Andrew and Lyn wedding first dance

Every marriage is cross cultural: how to navigate unspoken expectations

Stories · 4 min read

It wasn’t until one month before our wedding that my wife and I lived in the same country for the first time! We had met in passing years before, kept in touch, and at some point decided that being together would be worth all of the effort and heartache that comes with long distance relationships. I am an American, and she’s a confused Brit; being a missionary-kid meant she spent her formative years in a few different countries. In spite of being from two seemingly different worlds, we swore our heart cultures’ were identical. The innumerable hours we spent just chatting on Facetime would bolster this hypothesis. We had the same humour, watched the same movies, dreamed of traveling the world, and longed for the companionship of multiple dogs. 

Looking back we can see the naivety. It was on our wedding day that the first real cross-cultural faux pas occurred in our relationship and we started to realise how different we actually are. 

We got married in Italy surrounded by an intimate group of family and friends. Our loved ones pitched in for our DIY wedding and it turned out absolutely beautiful. As the wedding day went on there were hiccups here and there, as expected, but nothing significant. The ceremony was perfect — there wasn’t a dry eye in the garden. Everything went perfectly until the speeches. 

In American weddings the groom doesn’t give a speech. All he has to do is sit and adore his new wife. However, as I soon learned, in England the groom gives quite a significant speech at his own wedding. Ignorant of this knowledge, I stood up with all the confidence in the world and delivered what I thought was a fantastic introduction to dinner speech that ended with something along the lines of Thank you for coming! I am sure we are all starving, so let’s eat!”

I didn’t understand the mistake until I saw the disappointment in my wife’s face. She leaned in to kindly inform me that my speech did not impress the British crowd at the wedding, and explained why. Embarrassment may not be a strong enough word for what I felt at that moment. Had I already let my wife-of-two-hours and her family down? Would it be possible to make up for my mistake?

During our first dance we had the chance to talk through what had happened. We realised that I hadn’t asked any questions despite being confused as to why I’m giving a speech, and she hadn’t explained the English tradition of groom speeches. Had we not had that brief talk and sought to understand each other, the night may not have ended as wonderfully as it did. When the song was over we had a better understanding of each other and where we each came from. 

I’d love to say that was the only cross-cultural faux pas that’s happened since our wedding, but it most certainly is not. 

I share this story in order to talk about the unspoken expectations that we bring to our relationships. It’s almost a certainty that you and your partner entered your relationship with a list of roles or behaviours that are expected to be fulfilled. It’s also almost a certainty that you and your partner haven’t lived up to those pre-existing assumptions. 

So what do we do when this inevitably happens? Do we react in anger or respond with grace? How can we more effectively communicate our expectations to our partners? 

I am grateful to have been met with grace and understanding by my wife on our wedding day. Since then we have learned to ask better questions about each other’s expectations and desires. We don’t get it right every time, and when that happens we forgive and learn.

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