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Communication in Intercultural Marriage

Cindy and Michael are both from Belgium but they had different upbringings and grew up in different areas of the country. Find out how these contrasts resulted in some challenges in their marriage.


Myrtle Alegado: Someone catches your eye, his or her personality is attractive, you get along well, and you start falling for this person. You live in the same country, but there’s actually a language barrier. Today, we’ll meet Michael and Cindy, from Belgium, and they’ll share what it was like in the beginning of their cross-cultural relationship and how they’re doing now as newlyweds.

Welcome to Happy Life, a podcast brought to you by INC Media Audio that aims to help newlyweds navigate through the first years of marriage.

I’m your host, Myrtle Alegado, and I’ve been married to my husband, Paul, since 1999. Later, we’ll hear some Bible-based advice through Brother Felmar Serreno, a minister of the gospel in the Church Of Christ.

[Show Catchphrase]

Inspiration to make your marriage thrive, you’re listening to Happy Life 

Myrtle: As mentioned earlier, our newlyweds today are from Belgium. Hi, Michael and Cindy. We hope you’re both doing well over there.

Cindy Van Acker: I’m doing very good. Thank you so much, Myrtle, for your time for today.

Michael Van Acker: Hello, Myrtle. Thank you for having us and happy to be here.

Myrtle: So would you two mind giving us a little background information on where you both grew up?

Michael: I was born in Zele. Zele is a very small town in Belgium, a small community. Almost everyone knows each other, a lot of greens and nature close by. My dad, he is a Belgian while my mom is a Filipina.

Myrtle: You were born and raised in Zele.

Michael: Yes, I was born in Zele and also raised.

Myrtle: Oh wow. That’s pretty awesome. So how about you, Cindy?

Cindy: For myself, my parents are both Filipino. I grew up in the capital city of Brussels, Belgium.

Myrtle: And now do you still live in Brussels or Zele or did you both move somewhere else?

Michael: Now we are living in Schoonaarde, also in Belgium of course, and it’s about 45 minutes driving from the capital city, Brussels.

Myrtle: Okay, so a little bit on the outskirts up in the suburbs maybe. So, we talked previously and you mentioned that, although you live in the same country, you speak different languages, right?

Cindy: Yes. It is correct, Myrtle. Actually, in Belgium, we speak different languages. But it actually depends [on] where you live. Usually we speak French, Dutch or German. But for myself, since I live in the capital city of Brussels, I speak and am fluent in French.

Michael: And since I grew up in a Dutch area, I’m speaking Dutch. It’s my mother language. So actually, we don’t speak each other’s languages.

Myrtle: That is so interesting. Okay, wait, I have to ask you both. How do you say happy life in Dutch and then in French?

Michael: In Dutch, it’s gelukkig leven.

Myrtle: Okay, I will not even try to repeat that. [laughs] Cindy, how do you say it in French?

Cindy: La vie heureuse.

Myrtle:  Oh wow, that is so cool. So what was it like trying to talk to each other in the beginning when you first met?

Michael: We [have to] go way back. We actually met each other when we were still teenagers.

Myrtle: Oh, young love? [laughs]

Cindy: Yes, indeed. Since we met when we were teenagers, the only language that we actually could speak was English. But back then, our English was terrible, especially mine. I really had to learn and practice it every single day. We had so many misunderstandings back then. We had a hard time [expressing] ourselves in English, so we had less patience of course before, since we both have different mother languages, because obviously [it’s] easier to speak in our own language. But to look back [there were] actually very funny moments and conversations.

Myrtle: I can imagine.

Michael: But now of course we are older, so we have more experience, more patience. So our English improved a lot and is much better right now.

Myrtle: So in school you both, like you said, Cindy, you spoke French fluently and, Michael, you’re Dutch, in school was English something you had to learn as well?

Cindy: For myself, it was actually mandatory to learn Dutch and English. Since in English we had to use it in our courses and of course for Church. Actually, English I learned it in Church, because I needed to communicate. But for example, in Dutch I’ve actually studied it for so many years, I think more than seven years, but since I don’t practice it every single day I am not good. So, basically I speak French every single day.

Myrtle: And how was learning English for you, Michael, in school?

