Are we more vulnerable to one-sided relationships when it’s cross-cultural love?

(photo by Helga Weber via
(photo by Helga Weber via

The e-mails from Western women that land in my Ask the Yangxifu inbox never cease to surprise and even shock me with their tales of relationship woes — particularly the ones marked “confidential”. Invariably when it’s confidential, it’s a story of unimaginable difficulties.

In the end, though, these women almost always want an answer to one simple question: “What can I do to make it right?”

Here’s what they hope I’ll say: “It’s totally normal in Chinese culture, and here’s a cultural tip to smooth things over.” Except in reality, more often than not, what they’re telling me isn’t normal and can’t be smoothed over with a little cultural finesse. And more often than not, I loathe to tell them what I’m really thinking — that, potentially, they have a guy problem. That, potentially, they’re floundering in a one-sided relationship.

What do I mean by a “one-sided relationship”? It’s a situation where only one person compromises and makes changes for the better of the couple, while they other person does not (or doesn’t enough).

Of course, one-sided relationships are not just a problem for couples with two different passports and home countries. I just watched the movie “Don Jon” not that long ago, which is essentially in part all about the dangers of a one-sided relationship using a very average couple of white Americans, where one person places all of the demands on the other, with no exceptions.

But as I think about the Ask the Yangxifu inbox — and the many nightmare relationships people have confided to me about — I wondered something. Are we more vulnerable to the throes of a one-sided relationship when we’re dating someone in a foreign country? When we’re deep in the process of acculturation and cultural adjustment, do we wrongly assume that we ought to do more of the work in the relationship precisely because we’re not in our home country?

The thing is, I thought about this because I had walked in these women’s shoes years before with my first Chinese boyfriend. Yes, I once blindly suffered through a one-sided relationship and I had no idea for the longest time.

I thought it was enough that he and I shared similar interests (music and movies), and that he loved introducing me to his own passions (like soccer). But when it came right down to it, as warmly as he invited me into his life, it didn’t go both ways. There were huge parts of my personality that he never bothered to ask me about — like my environmental biology major in college or the fact that birdwatching was one of my favorite pastimes in the US. Even worse, he didn’t care about my home country or hometown. I once suggested he might study there but he preferred to go to Europe instead. And then he asked me to follow him there, even though it was essentially impossible for me, an American, to find any meaningful work for myself. It took me the longest time to realize the problem because I was so besotted with him — “blinded by love” as they say. But looking back, I’m certain my struggles to understand Chinese culture and learn his language (at the time, I could only rattle off a handful of phrases…poorly!) also blinded me to what was really going on.

In the end, I finally said “enough!” and told him I couldn’t follow him to Europe. In part, I realized that it didn’t make sense to fashion my entire life around someone else’s wishes. And in part, I couldn’t take all of the trouble involved with moving to this country he had chosen as his dream destination. It took me years before I could finally admit the truth: that it was a one-sided relationship and that’s why it ultimately failed.

Sometimes, when you’re dating in a foreign country and you’re new to the culture, it’s not always easy to tell where personality ends and cultural norms begin. But in the end, cultural differences should never justify a relationship where everything’s tilted to one person over the other, where one person doesn’t feel supported or acknowledged or uplifted.

What do you think?

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17 Replies to “Are we more vulnerable to one-sided relationships when it’s cross-cultural love?”

  1. A one-sided relationship is, simply, a one-sided relationship! That is to put it in a nice way. What it in reality means is that there is love from ONLY one side. The other side is not really in love, but doesn’t mind going along even in a loveless way. If the relationship ends in marriage, it can get worse for the side who loves. This is a relationship where the side in love will have to live with a loveless life. And the side not in love is not really enjoying the relationship and might soon wonder what he or she is in there for and start becoming derisive of the other. Really not the way to go. Unfortunately, most relationships are of this loveless kind. Mutual love is a rare thing. Don’t know why. And even in the case of mutual love, time and familiarity might soon work to make the relationship a tedious one so that one heart starts to wonder and wander. Rare is the case that love is always fresh and steadfast.

    Perhaps it is even easier in a one-sided cross-cultural relationship for the one in love to break with less pain that it is in the case of a non-cultural one. Whatever it is, there is no point sticking around when you are not loved while the other is just there to soak up all your attention while waiting to see if something else turns up that he/she can really feel excited about and fall for. Ah, how capricious and random this thing called love is – let alone a mutual one! So, when you are in love, dive deeply into it and taste its divided and undivided flavours and dive out when you can and let go! Life is more than one single focus. Life is all there is – around, above and in you! The other is death, really, to put in a not so nice and conventional way – but nevertheless, the the bitter or sweet truth (depending on you)!

