True Story: I Had A Cross-Culture Marriage

This is one of many True Story interviews, in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of Elizabeth and her 22 year marriage to a Lebanese man.

Note: Elizabeth and her husband eventually divorced. Obviously (obviously!) I’m not publishing thisinterview as anti-cross culture marriage commentary. Elizabeth was simply the first person who responded to my interview request. Of course, there are a gajillion happily married cross-culture couples.

Tell us a bit about yourself!

My name is Elizabeth Hammoud and I’m 50 years old. I’m originally from the south suburbs of Chicago, but I live in Burnsville, a suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul. I work for Planned Parenthood where I run the Purchasing and Inventory department.

How did you meet your husband?
We met in the basement “bar” of a foreign students’ dorm in Munich, Germany. We met in ’85 while I was living in Munich, pursuing my dreams by working in Germany. He was doing an internship and educational exchange program when we met. The dorm would have these mixer events in the bar they had setup in the basement of the dorm. I remember thinking that we were the least likely to hit it off at the time because those were the years of kidnappings of Americans in Lebanon. We seemed more like natural enemies.

What’s his background?
He came from a little village in south Lebanon that was under Israeli control in their “south security zone.” Because Lebanon was in a state of civil war, he had been living with family in Beirut rather than in his southern village because the fighting was problematic and there were more opportunities in the city.

Prior to meeting your husband, had you ever dated anyone from a different culture?
I found people from other countries totally fascinating and I gravitated toward them as friends from high school onwards. In college I dated a guy from Vietnam, someone from Malaysia, and a Turkish guy before meeting my husband.

How did your friends and family feel about your relationship?
I’m pretty sure my friends thought I was a goof bucket for dating foreign students (gaaaaa!) My family is not one of those touchy feely types of families, so I don’t know that they even noticed that I was hanging out with people from other cultures. They never really mentioned anything that I can recall.

How did his friends and family feel about it?
Lebanon is much more family-centric, so his family was very interested in the people with whom he was spending time. That being said, however, their culture frowned upon dating per se. One would normally get to know one another if the families knew each other and the relationship flowed from that basis.

Have you two ever had any cross-cultural miscommunications of your own?
Of course! Coming from such dissimilar backgrounds we couldn’t help but run into opportunities for miscommunications. Something as simple as “oooh, I can’t wait!” connoted to me anticipation and excitement whereas it connoted to him “I can not wait,” i.e. “I would not wait.” That’s a very literal miscommunication, and those types of things were an issue due to our language differences. His native language was Arabic, with French as his second, and German as his third language. I speak fluent German (and English, of course,) so we conversed in German for the entire first year and then some of our marriage.

Other miscommunications resulted from cultural differences. For example, I didn’t know that it’s kind of bad luck to compliment things such as a nice house, or beautiful baby, or lovely jewelry. It is something about the “evil eye – type” superstitions, and I had no clue.

Another thing was that I was raised to be totally independent and self sufficient. They are raised to be selfless and family-centric, which was for me very foreign. I viewed the ever-present family as intrusive and counterproductive. They viewed my family as cold and unhelpful when they let us alone to work through our own issues rather than having them interfere.

How do you incorporate both of your cultures into your day-to-day life together?
Well, we lived as much of a Lebanese life as we could while living in the States. I was always cognizant of how hard it must have been for him to be the only person from his relatives that was in the States, so I deferred mostly to the Lebanese culture. We ate Lebanese, we listened to Lebanese music, we had Lebanese satellite TV, we got together with other Lebanese that we met along the way. We celebrated the Muslim holidays and vacationed at his family’s places in Canada, where they had settled.

Tell us about your three (!) weddings!

Our first wedding was the official one in Germany. Since we were living there when we met, we got married the first time there. The ceremony was at the justice of the peace (“Standesamt”) in the Solln district of Munich. The office was housed in a little mansion of sorts. It was very historic, and architecturally beautiful. I wore a Loden Frey original white 2-piece, ¾ length dress. Neither of our families was there. But we both had friends that stood up for us and witnessed the wedding. We had a little celebration dinner at the local Hilton Hotel and home-made wedding cake back at our apartment. Our rings came from Lebanon and our marriage license/certificate was in something like ten languages!

The second wedding was in the States. My parents threw us a big vow renewal at the Presbyterian church close to my hometown in south Chicago. I was raised Lutheran, but the church decided to throw me out because I married a Muslim. Talk about religious fanaticism! Mom’s job had a clergy on staff and he agreed to do us a Presbyterian ceremony. Anyway, I got a second wedding dress, a big reception and lots of professional photographs.

