Love Across Border Control

by Dr. Reenee Singh

International Wife Finders’, ‘Living with a Foreign Husband Whom You Met Online’, ‘International Cupid’. There is a growing commercialization of international love these days and one that seems to pivot on crude stereotypes about the hyper-gendered qualities of ‘foreign’ partners. Away from this faux glitzy sector of cross-national eros is a more difficult and increasingly harsh reality for international couples.

Since 2012, those with ‘foreign’ spouses from non-EU countries, have to earn at least £18,600 before they’re allowed to bring their partners to the UK. The policy has been criticized for separating couples and families and for ‘playing havoc’ with their physical and mental wellbeing.

As a family systemic psychotherapist, I often witness close-up the effects of government policies and social disparities on intimate relationships. I work with couples and families in South Asian communities where one partner, from ‘back home’, is often not allowed residence in the U.K. Such situations have become more common with tightening immigration control.

How do couples and families cope with the difficulties imposed on them by the Home Office?  What are the experiences of couples where one is a migrant to the UK? What are the strengths and resiliencies within such relationships?

In order to begin answering these questions, I drew on a small segment of findings from the recent ESRC funded research studyEnduring Love?  Couple Relationships in the 21st Century’, led by Dr. Jacqui Gabb and Dr. Janet Fink, at the Open University. The study was based on over 5000 couples filling out an online survey and 50 couples participating in the qualitative part of the study, carried out between 2011-2013.

Enduring Love? examined the ways in which gender, generation and parenthood get inscribed into meanings and practices that circulate around the idea of ‘the couple’.

Much recent policy, academic and professional research has focused on the ‘stressors’ which can contribute to relationship breakdown and the adverse impact of ‘marital distress’ and ‘family fragmentation’ on the health and well-being of men, women and children. The Enduring Love? research was designed to shift attention onto the things and qualities that help people sustain their relationships.

interracial-coupleAs an Asian psychotherapist and researcher, my interest in how culture shapes the formation of couple-hood attracted me to this research project. From my personal experiences of growing up in India and from my clinical practice, I had the view that Asian couples are embedded within extended families and that the primary dyad could comprise the father-son, mother-daughter, or other dyads based upon social rather than biological ties. The Enduring Love? project presented me and the project team with an opportunity to explore the ways that the experience of Asian couples may differ from their English counterparts and to develop a more nuanced understanding of the inevitable differences between these couple relationships.

As a first step in identifying couples to interview, we used demographic information provided in the quantitative survey data to identify participants who described themselves as ‘Asian’.  With hindsight, this category could have been further refined, for example as ‘South Asian’, although all ethnic categories are imperfect because they gloss over differences. Logistical considerations and participant interest identified five couples from the survey to participate in the in-depth qualitative study.

This sub-set of ‘Asian couples’ turned out to be a profoundly disparate group.  Two were mixed race (of Filipino and Hong Kong Chinese mixed heritage), one had migrated from India, one from Taiwan, and one was a South Asian Muslim.

Quite unexpectedly, these individuals were all in relationships with White British partners; so all five were in inter-racial relationships. A further two couples were recruited using contacts from one of the researcher’s personal social networks. Of these two couples, one was an older South Asian (Guajarati) couple and the other, a lesbian couple in which both partners identified as being of mixed English and Indian descent. These differences presented rich opportunities to think about how the couples were both different and similar.

Here I will focus on two couples and their experiences of racism and resilience. In both couples the woman was a migrant to the UK.

Henry and Anne (all names are pseudonyms), are academics in their late twenties/early thirties. Anne was an overseas student from Taiwan when she met Henry. They have been together for seven years. Jonathan and Asmi are also academics and in their mid forties. Asmi is Indian and she and Jonathan met in India, whilst he was working there.  They have been together for thirteen years and have two children.

Both couples experienced racism in their everyday lives. In Asmi’s case, she lived with constant reminders of her difference through remarks made by her in-laws that she experienced as racist. Henry’s experiences were more dramatic,

 “Last summer we went to the  —- festival and as we were leaving some drunk guy came up and he, he looked at Anne and he said to me, “Oh she’s Chinese.” And I said, “She’s not Chinese’’ and he, he looked at me and said, I think he thought he was being funny but he said, “Did you buy her?”

 And I said, “You’re drunk and you’re ignorant. F— off.” And he stumbled off, but, um, yeah, I don’t know, I think there’s that, particularly in English men with Asian partners, there’s that stereotype of, kind, of you know, Thai mail order brides and things like this, that people assume there’s going to be a big disparity….”