  2. Yes.

    Also, it is important to remember that even if the differences are cultural, while there are times – many times – when it is better to compromise or do something to smooth things over, that there are also times when you can’t, or shouldn’t, or just shouldn’t have to, compromise more than you feel comfortable with. Even. If. It. Is. Cultural. If there is something that is a dealbreaker for you, then “because that’s what’s normal in Chinese culture” doesn’t make it any less of a dealbreaker. It is okay to walk away even if the differences between you aren’t because he’s a bad person or the relationship is one-sided.

    If you clash with his parents and he, rather than supporting you, takes a neutral “I’ll let the women sort out this women’s issue” role, and that’s a dealbreaker, then it doesn’t matter that that’s somewhat common (although by no means universal) in Chinese culture. It’s still a dealbreaker.

    If he acts jealous because you have more education or he is openly hostile to the possibility of you being a/the breadwinner in the family (even if it doesn’t come to pass – just the possibility), even though it is common, but not universal, in Chinese culture for men to want to have more education and be the provider for families, if that’s a dealbreaker for you (it sure is for me), it’s still okay to walk away.

    If he views some actions as ‘what women do’ and some as ‘what men do’, from housework to drinking to swearing, it doesn’t matter if that’s fairly common – although again not universal – in Chinese culture. If that’s a dealbreaker for you, then it’s a dealbreaker. Walk away.

    If he expects his career/study to always take precedence because he’s the man, or thinks it’s not right for you to de-face him by disagreeing with him publicly because he’s the man, if that’s a dealbreaker for you, it doesn’t matter if that’s also somewhat common in Chinese culture. It is truly okay to walk away.

    You are not insulting a culture by sticking to your dealbreakers. You are not slapping China in the face by expecting certain things out of life and not settling for trajectories you are not happy with. You are just being you. “It’s a culture difference” does not change that. It does not explain it away. You are not a bad person for declining to bend more than you want to.

    That doesn’t mean you won’t eventually find a Chinese or other Asian guy who does push all your right buttons and has similar priorities and outlooks to you. Of course, you can, because they exist. That doesn’t mean you must stay with the one you are already with, though, if your dealbreakers are being routinely run over.

  3. “Are we more vulnerable to the throes of a one-sided relationship when we’re dating someone in a foreign country? ”

    YES we are…..for whatever reason we accept what we get from the other person and it may take a long time before we come to a realization that what we are getting is basically nothing or just enough to keep us hanging. (This could be due to our own insecurities, being lonely in a foreign country or we actually believe and accept that it is a cultural difference when in fact it’s not).

    If the treatment you are receiving is something you wouldn’t stand for in your own country then don’t stand for it in any country, use your voice and say something. If language is a hindrance then get a local (Chinese) friend to write down in Chinese what you want to say. e.g. how you feel, how his actions make you feel, what you want etc.

    There are basic fundamental factors needed in any relationship to succeed such as liking each other, wanting to be with each other, respect, trust, honesty and basic every day morals.

    If you are always the one trying to “make the relationship” work then you need to stop; change and speak out or prepare to walk away.

  4. This is something I have been thinking about as I read through interviews and posts about Susan’s upcoming book release. In a cross-cultural relationship, I think it is much easier to end up in a relationship that is “one-sided” or to put up with things you wouldn’t normally. It is easy for words and actions to get misconstrued and lost in translation, which may help us make excuses for our partner or blame ourselves more easily than we might normally. There is also the isolation that comes with being in a foreign country. It can be hard to break away from a relationship. It can also be hard to find someone who can provide good advice or counsel.

    In the past few years, I have had some struggles with my husband. I am still trying to sort out how much of it is personality and how much of it is cultural and how much is a mixture of both. Yes, I could just throw my hands up and walk away, but it gets complicated once you are married and have children.

    I disagree with Ordinary Malaysian. I don’t think love is that rare. But love changes, it evolves. It ebbs and flows. It’s not always what you want it to be and it’s never going to continue the same way as it started. Sometimes you have to let go not because the person doesn’t love you, but because the person doesn’t love you the way you need to be loved.