Michael: Also [I] was obligated to take that course in high school already starting from the second year, I believe, and then up to the sixth year. But then when we had the college life there, also some courses were in English. So through the years, English became more and more the main language in my life.

Myrtle: Okay so, you know, aside from the language barrier, did you learn that you had other cultural differences that you noticed as well?

Michael: Oh, yes. Cindy is more of a big city woman, while I grew up with a more of a country lifestyle. And I’m also more conscious about what to consume, while Cindy is more a consumer mindset. She buys with convenience since everything is close to her, for example, grocery stores.

Myrtle: So have you noticed whether this has led you to maybe approach situations or tasks differently too?

Cindy: Yes, actually, Myrtle. For example, if Michael has something in mind, he will tend to do it directly, or even immediately, and finish it right away. He’s someone that hates and avoids postponing things, but for me, I’m more thoughtful or take time to ponder. I’m someone that needs to think if it’s really necessary to address it now.

So for example, we were speaking about having a new kitchen in our new house. Michael wanted directly to have a picture in front of him, search prices to see how much it will be, determine how much time [it will] take, how big or how small [we can] go. He wants all those details immediately.

Michael: Well, Cindy on the other hand, she will think about it first. Then make a plan for how it will look like but not really focusing on the exact details. She will plan first and finalize details later.

Cindy: Also I think for myself, when it comes to speaking, I am a more direct person. I will say things, what is actually on my mind. Michael [will] try to avoid conflict. My attitude is, like, also more expressive than Michael’s. Michael prefers things to be more relaxed, more calm. It’s okay. It’s alright. [laughs] But for myself, I’m more adventurous and maybe will take more risks than Michael.

Michael: Yeah, for example, I will rather not jump off a cliff or bungee jump. I will never do that. But Cindy would love to do that. It’s on her bucket list.

Myrtle: [laughs] Oh, oh you’re an adventure seeker huh, Cindy?

Cindy: Yes.

Myrtle: You know people say, ‘Opposites attract.’ So, maybe that’s truly the case with the two of you. I didn’t ask, how long have you been married now?

Cindy: I think we got married about… not long ago. So six months.

Myrtle: Oh, not even a year. Wow, okay, so truly newlyweds! So do you agree, Cindy, that opposites attract?

Cindy: Yes, I agree. But actually in the past, I was not believing it. But in our case, I agree, because our differences help us to complete each other and we also get to learn things from one another.

Myrtle: That’s a good way to look at it. What would you say are your biggest frustrations, though, in dealing with, you know, your language barrier or communication barrier in marriage?

Michael: Cindy and I actually have two types of arguments. Argument type one is when we don’t understand each other, we can’t find the right word to express ourselves and what we really mean, while with the second type of argument it’s a discussion that starts about something else, like a certain thing that happened that one of us did not appreciate from the other. But with these arguments, we really do try to take the time to explain ourselves without getting angry at each other.

Cindy: It’s true. There are actually times that we don’t understand each other, because the words that we are using are quite literal, and maybe the word sounds a bit harsh, without meaning it to that person. But the biggest frustration happens if one of us is using the language barrier as an excuse. Like in one of our arguments we just say, “Ah, well you just don’t understand me again,” and then almost closing off when it comes to our conversation, while the other person is actually trying to explain things clearly.

Myrtle: And what happens when you have misunderstandings like that and how do you handle those situations?

Cindy: It’s quite frustrating, to be honest, but we try giving each other some space, helping to give us [and] each other the time so that we can think and process everything.

Michael: But we make sure that we always try to fix it before we sleep, otherwise both of us will have a bad, bad sleep and that’s not good for both of us.

Myrtle: Yeah, and that’s a good approach that most couples try to, you know, take in terms of having arguments with one another. You know that saying, ‘Never go to bed angry,’ right?

Michael: Yes indeed.

Myrtle: But you know, right now, I’d like to ask Brother Felmar Serreno, a minister of the gospel in the Church Of Christ, to impart some biblical advice about maybe adjusting and learning in marriage through intercultural challenges or differences.

Hello and how are you today, Brother Felmar?

Brother Felmar Serreno: Hi, Myrtle! I’m doing well, thank you very much. And hello to Michael and Cindy, our guests today, and hello to all our listeners.