The experience of race and racialisation in mixed race couples is complex.  A research study from the U.S. of mixed race couples (African American and white) showed that black partners noticed and responded more to racist remarks and events than did the white partners. Is this a learned vigilance or ‘hypersensitivity’? As Lola Okolosie has pointed out, for some White partners being in a mixed race relationship can become a sort of political force field against accusations of racism as well as being evidence through which one can disavow personal racism.

How do race and racism get played out between the couple?  Or is it safer for both partners to experience it as existing only in the outside world?

Asmi: “…I don’t think it’s an issue between us, in fact I think most of the time we don’t even think of it. And in a sense all couples are different from each other, aren’t they?…”

As well as having to think about how racism can affect the interpersonal, racism was also experienced at an institutional level, with both couples talking about the role that the Home Office played in their decision to get married. Asmi said that the year that it took for her to get ‘indefinite leave to remain’ was especially stressful for the relationship. She was left without a passport, unable to travel to India and without a clear idea of how long she would have to wait for a decision,

“They’ve raised the income threshold and they’ve increased the time, or they’re planning to increase the time, and I just think that would just put a lot of stress on relationships which isn’t, you know – in a sense it isn’t necessarily for the government to decide who you should marry, and help and encourage certain kinds of marriages and not others…so I think that that, again, is something that should possibly be changed…..”

lesbian-coupleThere is a pervasive idea in the West that international marriages are a sham – a way of securing immigration status and access to superior economic and cultural resources. What often gets overlooked in such simplistic assumptions is that migration can be accidental and pragmatic, not intentional and that living apart or dealing with immigration policy can add yet another stressor to relationships.

Despite these difficulties, both couples showed considerable resilience.  Recognition of the sacrifices their partner was making in living in the UK and being far away from their own homes and families, was often a crucial practical and psychic resource in negotiating difficult times and obstacles,

Anne: “Yeah, so then, because I usually got frustrated with visa applications, the fact that I had to apply and then take time off and book the train and everything, you know, the cost added up, so then you decided to come with me and made it a pleasant day, instead of just getting the visa sorted, we booked the high tea in the afternoon….”

Jon: “It’s much tougher for Asmi because she’s in the UK and I think, um, because she’s here permanently. Her relationship with, with the culture if you like, is much tougher, and difficult to sort of feel integrated in because you’re because you’re living here permanently…”

Being able to draw on both cultures in what I have called an ‘Interplay of cultural differences’ seemed to help couples to benefit from the richness of both of their heritages but also their differences. This included speaking in both languages and celebrating festivals from their respective cultures. Not all of these resiliencies were shored up or undermined at the personal level.  Henry described his joy at seeing an all too rare representation of a mixed race family in the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Asmi also talked about the paucity of representations of mixed relationships and families in the media,

“In fact you see so little of it and you see so little reflection on what it might mean and what it might mean to bring up children in um, in a mixed race relation…you know, and considering that I’m sure it’s not a small percentage of the population and in fact there’s talk about it actually increasing dramatically as it would; so yeah you’d hardly ever see it portrayed in films that much either….”

The experiences of these international and interracial couples raise many questions about the emotional economy of race and racism in intimate relationships. For me, two main questions come to mind.

When one partner is a migrant, does negotiating interracial differences build up resistance so that such couples have stronger, healthier relationships? Can racism be loved away?

Dr. Reenee Singh is a psychologist and Consultant Family Systemic Psychotherapist, currently working at the Child and Family Practice in London and as an independent trainer and researcher. She is the co-director of the UEL and Tavistock Family Therapy and Systemic Research Centre.  Reenee has published two books:  ‘Race and Culture. Tools, Techniques and Trainings (2010) (co-authored) and ‘The Process of Family Talk Across Culture’. (2013) and numerous papers in the areas of ‘race’, culture and qualitative research.  She is the Editor of the Journal of Family Therapy.  You can find out more about Reenee at reeneesingh.com and find her on twitter @Reenee_JFT

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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2 replies

  1. Thanks for the article Reenee. I also really enjoyed the film Germany in Black and White. I thought you might be interested in a new novel by Eileen Phillips, A Different Corner , which fictionalises the start of a long term (32 year) relationship between a white woman (the author) and a Black Dominican who are friends of mine. I’m a trainee Systemic Psychotherapist who is interested in these issues.

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  2. My husband and I are both white but I am South African and he is British, however some of this still hits close to home. The immigration laws around couples are terrifying. I think the people who make them forget that they are tearing actual families apart.

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