    1. Oh R Zhao, I so love the last sentence of your comment: “Sometimes you have to let go not because the person doesn’t love you, but because the person doesn’t love you the way you need to be loved.”

      That is so true. It does not matter whether you are in an intercultural relationship or not, sometimes love is just not enough to make things work.

      Good luck with your marriage!

  5. I frankly do think that you are more exposed to the risk of over-sacrificing and over-accepting when you date someone that is local in the place you live in. It is a matter of fact: you are the one who has to deal with his mother tongue, his family, his friends, his city, his house and so on. As a foreigner, you are already in a sort of weak position, compared to locals. In a relationship that means you will have much more contact with his culture and background than him with yours. I believe this disparity can very well lead to a one-side relationship, even though both the partners may have the best intentions.

    That is the reason why I decided to never ever live again in my bf’s city and possible country. A third place is the way to go for me.

  6. @R Zhao,

    Great comment, but I wonder about this particular statement:

    “It can be hard to break away from a relationship.”

    This may well apply to a woman who has moved to a wealthy developed country from a poor developing country to be with her spouse. Such a woman may be entirely dependent on her spouse not only because she is in an unfamiliar environment but because she lacks the education/training to strike out on her own.

    However, a white woman from America living with her Chinese spouse in China is hardly so helpless. Were she to walk away from the relationship, she would be able to support herself easily in China. In the unlikely event that she couldn’t do that, she could just move back to the relative comfort of her home country.

  7. Even though I’m not in a foreign land…and I’m home in the USA…I’m kind of having a one-sided relationship. My situation is with a Vietnamese guy whom I’ve known for 6 years…and my love for him is platonic than anything. We’re best friends, but sometimes how I feel about him is one-sided since he’s not so open about his feelings. Then again, I think it may just be a guy thing?

    1. Maybe “Platonic” will explain why it is one-sided. And then again the origin of the “platonic” surely will enlighten why “platonic” only applies to “gay”.

      The bottom line is “Platonic” works marvelously for most of the girls or women while it does not work out well for guys.

  8. I think this has been touched on already, but here’s my 2 cents.

    While I don’t think someone in an intercultural relationship is more likely to *be* in a one-sided relationship, but I do believe that the sacrifices made will most likely be bigger and more extreme. (Moving to his country vs his town, learning his language vs “just” his habits, ignoring your instincts, arguing it’s his culture vs ignoring your instincts but perhaps having a better support system of friends and family nearby to help you understand what’s really going on.)

    I’ve seen enough one-sided relationships within the same culture to see that people, whether blinded by love or just scared to be alone, will settle for less than what they deserve (i.e., being in a happy, two-way loving relationship).
    Cultural differences is cited as an excuse when, as you said Jocelyn, the problem lies deeper between the two individuals in question.

    “We accept the love we think we deserve.” (Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) sums it up quite well, I think.

    (So in short, my answer is “yes”, with some reservation. ^^;)

  9. This is an excellent, thoughtful, rich topic, Jocelyn. I do think there’s a danger of having a one-sided relationship when you’re dating someone in a foreign country, especially if you live in the other person’s country or town. He knows his way around; he knows people. You’re just learning.

    It all boils down to power. Even in the same culture, people in a relationship are sometimes insecure about money. The person who earns less may fell that he or she is at a disadvantage. In every relationship there’s going to be a power differential, but it shouldn’t be used against the weaker partner.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is whether both people believe that men and women are equal. If you date a guy who believes the man should always be in charge, he’s going to be expecting a one-sided relationship.

    1. Nicki, I’m so surprised that more people haven’t responded to your comment. I think you hit the nail on the head. I think that much of the one-sided dynamic comes when you have Western women dating men from mostly patriarchal cultures.

      I’m not an expert on the topic of AMWF relationships. But I do presently live in South Korea, and I’ve dated quite a bit here and I have close friendships with other Western women who have also dated Korean men. We’ve all struggled to some degree with one-sided relationships and I think a large part of that has to do with the fact that relationships here are, simply put, different. The dynamic of a close partnership doesn’t exist here as often as it does in the West.

      I also think that when we’re visitors in another country, we can more easily excuse a guy’s behavior by labeling it as a cultural difference. Often we find ourselves shrugging things off because we think they’re cultural, behavior which maybe we wouldn’t be okay with if it were happening with somebody from our own culture. This was also happening to my friends and I. We’d go on a few dates with a Korean guy, and then not hear from him for weeks or even months when he’d pop back into the picture like nothing had happened. It happened so often, and I got reports from my friends in Japan that it was happening there too in AMWF relationships; so we all just assumed that it was a normal thing here (in East Asia in general) and it was to be expected (read: accepted). Even if it did drive us crazy. That is until I brought it up with a Korean friend of mine who labeled it for what it really was; “He’s just a jerk,” she told me. “Don’t go out with guys like that.”

