How can I communicate better with my post-Soviet girlfriend?
June 11, 2006 8:28 AM   Subscribe

I am 23 years old and have been with my girlfriend, who is from the former Soviet Union, for almost four years now. We often have drastic and painful arguments that result from socio-cultural and religious differences. Is this a common problem or experience for those in similar relationships?

My girlfriend is Eastern Orthodox and was raised by a single mother in a large capital in one of the former European Soviet republics. I was raised by a single mother in a large mid-western city in the USA. We met at our university.

I believe that we are having more and more difficulty communicating on many levels.

My girlfriend explains a lot of our disagreements as “typically American” and places the blame squarely on my shoulders. She holds grudges for nearly everything and is highly suspicious of American doctors, all of my friends and my family. She believes that colds come from drafts and not closed windows.

She teaches English and speaks five other languages, so our communication issues do not hinge upon her mastery of the English language. I speak her language fluently (not Russian), as well as two of the other languages she has mastered. I have visited her country twice with her and know her friends and family there well. We know how to talk, in other words.

I have talked to (male) friends from the former Soviet Union and other post-Communist countries about this--from Turkmenistan to Ukraine and even to a few Romanians. Their consensus was that "Soviet" women are stubborn and controlling.

I am completely lost as to what I can do to save our relationship. These behaviors only began to manifest themselves when we began living together, a little over a year ago.

My financial situation is quite a bit more stable than her own, although she pays her share of the bills and I never ask her for a penny more. Her mother visited us once for a few months, during which I largely paid for most of our trips and outings. We had a lovely time--our relationship was great then.

As I began to take on more work and I started my thesis, I spent less time at home during the semesters and found myself at work or in class more and more. She also teaches most of the day and is home in the evenings, which is when I usually set about to write and do research. This was our first point of disagreement.

In her opinion, "men" should spend time with their significant others in the evening and if they can't do this, then they should "work on their organizational skills." I made some changes so that I would spend several hours in the evening with her before returning to my work after she had gone to bed. This didn't work for me in the long run and it showed in the quality of my work and in my health.

At the same time of this schedule change, to which she responded positively, I observed a sharp decline in my libido, which I attributed to my lack of sleep. (Less than five hours a night). She blames this problem on a lack of parsley and meat in my diet, not on a lack of sleep, which she dismisses as a “typically lazy American perspective” and points to her tough years as an undergraduate in her home country.
I am a vegetarian. Her rejection of this as a viable lifestyle didn’t manifest itself until after her mother visited and she often points to its rarity in her country as evidence of its supposed uselessness.

I apologize if this was too wordy, but I am at a complete loss and feel as if I am missing the larger picture.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I honestly doubt she's going to change. So... either live with it, or don't.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:44 AM on June 11, 2006

What dirtynumbangelboy said. She needs someone to browbeat and dominate. Are you that person? If not, time to end it.

She holds grudges for nearly everything and is highly suspicious of American doctors, all of my friends and my family. (my emphasis)

Not good. She's trying to cut you off from your support system in order to better control you. Can you take another five/ten/forty years of that? Leave her to someone else who'd actually enjoy it.
posted by hangashore at 9:16 AM on June 11, 2006

Geez. Sounds like she's got some bitterness going on. I'm sure you're eager to hear some tales from others with experience, but I want to point out one thing.

She dismisses your attitudes as "typically american" and I'm sure that drives you batty. She's diminishing you to a stereotype instead of taking on your needs and desires as an individual (which is what a partner should do).

However, I'm not sure how much you have to gain from hearing other stories of former Soviet women now living abroad except perhaps to cluster her attitudes into stereotypes as well.

I highly suggest you start dealing with each other as individuals. This includes asking for things like "I need you to respect my choice to be vegetarian because it's important to ME."

Good luck! Remind her that "typical Americans" don't speak her language fluently. If, you know, that's not too much of a zinger.
posted by scarabic at 9:26 AM on June 11, 2006

Yeah, time to take off.
posted by beerbajay at 9:27 AM on June 11, 2006

It sounds like this has something more to do with her being a controlling shrew than with her being Russian. I've been dating a gorgeous Muscovite for almost a year now (not as long as you have, granted), but behaviour on her part like that would cause me to seriously reconsider things.