Our third wedding was in Calgary, Canada about two weeks after the 1988 Winter Olympics were held there. We were on our first ever visit to his family. I had never met anyone of the family until then. They had a dinner for us and had us dress nicely. There was a Muslim sheikh invited for dinner and soon he had us engaged in conversation about our future plans etc. Then we signed our names in Arabic and surprise! You’re now married with the blessings of Allah! It was very sweet, but a little ambush-y. It was well-intentioned though and very culturally important so that they didn’t feel like we were “living in sin” having not been married by a sheikh yet.

How many children do you have?
We had two kids, a boy and a girl. They’re nearly grown now. Our daughter is in college and our son is in high school. They were both raised understanding Arabic and eating Lebanese food. Naturally, they answer Arabic questions with English answers. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law lived with us intermittently for about five years when the kids were young. During that time I picked up a lot of Arabic skills dealing with my in-laws. They saved us a lot by providing the daycare while we both worked.

How did you incorporate both cultures into their upbringing?
We associated with many Lebanese families that we had come to know over the years, so the kids were always exposed to socializing the Lebanese way. We also took them to Koran classes so they got a basic introduction to Islam and praying the fetaha. We celebrated Ramadan, cooked Lebanese, visited relatives and went to Lebanon three times for extended vacations over the years.

What advice would you give to someone who’s dating across cultures?

It’s not for the faint of heart! It takes a whole lot of give and take to make it work. And it’s best if you come from as similar of backgrounds as possible. For example, if you’re both from farm life, it will be easier. Or if you’re both die-hard city folks it will be easier. You have to have an open mind to doing things “the other way” on any given occasion.

You may have to alienate your family by doing things in favor of his culture. If that will be hurtful, it could lead to disagreements. Know your tolerance for interfering in-laws if his culture is like that. Understand what role he’ll have to play in the future, because you’ll be going down that path too! And you should have similar feelings about saving and spending. So basically you need to be ready for everything you’d run into getting married in the same cultural, then add in the language differences, the cultural differences and about a billion other things, then you get the picture! But if you can handle it, you will learn so much and have such a rich life.

Thanks so much for sharing, Elizabeth! Are any of you dating or married to someone from a different culture? What benefits/challenges have you found?

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  1. Nadia

    Wow, it's so great to see it can work! I'm a first generation american. My parents are from the Dominican Republic, and I met my German husband while vacationing in Spain. It's tough at times, he's more of a country person, I'm a big city girl, but the toughest has been dealing with in-laws (actually, just the mother in law) now that we have a baby.

  2. Becky

    I found this really interesting.

    I'm not married to someone from a different culture, but we are from very different backgrounds and families, and I can see some similarities in the problems we've faced. E.g. my family has lived all over the world, while his has lived in the same house since before he was born. His family is a lot closer knit than mine, and I think they've sometimes felt that I've taken him away a bit by living away. I can imagine how much more difficult it would be if we were also from totally different cultures though…

  3. Bethany

    Wow, they kicked her out of the church for marrying a Muslim. How welcoming.

    • Valerie

      Hi I’m married to a Lebanese man we’ve been married 22 1/2 years we have 6 beautiful children inside and outI am an African American woman .i am an American citizen my husband is not . I had no clue what I was getting into when we met but I deeply fell in love with my husband almost immediately and I still love him the same now. Our marriage has had its challenges ups and downs . Advice for anyone seeking mix marriage or getting involved get to know each other’s culture please

  4. Anonymous

    Hate to be picky here, but you should capitalize "Muslim"

    Interesting interview.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Thanks for the head's up – fixed!

  5. Anna

    It's okay to compliment houses, babies, and jewelry in Arab cultures as long as you add "mashallah" – it means that you're not jealous and it's a protection against the evil eye.

    • Elizabeth

      Thanks, Anna. You're right!

    • Anonymous


  6. @distract_me

    Really interesting. I love this series of posts. xx

  7. Haddock

    Interesting. And getting married in three countries is really something. Its good that the children know Arabic. Knowing a new language always helps.

  8. karima khan

    It is very gorgeous that this post is written on love marriage,relationship etc.for more details:
    work in usa visa

  9. melina bee

    my parents both grew up in beirut and as a first generation american, it's been hard feeling the clash of the two cultures, especially the issue of family involvement. I'm curious if the cross-cultural differences played any part in the dissolution of the marriage or if the two are totally unrelated.

  10. Anonymous

    Just wondered if you had heard of In Love but Worlds APart, insights, questions and Tips for the intercultural couple. Shelling and Fraser-Smith?