      And since then, I’ve been taking her advice.

      Like I said, I don’t know much about China, though I’ll be moving there in a month so expect me to be haunting ALL OF YOUR BLOGS. ^_^

  10. @D-Maybe

    It is hard to walk away from someone you love. It is even harder when you have children with them and becomes extremely complicated when you don’t all share the same nationality. When you are dating, I agree that it is generally easier for someone from the more developed country to walk away, but my point was not about dating–my point was about those of us who are married with kids, such as myself. If my husband and I were to divorce, I would lose my visa and risk losing my children.

  11. @D-Maybe and R Zhao,

    I’d like to chime in my thought on what you two are discussing. Some of the points you two brought up are misleading. Specifically D-Maybe brought it up. Whether it’s a one-sided relationship or full blown mutually beneficial relationship, it does not matter whether you come from developed or developing countries.

    The fact of the matter here is the personality of the two person involved and the location of the dating scene where it occurred. Throw another gender issue into the equation of “one-sided relationship”, things got even more complicated and messier. The mere factor that would come from developing or developed countries is how long you can initiate the relationship or well, at least sustain the dating going on.

    Imagine the scenario a Chinese guy coming to US, dated an American girl. Due to several issues, they broke up. Chinese guy went back to China. American girl just stayed put in her hometown. Does the fact that “he’s coming from China” mean he can’t easily break off the relationship? assuming China is still a developing country? In my opinion, “No”. “Developing” or “Developed” countries factor does not mean anything at all here. The status only helps in “Image” of the dating scene. The relationship afterwards falls on each and individual personality and the locale. Chinese guy can simply go back to China, where nobody cares what he did in America. The vulnerability falls on American girl who has to face all circle of friends in the place where she grew up, she became attached, and worst, all her potential mates afterwards will be in her hometown vicinity. Guys are just guys. No wonder we here why some Chinese gave cliche excuse like “In Chinese culture, we can’t marry if a girl is already pregnant.” I’d say this is BS. Yes, I’m CHINESE. If you want to fool around, there’s a thing called “Condom”. Don’t blame it on your culture.

    The same situation can also be applied to American guy going to China, flirted with a local Chinese girl, fooled around, and finally broke up. The vulnerability also falls on local Chinese girls. The only scene we’ve been seeing with White Guy Asian Women a lot compared to the opposite pairing is because of the IMAGE Asian guys have accumulated over the years. Given the same chance, guys are just guys.


    “However, a white woman from America living with her Chinese spouse in China is hardly so helpless. Were she to walk away from the relationship, she would be able to support herself easily in China. In the unlikely event that she couldn’t do that, she could just move back to the relative comfort of her home country.”

    I’m utterly speechless. If you have any acquaintance of such a woman from America, just email me their address and I will surely take advantage of such a situation.

    Like I said, “Developed” or “Developing” does not matter here. If she comes here to China just for one night stand, or a “Fling”, I’m sure Xi Jinping will surely welcome with a banner “北京欢迎您。”

    The bottom line is two persons whether they’re Nigerian Prince, or American obese girl, once you dived into the relationship, breakup always hurts both of them. Maybe Nigerian prince can go back for comfort of his home country.

  12. Thanks to Jocelyn for posting this, and to the many commenters (especially Ordinary Malaysian, Jenna Cody, R Zhao and Nicky Chen). This may be the “post of the year” for me so far — quite the eye-opener.

    I will agree with the majority here. Yes, we are more vulnerable. And when such a power struggle happens, it can be very insidious too.

  13. Thinking of Susan’s book, as well as my own experience, sort of, I think there is more vulnerability to one side when it comes to inter-cultural dating. Either you’re depending on him/her to show you around and to be your moral support. Sometimes, you kind of have to hide some true parts of yourself in order to be less stereotypical. (I kind of cared for anniversaries, while my Korean ex didn’t really care for them, thus I had to hide that part of me.) And trying to figure out culture or normal behavior can also be a frustrating behavior. I think people who have struggles with themselves are more prone to one-sided love rather than those who don’t have these problems.

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