Cross-cultural relationships can work, but as you're finding out, they're harder because of these differing expectations. Good luck.
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:35 AM on June 11, 2006

I worked for a Russian owned company for a while, and I saw that some Russians indeed do have some very hide-bound and stubborn attitudes when dealing with non-Russians, particularly Americans. Distrust of doctors - check. Intolerance on vegetarians - check. A tendancy to bully - check. Draughts cause colds... well that one is all over East Europe and the Balkans.

Not all Russians are as stubbornly "Soviet" as your girlfriend. Some, however, still maintain the group identity they inherited from the Soviet Era - that Russia was the most advanced society in the World. A taste of post 1990 reality leads such types to overcompensate with a wallopping inferiority complex. Which leads to bullying and taking advantage of you.

My advice? Leave while you have your dignity intact. I've known some lovely Russians who kept the bully-impulses well under control. The problem is her, not Russian culture, buddy.

Russian women do not take kindly to being dumped. She may consider that an affront to her sense of control, but the situation does not sound like it is going to get better before it gets much, much worse. Make a clean break of it.
posted by zaelic at 10:14 AM on June 11, 2006

If you get a single response telling you that this is all normal, I'll be shocked. Her refusal to compromise, her dislike of all your family and friends, her controlling/browbeating, these are not good things. You deserve better. I think you're already coming to this conclusion yourself, and that's why you posted.

No, it's not just cultural. I know many Russian women, and none like this. Badness transcends all nationalities.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 10:19 AM on June 11, 2006

In Soviet Russia, relationship ends YOU!

Seriously, though. You need to confront her about her willingness to be flexible and understanding. If she is unwilling/unable to give a little, I'd say da svedanya.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:20 AM on June 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Is there a particular reason you're being so terribly vague about where she's from and what languages she speaks? Not that it matters, it just strikes me as a little strange...
posted by borkingchikapa at 10:35 AM on June 11, 2006

I've spent much of the last 8 years in a non-Russian former Soviet Republic.

Your girlfriend is 23 - most of the 23 year olds that I know are a lot less "Soviet" than your girlfriend sounds. She sounds just personally controlling.

Most of the people that I know that have spent their 20s in the States have quickly adopted a greater trust in American doctors, health advice, etc. It seems that they do keep certain child rearing habits and beliefs about relations between men and women, sure... but your girlfriend sounds extreme.

She may personally be a bit more controlling, perhaps due to growing up in a single parent home?

Maybe you need to tell her that you have a lot of additional stress in your life due to your increased work load. Her lack of support for this is increasing the stress in the relationship. Tell her you are thinking of living seperately *not breaking up*, but living seperately and seeing each other like you're "dating" again.

If she makes improvements, great, but if not, then consider breaking it off.

Good luck!
posted by k8t at 10:36 AM on June 11, 2006

Sounds to me like you are grudgingly compromising on things like sleep + work time in order to please her, but you'd rather not make these compromises. I would encourage you to stand your grand. She has to learn to respect your judgment about how much work time + sleep time you need. If she can't respect your needs, this relationship won't work for you. I bet though, there's a good chance that if you insist on your sleep + work schedule, she will learn to put up with it, even if she initially resists. You should also tell her to stop insinuating that your vegetarian diet is dumb. She has already made herself clear and she should stop denigrating the vegetarian lifestyle out of respect for you.
posted by gregb1007 at 10:45 AM on June 11, 2006

It sounds like this has something more to do with her being a controlling shrew than with her being Russian.

Basically, yeah. Trying to analyze your relationship based on national stereotypes is absurd (and she's doing it too, by saying you're "typically American").

She's a controlling person. Learn to deal with it, or dump her. There's a chance you could talk to her and explain what bugs you about what she does, but I think very smart people sometimes have trouble seeing their flaws because everyone else around them is wrong so often.

But yeah some traits might be biological, some might be culturally ingrained, but they're not going anywhere unless she really wants them to go, and you should realize that you're probably not going to be able to convince her to want that.

