Culture clash? Gender roles differ in bi-national European couples

Arguments over chores and customs partly due to cultural expectations, study argues

Couple's feet

Partners from two different European countries lack a “shared cultural bedrock” about how to behave within a relationship

Common relationship disputes over housework and how to split the bill can also be signs of conflicting gender expectations in bi-national couples, new research argues. 

Partners from two different European countries lack a “shared cultural bedrock” about how to behave within a relationship and must construct their own, shows a Manchester Metropolitan University study.

Yet despite the potential for gender equality, women in these bi-national pairings still do the majority of housework, childcare, emotional labour and organisation of day-to-day family life.

Dr Benedicte Brahic interviewed heterosexual couples of different European nationalities – with at least one of the pair having migrated to the UK as an adult. All were university educated, lived in Manchester and described themselves as middle class.

Under-researched community

Her findings, published in the book ‘Making Multicultural Families in Europe,’ cast new light on the everyday lives of a growing yet under-researched social group, whose legal status and right to remain in the UK is in doubt following the vote to leave the European Union.

Dr Brahic, Lecturer in Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “While mononational couples typically rely on a shared cultural bedrock to build their relationship, bi-national couples face the task of assembling their own hybrid bedrock to cradle their life together.

“The Brexit vote heightens the necessity for researchers and policy makers to gain a better understanding of the needs, opportunities and challenges these ‘invisible’ migrants may encounter.

“European transnationalism – constituted, amongst other things, by transnational families and bi-national couples, is a social reality for a growing number of individuals, yet, little is known about the lives, experiences, opportunities and challenges of these pioneers of Europeanisation from below.”

Couples in Manchester

Dr Brahic conducted interviews with 32 bi-national couples living in Manchester, of which 17 were married and 12 raising children together. British nationals accounted for a quarter of the sample and another 15 European nationalities were represented.

Respondents painted a mixed picture of gender relations in the UK – largely based on their perception of the issue in their home countries.

Female respondents from southern and eastern Europe felt that migrating to the UK had freed them from many domestic responsibilities and allowed them to pursue personal goals outside of the household.

The Brexit vote heightens the necessity for researchers and policy makers to gain a better understanding of the needs, opportunities and challenges these ‘invisible’ migrants may encounter.

Chiara (Italian female with British male partner) said: “I think men in England are a lot more independent than they are in Italy. If they want to, they can cook, they can put a load of washing on, they can do the washing up. In my previous relations in Italy, this was not the case at all.”

British women with partners from countries where gender relations are traditionally organised differently generally expected more independence within their relationship.

Elisabeth (British female with French male partner) said: “I think it irritated him sometimes that I was as forceful as him, especially in front of his friends. I think he wanted me to be a little bit more passive and a little bit more feminine.”

Women from northern Europe often had completely contrasting views – particularly about British ‘gallantry’.

I think it irritated him sometimes that I was as forceful as him, especially in front of his friends. I think he wanted me to be a little bit more passive and a little bit more feminine.

Frederike (Danish female with British male partner), recalling an argument about him holding open a door for her, said: “We had a few altercations: ‘Can you please stop opening the door?’ I can do that. I am not feeble you know, I can manage!”

Men from the UK and continental Europe also shared their perceptions about differences in gender relations. Jacques (Belgian male with British female partner) said: “It is more macho [in Britain]. Men and women keep separate...in Belgium men and women socialise a lot more together. For me, that is strange.”

While James (British male with German female partner) said: “I found [Sabine, his partner] different to women I know in this country…generalising in many ways, we are very traditional in Britain in terms of relationships and expecting the man to do certain things and the women to do things. Sabine was not like that.”

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