we all need!

  13. Thank you so much Alene :). I’m glad you were encouraged!

  14. Thank you Iris! It is good to be mindful of these things- in fact, awareness is half of the battle! Praying that the Lord will richly bless your new marriage as you seek to serve Him!

  15. Love this!! My Dad was Dutch and my Mom from the Deep South (MIssissippi), so I can really relate! What a helpful post for all of us…in my opinion when two people marry they are two different countries marrying…we’ve talked about this often! Love your sharing at Deep Roots!

  16. Thank you for this post – it has given me a lot to think about. My husband is Afrikaans, living in Scotland. I should be more sensitive to his homesickness, and more willing to make sacrafices (not spending christmas with my family is a big one). Also good advice about never saying never – I frequently think that and let that attitude show, which I’m going to try to change.

    Thanks for your blog!

  17. It is a difficult task we have, being the spouses who live in our home country. Difficult because we are so comfortable, we forget that our husbands aren’t always! I’m glad you were encouraged Rachel. Becoming an understanding and loving spouse is a difficult task (cross-cultural marriage or no), but a very worthwhile pursuit! May God give you much grace and bless your efforts as you seek to serve Him by serving your husband!

  18. This post just reminded me of how we need to be willing to serve and sacrifice in any relationship, cross-cultural or not…good tips, Rachel!

  19. Thank you so much, Rachel!
    I’m a Filipina in a committed relationship to a Vietnamese. We’re already discussing about marriage in a few years. I can say that a cross-cultural relationship is not a walk in the park. It takes so much effort. I am happy though that he is a God-loving person with a compassionate heart, and the beauty of his soul transcends all our differences. Thanks for sharing your experiences! God bless :)