So, prepare yourself to just deal with it.
posted by delmoi at 11:06 AM on June 11, 2006

well, you have to remember she is still a foreigner, without family in the usa. if you don't see each other in the day AND by choice you spend the evening working, my bet is, she will feel lonely and insecure. she may also be very proud, so her response won't be 'i feel; lonely and insecure' but instead various chauvinistic jabs at your americanness. actually, as i know from experience, this is one of the problems with a relationship with a foreigner: you can't take the same time out to do your own things, because she (the imported foreigner - ok, not imported in your case, but not home-grown either) is dependent on you, doesn't have the same circle of friends, family, just doesn't feel 'at home'. anyway, question is, can you mend it? you can if you want to, i suspect, but you may not want to make the sacrifices, bearing in mind you will need to keep on making those sacrifices as long as you are together. one further point (also from experience): girls from the former soviet union put great store by sex, and if that side trails off (you suggest it has) she could take it as a real insult...
posted by londongeezer at 11:27 AM on June 11, 2006

My Russian blogbuddy says "Typical," and advises (apparently seriously) that you hit her and drink more, which are "the traditional remedies." My Polish neighbor says that you should ignore her, as "harpies" just want to get a reaction. He also asks who does the housework. As she gets older and less attractive, she'll need you more than you need her, he says.

I'd like to say that I in no way present these views as those of all Russian or Polish people, just my neighbor and a friend who may or may not be fucking with me. But that's the word from the fine cultural ambassadors that I know.
posted by klangklangston at 11:45 AM on June 11, 2006

Are you currently in the US? If so, I think she needs to compromise a hell of a lot more than she's doing.

I lived in Italy for a while and dated an Italian man, and actually did break things off because what was well within the realm of "normal" Italian boyfriend behavior were things I was just really uncomfortable with -- and it was nowhere near what you're talking about. But I can't imagine having told him that he should "stop being so Italian." I mean, he was an Italian living in Italy. What else should he be?

Your girlfriend is (presumably) in the US, dating an American. What else was she expecting?

And I've also dated foreigners in the US, and while there was generally a great deal of ribbing about much of American culture, there was never any insistence that *I* should change. Someone who's dating you should be dating you because they actually like who you are. Both people have to compromise, of course, but if she's blaming everything on you and on your nationality, which you really can't change, then you're in a no-win situation.

Though I am reminded of an article I read about an American woman traveling to her husband's native country for the first time on an extended trip, and announcing on her return, "It's amazing! I thought he was an asshole, but it turns out he's just Lebanese!" It might be worth spending more time in her country, if you can, to get a better sense of why people might act the way she does, which may both give you some coping tips and some compassion when she's acting seemingly irrationally.
posted by occhiblu at 12:30 PM on June 11, 2006

I think you may be right, anonymous, I think you may be missing the larger picture. You describe (extremely evocatively, by the way) a person of very high intelligence, high emotional tone, and rather daunting force of personality-- by whom you seem to be in some danger of being overwhelmed.

Any man might be, actually, but in case you haven't noticed, we live in very interesting times, which are shortly due to become even a lot more interesting than they are now. If the two of you can use the heat of your current friction to forge some common goals and strengthen the bond between you, then you, poster, may end up being quite grateful to have a woman of such temper standing at your side. You won't easily find her like, I suspect.

You say you've been together four years and her mother just visited. Do you think it's possible your 'girlfriend' is wondering where your life together is headed? Whether, for example, marriage and a family are or are not in her future? You weigh her in the balance; do you think she does the same?

Which language do you argue in? If English, I suggest trying her birth language. However much she has mastered English, her heart is likely to be still in her native tongue, and you may more easily reach her through it. When she blames your problems on something "typically American" I would like you to note she is avoiding blaming you personally, and that this may help her not be as angry with you as she otherwise would be.

Suspicion of your friends and family, as hangashore says, is a serious issue which must be addressed. So is her problem with your vegetarianism. Clinging to folk beliefs about things like colds I would attribute to a stranger in a strange land's need to hold on to some core aspects of identity.

If I am allowed to take the risk of chiding you a bit too sharply, I would attribute the decline in your libido not to lack of sleep, or lack of parsley, but to passive-aggressive retaliation by you because she made you give up your evenings. Please be very careful, there.
posted by jamjam at 12:42 PM on June 11, 2006

The problem is her, not Russian culture, buddy.

That's true in the trivial sense that the poster is involved with her, a particular woman, and not with "Russian [should be "Soviet"] culture"; in that sense, whether her behavior is or is not typical is irrelevant. The fact is, though, it's much more typical than some of you seem to think, as is the standard response quoted by klangklangston (even before I read it, my first thought was "A Russian would tell you to smack her around"). When I dated a Russian woman some years ago, she was charming, steeped in literature and language, and knew the most romantic things to do in Prague; she was also batshitinsane (from my point of view) and incredibly difficult to deal with (given to gestures like running out of restaurants and expecting me to quick-like-a-bunny pay the bill and chase after her to the correct subway entrance before she got there). One of the few times I got a genuine, warm smile out of her was when I lost my temper and called her dura ('idiot'); she said with delight "You sound very natural!"