  11. Anonymous

    Ive just finished a cross cultural marriage.Im British my wife from the mountains of Papua New Guinea. She had never been to school or ever even worn shoes.It has made my life very hard and unhappy and also our childrens.Her culture is quite violent and agressive.She became a bully and controller.(Partly to stop things happening of which she was afraid). She was afraid that people would do majic against her.She was very anxious about our daughter who was prevented from going out as she grew older(In case she was raped or got pregnant)Not unaturally the children rebelled and grew to hate her.She was very abusive and controlling of me and denigrated me all the time with complaints and critisisms.In her country men and women sleep seperately and this was the end of our marriage after she made me sleep in another room.Intelectually she was isolated as we were poles apart.We could have no intelligent conversation and I became very lonely.She did too of course and retreated to being out in the evenings to play Bingo.We are now divorced but have yet to sort out the finances.This concerns me as she has no idea of budgeting or saving.Previously she had sent over a number of years large amounts of money home to her family without telling me.This after I had shown her how to do this.
    When we lived in her country it was fine.But coming to the UK destroyed us by creating anxietys and fear of the culture.Also her inability to adapt to life here.

  12. Anonymous

    I am still married to a West Indian man. I am American. In his culture the women cook and clean, as well as provide almost all the money needed to live. The men actually do very little, except hang around the roadside. Men and women in his culture have sex with whomever they want – even if they're married. Women have many children by many different men and the men just impregnate whoever they can to prove their manhood. It took me 25 years to get out of his household (my household, actually, he never paid a cent to our support or the support of his children with other women) I could not live like this any longer, and left him. I was extremely naïve when we married and would not recommend a cross cultural marriage because of my own experience. He eventually said it was "too hard" to behave any other way and had no problem with his behavior. This was a major difference in life experiences and one that I could not accept. I had no idea about this aspect of his culture when we married … but soon learned! I am now old and alone. He still considers me his wife (whatever that means to him). But I just consider him a good friend and nothing more. It was an awful experience and one I wouldn't wish on anyone else.

    • Wai Li

      You picked the WORST of the lot. I’m West Indian… I would NEVER accept someone like that… You lasted a long time and I’m very sorry about that.

  13. Anonymous

    My husband is Lebanese, I am Russian. We live in the USA. I totally understand all the issues described. I also think that the biggest impediment for the peaceful marriage is to what degree any of the two partners are willing to sacrifice their cultural identity.
    I am 7 years in the marriage, we have two daughters. We still have a lot of clashes, but I am very optimistic about the future, because I see that we worked out a lot of differences already. I believe in cross-cultural marriages and I welcome them. And if you do not lose love along the way, it helps a lot. Love reconciles the most furious fight. Open mind and religious beliefs help a lot too.

  14. Anonymous

    Isn't Hammoud an Arab last name?

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yup! Elizabeth didn't switch back to her maiden name after the divorce 🙂

  15. Anonymous

    I'm a European descent American, married to a West Indian man. We've been married almost 3 years. It's hard to know how much is cultural and how much is just "human" issues. We are on the rocks seriously right now. There is so much love, coupled with so much fiery conflict. Arrrrrr….still trying…

    • Anonymous for now

      I am a white American and I’ve been married to an East Indian man for 10 years. I wish I knew which behaviors were cultural and which indicate that I have married an a-hole. Talking to a Punjabi acquaintance about a minor conflict I was having with my husband, she laughingly said, “And that’s why I didn’t go brown!” ( She is married to a white American). Also my mother-in-law, who is magnificent, told me that the two hardest things for an Indian man to say are “thank you” and “I’m sorry”. Can I tell you that it’s at least true for my husband and it’s very hard to resolve problems without those words! Any South Indian women out there in cyberland want to help a girl cope?

  16. Anna

    Awesome I relate to this

  17. Brandy Turner

    It is encouraging words to read about it really working out between international relationships.. I am in shock relationship with a man in Ghana Africa.. Hr Is an amazing.. My family isn’t happy.. Because I love in America.. The south.. But I understand what I may be getting into. I know it will not be easy.. He is planning on moving here.. But I going to meet his family there soon.. But it is very insightful to see it can work despite all I am told.

  18. Anonymous

    Im bazzled and scared by some of the comments, I am from a west indian background and i am in love with a a man from Lebonon who is totally smitten with me. We are both divorced with 2 children each , he told me he would like more and i am scared .both his parents passed away and im yet to meet his siblings. So I do not know what to expect we brieftly spoke about his religion and customs


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