So I’m really interested in this topic that we’re taking up: differences between husband and wife, culturally speaking, and how to handle those moments of frustration or anger that may come up in communication, right? So getting right to it, is it evil to feel angry?

We’ll start here in the book of Ephesians, chapter four, the verse is 26, in the Today’s English Version, I quote the following:

If you become angry, do not let your anger lead you into sin, and do not stay angry all day.

[Ephesians 4:26 Today’s English Version]

Brother Felmar Serreno: So becoming angry, in itself, is not evil. Anger is an emotion, a feeling, just like how sadness, joy, excitement, are also feelings. But according to the Bible, there is something we must be careful of after we become angry. What is it? “Do not let your anger lead you into sin.” What else does the Bible teach about anger? “Do not stay angry all day.”

Now, some might be thinking, “How do you do that? How do you stop yourself from committing sin when you’re angry? How do you stop yourself from staying angry all day?” Because we do see in the news, on the internet, even in scenarios in movies, right, where people give in to their anger. There are those who do allow themselves to be angry all day or all week. It’s like they purposely give themselves that time to be angry, sometimes for months or even years. However, according to the Bible, we should not live that way, especially when it comes to man and woman who have been joined by God in holy matrimony.

So going back to our question, “How can married couples ensure that those moments of frustration or anger don’t lead to sin and that no one stays angry all day?” We go now to the book of Proverbs, Chapter 14, verse 29, in The Living Bible, I quote:

A wise man controls his temper. He knows that anger causes mistakes.

[Proverbs 14:29 The Living Bible]

Brother Felmar Serreno: Let’s be reminded that disagreements can happen in marriage. We actually did a whole episode on this in season one. Nobody, then, should be doubting their marriage or second guessing the love of their spouse, just because every now and then there are moments of friction. We all have flaws. So, communication in marriage isn’t going to be smooth sailing every single time. And this goes for everybody, by the way, not just husband and wife who are very different from each other ethnically speaking, like in the case of Michael and Cindy.

But do take note that if anyone is always arguing with their spouse, or if there is constant disharmony in one’s marriage, that’s a different issue. And we also discuss that in detail in our episode on disagreements, again in season one. But when it comes to handling the average arguing between husband and wife, so again let’s be reminded, what does the Bible teach us? How did the Bible break it down for us, so to speak? Number one: don’t allow your anger to lead you into sin. Number two: don’t stay angry all day. And three: control our temper.

Therefore, based on these teachings from the Bible, when arguments do happen, calling for a timeout is helpful. Would you agree, Michael and Cindy, that when those moments of friction arise, calling for that timeout, is a big help?

Cindy: Yes, Brother Felmar.

Michael: Yes, Brother Felmar, definitely.

Brother Felmar Serreno: There are times, you know, those heated discussions may happen, who usually calls for the timeout first. Is it Cindy or Michael? You’re both smiling now.

Cindy: [laughs] I think me.

Brother Felmar Serreno: Cindy, okay. Yeah, I’m sure all married couples, we take turns on that, right? But why is calling for that timeout helpful? Well, for starters, you get a chance to cool off or simmer down, you know, do some deep breathing and settle our emotions, because the Bible teaches us to control our temper.

So we shouldn’t allow our temper or emotions to control us, especially to the point that we would commit sin by hurting our spouse physically, or even verbally by using harsh words, right, if our emotions would get the better of us.

So a timeout, or cooling off, will enable you to think things through, and that’s important because remember what the Bible said earlier, “anger causes mistakes.”

Now, what are some examples of things that you should be thinking through, right, during that timeout? If a recent argument is the result of your error, for example, so acknowledge it, right? Own it, take responsibility for it. Look, we’re not going to get it right every single time. Sometimes you’re right, but sometimes your spouse is right. So, when you’re the one who’s wrong, don’t make excuses for it. Don’t brush it to the side or play it down. Squash that ego. Apologize to the love of your life for your mistake and move on.

But what if your spouse is at fault, then why not compose in your mind the best and gentlest strategy on how to help your spouse understand his or her mistake? And then from there, why not you both plan together how to react better to a situation like this in the future should it come up again?

So, that’s our Bible-based advice for today. Take care, everybody. God bless and we’ll see you all next time.

