Q&A: Can this relationship be saved?

Prague relationship counselor Milan Polák offers relationship advice to cross-cultural couples

Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas

Written by Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas Published on 10.04.2012 09:46:45 (updated on 10.04.2012) Reading time: 6 minutes

While the merits of dating or mating with a Czech (man or woman) have been heatedly debated on this site, one thing we can all agree on is that while entering into a cross-cultural relationship is fairly easy, sustaining one is another thing entirely. Milan Polák, a psychologist and counselor for Canadian Medical Care provides assessment, counseling, and therapy to children, adults, couples, and families and knows a thing or two about dating outside your nationality—he has been married to an American woman for thirteen years and has four half-and-half kids. We asked him to share with us his advice for problems that most commonly arise in counseling sessions between expats and the Czechs they love.

What are the most common problems that mixed-nationality couples seek help for?
From my experience, I would say that mixed-nationality couples don’t necessarily have different problems than Czech couples. If I see more mixed-nationality couples it’s because they prefer counseling in English. At the same time, we all know couples that are struggling to overcome their incompatibility, and the fact that the partners are from different cultures adds to the problem they are facing.

Do Czechs and expats differ in their attitudes toward marriage or commitment?
I would say that it largely depends on the values that these individuals hold dear. Some people are committed to long-term relationships; others are not. That said, Czech culture is undergoing huge changes and the differences between “us” and “them” are disappearing rapidly. We regularly read in newspapers that fewer and fewer people choose to get married and those marriages that exist are in great danger of divorce. Many experts have gone so far as to suggest that marriage as an institution is becoming obsolete and less important than it once was. It seems that [Czechs] are undergoing the same societal changes as everyone else.

Do they differ in their attitude toward counseling (e.g. Are they more reserved when it comes to disclosing personal information to a third party)?
Many Czech people still think that counseling or psychotherapy is only for the mentally ill and are therefore hesitant to seek this kind of help. On the other hand, there is a big tradition of marriage counseling in this country and many thousands of couples have, if not positive, then at least not negative experiences with this type of service. Once an atmosphere of mutual trust is created, disclosing personal information is not a problem regardless of the nationality of the couple.

Is conflicting parenting style something that regularly affects cross-cultural couples?
If a couple is doing well in their marriage (or partnership), they tend to be tolerant of one another’s parenting styles. When things go wrong with the parents’ relationship, differences in their approach to parenting often becomes yet another conflicting area. So, naturally, I hear complaints about the other parent’s style of parenting quite often. Because our parenting style is often formed by the way we were brought up ourselves, I see the issue of parenting as a welcome opportunity in counseling for partners to understand each other and themselves better.

What advice can you offer expats in a relationship with Czechs for coping with in-laws?
In-laws have a bad reputation wherever one goes. It is true that cultural differences and language barriers can make a relationship with Czech in-laws even more complicated. One can only recommend that expats keep a positive attitude, are willing to learn about Czech culture, and do not lose their sense of humor when things don’t go perfectly at first. That said, I would recommend that any couple maintain a healthy distance from their parents once they have decided to live their adult lives together.

Czech men have a reputation for infidelity. Is this a problem faced by mixed-nationality couples you counsel?
It’s fair to say that infidelity is more common in some cultures and less common in others. And Czech culture is probably much more relaxed about sexual relations outside of marriage, which could present a problem for someone who doesn’t agree with this, regardless of their nationality. My recommendation to any woman would be to carefully examine and evaluate a potential partner before entering into a serious relationship. One is looking for a person with similar values and beliefs. This thorough evaluation should ideally be done before our mind gets obscured by emotions.

Mgr. Michal Polák (Canadian Medical Care)
Mgr. Michal Polák (Canadian Medical Care)

How do you advise couples to deal with daily conflict when there is a language barrier?
Many years ago I met a Portuguese lady who was married to an Englishman, and I was amazed how poor her English was, knowing that her husband didn’t speak any Portuguese. Nevertheless, she seemed to be happily married and didn’t seem to have any difficulties communicating to her spouse. This shows that we are all very different in how verbal we are and how much language we need to survive. At the same time, relationships are kept alive by communication. When we don’t speak a language well, we are likely to express our views in a harsh or untactful way. It is definitely very important that both partners make at least some effort to learn each other’s language, especially if they want to have bilingual children.

Czech men are often viewed as traditional, while women from the “West” expect egalitarian relationships. How do you advise couples with clashing approaches to housework, etc.?
We tend to imitate people that we grew up with, so a man who grew up with a father who read the newspaper and watched TV while the mother took care of the house might indeed expect the same division of labor in his own partnership. However, in my experience, many Czech men don’t follow the stereotype. After all, we all grew up in a society where women are in charge, from grade school to college. In the end, all that matters is that each particular couple agrees on who is doing what so that each partner feels respected.

Are there bedrooms issues that come up in sessions between Czech/non-Czech couples?
Rarely do I see couples whose sexual dissatisfaction is the root of the conflict. Rather, it is a sign that other needs are not being met. As a culture, we are undergoing a lot of changes in this area as well. It is still true that sex as a topic of conversation is taboo for a large part of the population, while, at the same time, pornographic materials and sex-related trades are alive and well. Some foreigners may be shocked by [the Czech attitude toward sex], but soon realize that sexual relationships will differ according to his or her individual Czech partner and that choosing a partner who has similar attitudes [toward sex] makes good sense.

What are the most important elements in ensuring compatibility throughout the years?
The longer two people live together, the less of an issue their cultural backgrounds become and the most important thing is how they grow together as a couple, creating a mutual identity. Starting an international relationship requires a lot of open-mindedness on both sides. For example, both partners should be willing to live in their partner’s culture for an extended period of time, try to learn the other’s language and to overcome issues they may have with their partner’s culture, such as male/female roles. For any relationship to continue to grow and thrive, the partners need to make their relationship a high priority and keep it that way.

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