Remember, (post-)Soviet women have spent their lives dealing with (post-)Soviet men, who (warning! stereotype ahead!) are lazy, abusive drunks; in self-defense, they have developed a set of ingrained responses that are dysfunctional out of their original context (sort of like sickle-cell anemia developing as a defense against malaria).

Short answer: I doubt she's going to change; you'll have to decide whether you can put up with things as they are. Rest assured that if you break up with her, you will become yet another entry in her litany of Bad Things About America. I trust you can survive that.
posted by languagehat at 12:52 PM on June 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Who cares why she is like this? This is what she is, and that's very unlikely to change. Make your decisions from there.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 1:27 PM on June 11, 2006

Damn, I missed that you've been with her since you were 19. This is NOT how relationships have to be. Life is way too short for relationships like this. Leave leave leave.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 1:30 PM on June 11, 2006

I'd be inclined to say that anyone who falls back on their culture of origin as an explanation for their behaviour so often probably isn't worth much of your time. Ditto her blaming your perceived failings on your American-ness, rather than you as a person.

I wouldn't go as far as to say 'of course you should break up with her' without knowing more, but if you do want to try and patch things up I'd advise that you press for her to treat you as the individual you are rather than a product of the country of your origin, with all the assumptions and stupid stereotypes that can come along with that. If she doesn't like something about you - your vegetarianism, your time away from home - demand that she explain what her reasons for disliking it are, rather than letting her lazily fall back on 'we Russians don't like that stupid American trait'. It sounds as if, for all that you don't have a language barrier between you, she's preventing you from communicating between the two of you as people, and instead forcing you to play the role of a crude caricature of American-ness.
posted by terpsichoria at 1:32 PM on June 11, 2006

Who cares why she is like this?

Obviously, the poster cares, and so would I if I had to deal with her. Are you not a fan of trying to understand problems?

Life is way too short for relationships like this.

Right, because only perfect relationships are worth bothering with. The poster obviously finds a lot worth saving, and says the problems only began to manifest themselves "a little over a year ago" in a four-year relationship. I'd say you're being more than a little simplistic.
posted by languagehat at 2:02 PM on June 11, 2006

Oh aye - I was out with a russian lassie - family were high ups in the soviet union - they're a funny lot - they checked to see if i was jewish when she told them she was seeing me - made a lot of money post ussr breakup - you know what i'm saying ?
She was studying too - very brainy , very driven - lots of pressure from her parents to succeed , it was really tough.

Anyway , your best bet is a book called 'codependent no more' - thats the bigger picture.
posted by sgt.serenity at 2:34 PM on June 11, 2006

GET OUT NOW. Seriously, a friend of mine is now going through a bitter divorce, and reading your story sounded like hearing his. In their case it seemed like quite a culture clash - things may have seemed good when it was just the two of them, but bring anyone else into the mix (his friends, her friends, family, religion, kids, etc) and the differences became readily apparent.

One thing I would say for sure is to sit down with a few of your close friends and ask for their HONEST opinions about her, and your relationship with her. Please listen to what they say without being defensive - they can see things you may be blind to.
posted by true at 3:05 PM on June 11, 2006

Whether it's cultural, personal, or (most likely) some combination of the two, it sounds like she may be the type of person who sees drama and conflict as necessary elements of a relationship -- for example, believing that passionate fights are indicative of passionate feelings in general. Accordingly, a lack of conflict, may read as a lack of caring about her (or the relationship) in general. So perhaps much of her aggressive behavior is at attempt to goad you into an equally aggressive response?

I also find it significant that you say the problems manifested themselves when you started living together. Living together is an enormous shift that can cause serious pressure/conflict in any relationship, especially two people as young as you (I moved in with my own college boyfriend/quasi-fiance when I was 22 after we'd been together since I was 19 or 20, and let's just say within a year I was in grad school halfway across the country). For most couples, it takes a lot of communication (and a willingness to compromise) to get through such problems -- and no matter how well you literally speak each other's language, it sounds to me like you don't really speak each other's language's emotionally in even the most rudimentary way.

