This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia.
When it comes to maintaining a long-lasting romantic relationship, you’d do well to look for someone who loves you because of your differences, not despite them. OK, that might be a bit cutesy – and certainly is easier said than done – but it does seem to apply to couples who have chosen to marry partners from different countries and cultures.
A 2020 study conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) into what makes relationships work concluded that your individual personalities are less intrinsically important than how appreciative you are of each other. Or, as the study’s lead author Samantha Joel put it in an interview with CNN, "When it comes to a satisfying relationship, the partnership you build is more important than the partner you pick.”
The study also revealed things that create a sense of mutual satisfaction in a relationship. These included feeling appreciated, sexual compatibility, a shared sense of commitment and the ability to deal with the inevitable disagreements that arise in any and all relationships.
We spoke to a trio of married couples who gave us the low-down on how to keep things ticking over nicely when you’re divided by nationality.
Adel el-Dakar (Egypt) and Elizabeth el-Dakar (US), married for 35 years
Adel and Elizabeth are both former doctors. They live in California.
VICE: How did you meet?
Adel el-Dakar: We were working in the same hospital in America. This was in 1983. There were a lot of social activities at weekends and we ended up swimming and running together. That was how we struck up a friendship. It stayed that way for three years and then became love. We married in 1986 and have lived in California ever since.
What attracted you to each another?
Adel: Elizabeth was serious and tender at the same time – both at work and when we were playing sports at the weekend. I found her attractive, too, so she definitely caught my eye.
Elizabeth el-Dakar: I liked how Adel dealt with others. He didn’t act like a boss, but as a mentor who loved and appreciated them. At the time, I was looking for a partner who would be a lifelong friend and companion, someone who was ethical and sincere; I found that person in Adel.
What did your families make of your marriage? Did your cultural and linguistic differences have any impact on them?
Adel: My father, an Egyptian, worked in Austria as a dentist and married an Austrian woman – my mother. Those differences were never a problem for them and it is the same for us. Successful relationships require understanding, love, and the desire to make it work. I was actually previously married to an Egyptian woman. We had three children together, but we couldn’t make it work. So we got divorced.
Elizabeth: My family always gave me the freedom to make my own choices. They were happy for me, and they saw how I’ve progressed in my career and built up a lot of confidence since marrying Adel.
You decided not to have children together. Do you still stand by that choice?
Elizabeth: I said to Adel, “You already have three children. Why should we have a fourth?” It was my choice and I’ve never regretted it. My relationship with his children is good – they come over and visit us during summer holidays and call me their Californian mother. I love them.
What do you have in common and what do you argue on?
Adel: Californian weather is wonderful and we spend a lot of time on our garden. We also enjoy travelling, visiting parks, taking agricultural courses and maintaining cars.
Elizabeth: The thing we disagree most on is driving. I know our local streets well, but Adel isn’t so sure about that and insists we follow the GPS. He still loses his way and always claims that he got distracted because I was talking to him.
What makes a marriage successful?
Adel: Love, cooperation and fairness are the fundamentals. Respect is the bedrock of our relationship and that’s the key to a good marriage. She helped me follow my ambitions and I helped her follow hers too. She treats my children with love and tenderness, as if they were her own.
Elizabeth: Hobbies and shared ideologies help. Also understanding and respecting each other’s privacy is important, and, of course, sharing both love and friendship.
Abdel Kader Al Ahmar, 56 (Algeria) and Natalie, 52 (France), married for five years
Abdel Kader is a facilitator in a services company and Natalie is a public sector worker. They live in Strasbourg, Germany.
VICE: Tell us about how you met.
Abdel Kader: I visited France in 2016 for a work event in honour of an employee we’d both worked with. That’s where we met. I was initially drawn to Natalie’s elegance and then fell in love with her character. We were only together for a few months before we got married.
Natalie: I was attracted to him the second we met. I also liked how humble, nice, and bold he was.
What do your families make of the relationship?
Natalie: My family was unsure. You often hear about unsuccessful marriages between people from different countries, relationships that end in tragedy, divorce, and struggles over children. So they were scared of my relationship with Abdel Kader, initially at least. Fortunately, they eventually came round to him and now he’s part of the family.
What interests do you share and what do you disagree on?
Abdel Kader: I like heavy meals, Natalie likes healthier ones. The things we disagree on are always minor. We never disagree on major things.
Natalie: Like Abdel says, we never have disagreements which might ruin our relationship. He doesn’t impose his interests on me. I am the one who wanted to learn more about the traditions, music, culture and cuisine of Algeria.
How do you make a marriage work?
Abdel Kader: Forgiveness, respect, and space. Anyone who marries a foreign person has to work to be in harmony with the other’s culture and should never try and impose their own on that person. To me, that is the key to a successful relationship of this kind.
Natalie: In Abdel Kader I found the other half that completes me. He changed his life to live here with me, and he’s never had any issues with that. We managed to build a stable marriage in a short amount of time. It is all about clarity and honesty – and it has been since the beginning.
Moustafa Awad, 45 (Egypt) and Asma, 40 (Tunisia), married for 17 years
Moustafa and Asma have two children and live in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. He works for an airline, she is a lawyer.
VICE: How did you guys meet?
Moustafa Awad: We met when I was visiting Tunisia for work in 2003. There was a party at an embassy and I felt immediately drawn to Asma. She was elegant and beautiful and when we spoke, I realised she was cultured and smart and that is what I liked about her most. Before I returned to Egypt, I proposed. Luckily she said yes.
Asma: Moustafa is cultured, he’s a writer, and that grabbed my attention. During the first few minutes we spent together talking, he spoke wisely and smartly about several topics. I also like his tenderness and his joyful spirit.
Have there ever been cultural clashes between you?
Moustafa: There are differences in culture and traditions between Egypt and Tunisia but they’re not major enough for us to clash over. Asma asked me to move to Tunisia after getting married and I agreed. They appreciate freedom here, unlike in Egypt. In the beginning, though, there was a language barrier: Tunisian dialect can be hard to understand, especially when it is mixed with French. I persevered and even ended up learning French, too.
Asma, do you face any difficulties as a result of being married to a non-Tunisian?
Asma: Nothing that we’ve not been able to deal with. Getting married was a shared decision that we made without any stress. The issues we face as a couple are the same as any couple experience.
What do you have in common? And what’s different?
Moustafa: Our interests are a bit different, actually. Asma is a lawyer and she likes reading books on law, politics and society, but I also enjoy reading and writing. We deal with life around us with the same convictions: we both worship freedom and condemn any violation of human rights.
Asma: Our characters are different, but we both enjoy walking and listening to classical music. We don’t have to share the exact same interests.
What’s the secret behind a successful marriage?
Moustafa: Giving each other personal space. And never imposing your opinions on the other person.
Amsa: Love, understanding, respect, and space. Oh, and tenderness, too.