Marrying cross-culturally

Written by David and Odile Pollard and Peter and Dorothea Lowman, with help from Nancy Bourne and Jim and Nancy Baddoo.

You can download the PDF of this resource here.  

In more and more of our churches, believers are finding themselves drawn towards marrying someone from a different culture.  Which, potentially, is immensely enriching for all concerned!  But those of us who are in pastoral leadership may find ourselves pausing and wondering - are there things our friends ought to be reflecting upon before taking this big step?  What follows may offer some helpful suggestions to talk about together. 

Cross-cultural marriages are nothing new, and have enjoyed God's blessing for centuries. Ruth and Boaz are a lovely Biblical example. One of us remembers what that story meant for him: `When we were engaged, my fiancée aligned herself with Ruth in sharing with me Ruth's statement to Naomi: "Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God" (Ruth 1: 16). That commitment was very precious to me!`

Cross-cultural marriages have a lot going for them! Very often they are born out of shared Christian service, and that is an excellent foundation for one's future relationship. Often one partner has fallen in love with the country and the culture of the other before (s)he has fallen in love with the person, which can help adaptation. There will be lots of different stories to tell each other from the different backgrounds you come from! Children born of cross-cultural marriages are likely to benefit from a good genetic mix!

However, there can be complications and difficulties, and they need thinking through and, especially, discussing, as far ahead as possible, and well in advance of any engagement or wedding date being fixed. There are good and bad times and places for embarking on such conversations, and there are some subjects that one senses may be not ideal at a particular time!  But in general it is unwise for what may be different assumptions on both sides to develop for too long. Here are a few of the issues that need considering:

Joyce Huggett’s book Growing into Love lists various questions about our backgrounds, attitudes and lifestyle preferences, which both partners can helpfully write down answers to and then share.  This can be a very valuable way of growing in understanding how each other thinks and feels.

Time and lots of talk are essential in all these matters - and not least in making the wedding arrangements!  There can be horrendous complications in producing all the right documentation for a cross-cultural wedding, so that the marriage is recognised in both countries, and nationality issues are faced. You may risk losing your own nationality if you adopt the nationality of your partner, although in some cases you may both benefit from dual nationality; it all needs looking into, and it all takes time. To start preparing for such a wedding a year in advance, by writing to embassies etc, is not overdoing it.

All relationships and marriages hit moments of tension and problems; and these can be more acute when one partner is living away from their home.  It is good to be aware of the different assumptions your cultures may have about things like decorating styles, or circumcision, or different approaches to 'feast days` (eg there is a big difference between some European cultures about how to celebrate Christmas, and even to do with Christmas cards).  In English culture, when relations visit, it’s often for a day or two; for African cultures it might well be for a few weeks. Funerals and funeral rites can be very different (especially where traditional beliefs that are not aligned to Christian beliefs come into play).  In one cross-cultural couple, the husband did not want to make a will because, in his culture, it’s viewed as inviting your own death.  

Then again, some of the things we call cross-cultural differences actually crop up just as easily with two people from the same culture; and it’s important not to hide behind the excuse of "cross-cultural difficulties" when problems that arise are common to all couples, or are simply matters of personality. Being too quick to view the problem as a `cross-cultural issue` may even make it seem harder to solve, or reduce our motivation to put in the necessary effort and commitment.  

In cross-cultural relationships, double doses of agape, the ability to "go the second mile", are necessary to keep the eros alive and on track!  It may be helpful if both partners can consider how they will feel if, in the end, the balance of things works out so that the marriage is much more the way the other partner's culture works rather than our own; so that you start to accept the possibility of becoming integrated (“going the second mile”) into their culture, seeing any ways they integrate into yours as simply a bonus. But that is very easy to say, and probably we only have to say it to realise how many things there are from our own culture that are fundamental to our sense of identity and of home. The fact that one marries cross-culturally is of course a statement of faith that the areas that are indispensable can be arranged between you to mutual satisfaction. Nonetheless, it’s good to be as aware of them as possible. 

But in the end, as in so many areas of marriage, it is that indispensable agape available from the Holy Spirit who has been given to us that can make our marriage work – and not just `work` but be something massively enriching and delightful for us both and for our children!  If both partners have the will of God as our overarching goal, many issues will be far easier to resolve.   And as in all things, God's grace is sufficient for us as cross-cultural couples, in our love for each other and our longterm commitment to building a marriage that glorifies his name!

Written by David and Odile Pollard and Peter and Dorothea Lowman, with help from Nancy Bourne and Jim and Nancy Baddoo.


Janet Fraser-Smith, Love across the Latitudes (Arab World Ministries)

E Harding and P Riley, The Bilingual Family

Lenore Archberg, Raising Children Bilingually.