Myrtle: Once again, Brother Felmar, thank you for the words of God that continue to teach all of us and guide all the married couples.

Despite having different cultural upbringings and growing up speaking different languages, how has having the same faith, as members of the Church Of Christ, helped you in your marriage, Michael and Cindy?

Michael: First of all, we truly believe that God brought us together. He did this for a reason. So, we learned during our marriage seminars that challenges and difficulties will arise in our relationship, and if those difficulties will come, we need to pray and that’s also something we always do together.

Cindy: Yes, and if there are differences and it leads to an argument, we always pray to our Almighty God. We pray for Him to help us, to give us understanding, and to give us more patience. And after we pray, we take our time to talk or to say sorry to each other.

Myrtle: And that’s an important part of marriage, learning how to apologize. But are there things that you’re still trying to learn together or adapt to?

Cindy: I think we still haven’t yet learned how to completely communicate with one another, or at least find a way to do it easily, because we haven’t been married that long, or a little over six months. But day-to-day, we’re improving in our communication skills.

Michael: We try to learn by really explaining directly what we mean when we don’t understand each other, so that in the future, when the same problem or similar problems occurs, we will understand each other quicker and better.

Myrtle: Do you have any tips that you could share with other engaged couples or newlyweds who also might have a language barrier in their intercultural marriage?

Michael: There will be times of course that your patience will be tested. Moments will come where you will argue or disagree in something. But if you do have a little fight, cool down from one another, give each other some space, then try to fix the situation right away. Do your best to really express how you feel. And of course, always pray.

Cindy: And we’d also like to share that it was also challenging for both of our parents to communicate to each other. Sometimes it comes down to a form of sign language, gesturing, pointing or even showing kinds of pictures to try to express what they [are] actually meaning.

We’re doing our best. For Michael and for myself, even though it can be annoying to repeat ourselves a lot, we try to explain and repeat again if [necessary] but in a calm way. If you get annoyed, it will only get worse, so it causes more problems and misunderstanding. So we also try to use some words that the other person knows in their mother language. That can sometimes help. We do our best to maintain our mutual love and respect, despite having different languages and cultures.

Michael: But of course, there’s also positive things. So for example, a positive thing about being in a multilingual marriage is that it’s helpful when we are traveling.

Myrtle: Well that’s very true. I would definitely consider that a plus if you speak two languages already, plus English, so very, very multilingual. But it’s kind of interesting too, Cindy, what you shared about your parents not understanding each other. I didn’t even think about that aspect. So how’s their communication improving? Is getting a little better, too?

Cindy: I think it’s getting better. We’re getting there. It was just actually funny, especially for my dad who had a hard time to speak in English, also for my mom. And the dad, for example, for Michael has a hard time to speak in English. So sometimes, he says words in Dutch and trying to explain it in English. So it’s very funny, but we’re getting there.

Myrtle: And like you said, showing pictures sometimes if needed, right? [laughs]

Cindy: Yes. Technology is actually helping us.

Myrtle: Yeah, I mean if we didn’t have these smartphones, who knows how we would communicate, right? It’s like there’s Google Translate now too, so that’s pretty awesome.

But you know, I’d like to thank you both so much for being on Happy Life with us today and for sharing all of your experiences, your struggles, but also sharing that you’re still improving and learning from one another, and that’s really wonderful to hear.

Michael: Thank you, Myrtle, for having us. It was truly a pleasure to be here.

Cindy: Thank you so much, Myrtle for having us. It was a pleasure as well to meet you and have this discussion.

Myrtle: I think marrying someone from a different ethnic culture definitely makes you more open to learning and appreciating the differences in each other and can also help you relate to others better as well. Will there be times of frustration and misunderstanding because of language issues? Absolutely. But you can also continue to grow with one another, improve your own language and communication skills, and remember that your commitment to one another is for a lifetime.

And that’s all we have for you today. To learn more about Christian relationships, please visit If you’d like to say hi, send us a question, or see who our newlywed guests are, you can visit our Instagram account: @HappyLife.podcast.

Please also remember to share our podcast with your family and friends and all the newlyweds that you know. Thank you from all of us here on the Happy Life team. We’re so glad you joined us today and hope we’ve all been reminded about the blessings of marriage.

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