In other words, it sounds to me that you want someone who can treat you with affection, acceptance, and support, and who will respect your personal choices as well as your relationships with your friends and family. From what you've described, with all the bullying, belittling, contempt, stubbornness and lack of compassion/empathy she expresses, I'd be disinclined to believe she's willing to develop those qualities, whether by virtue of being from the former Soviet bloc or not. (After all, would she go to a counselor with you? Read a book about improving communication in relationships? Make amends for hurting your feelings? Let you spend more time with your friends without erupting?) Culture clash is no excuse for emotional abuse and domination, which is what this sounds like to my (admittedly very Western) sensibilities.
posted by scody at 3:24 PM on June 11, 2006

Some thoughts while reading your post:

You have fairly similar parental backgrounds. Kudos on all the languages you speak. If I understood well, you can communicate to each other in at least 3 different languages (!)

Soviet women as "stubborn and controlling".. Bah! Ugly generalizations.
So she wants you to be "there" during the evenings with her. Perhaps schedule an activity? Go to the movies? But juggling work+thesis+you "time" is exhausting - the easiest thing is to let go of the personal "you" time, isn't it. Yet that's bad: it's crucial to have a life outside work and your dissertation. I would tentatively recommend working part time (only the morning shift, for instance), and spending the other part of the working day on your dissertation; leaving the early evening and onwards free from clutter. And /do/ things together, I think it's also good for your mind, sleep and libido.

Her rejecting your vegetarian lifestyle after her mother's suggestion is the most worrisome thing, though. Growing up under Communism with a single mother, struggling together, would bond them very closely. This is something you must contend with. Her allegiance is first and foremost to her mother. This could probably not change in her attitude towards life, imho. Improve your mother skills? I dunno.. in several relationships, this was the deal-breaker. Incidentally, what do /your/ parents think of her?

And as for being "typically American", don't let her say that. She knew what who you were from the get go. And frankly, you should do a very "typically American" thing and sit down one evening together because "we've got to talk". And tell her what you wrote above. Take care.
posted by ruelle at 3:30 PM on June 11, 2006

Is this a common problem or experience for those in similar relationships?

Yes, it is, but the point of similarity isn't what you think it is. It has nothing to do with her "Soviet-ness." It's just that you and she are both very young.

People learn how they can be in relationships: both how they are able to be, and how it is possible to be. Part of this involves learning what kind of crap you would like to dish out and what you would like to take, and when it's either not appropriate or not worth it.

You're learning what it's like to be on the receiving end of a certain kind of relationship. Some people are so thick-skinned that what you describe wouldn't bother them a bit. Some other people are so sensitive that they'd go without sleep and wreck their work and health in order to avoid it.

These latter people are young, not old. When they get older they learn that that's not the relationship they want to be in, and they learn what to do about that.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:34 PM on June 11, 2006

My mom is Polish. She and her mom are two of the toughest damn cookies on the planet. So maybe there really is something to the cultural aspect. But also, I've know girls from all over the world and I've found that individual personalities easily translate from one culture to the next.

Tough is tough, mean is mean and kind and caring are kind and caring. It's sounds to me like you've found yourself a tough cookie. Is that what you want?
posted by snsranch at 3:49 PM on June 11, 2006

I’m a Brit married to an American and have wrestled with cultural issues myself. However I have found that when I accuse my husband of behaving like an “American” I am usually in error. It is a convenient way of venting frustration about issues that are more personal than cultural.

One day on a blog I read a post that said that you need to be very careful that you don’t compare the ideals of your own country to the reality of another country. I wonder if this would be helpful advice for your girlfriend. For me it was like a light bulb going on in my head. I realized that in my homesickness and isolation I had been dwelling on the finer aspects of my culture such as politeness, diffidence, humility and decency without recognizing that I come from a country that gave the world soccer hooligans, really bad tabloids with naked women in, snobishness and Posh Spice! Your girlfriend is probably making the same mistake and allowing nostalgia to make her emphasize the ideals of her country which, I’m sure, involve hard work, stoicism, toughness and socialized medicine whilst, if she is able to be honest with herself, the reality also encompasses some less admirable traits such as corruption, mistrust, alcoholism etc.

For me being able to see my own country more honestly with all its pros and cons, helped me to see America in all its glory, flaws and all. When I did that, I saw a country which at its finest is about hard work, opportunity for all, enterprise, democracy, personal freedom and can do spirit which can also be insular, materialistic, superficial, and arrogant. Having some perspective helped me appreciate my American husband a lot more. So my advice is to commiserate with her about her homesickness but for both of you to be to be honest about the reality of your home countries as well as their ideals.
posted by anapurna at 4:19 PM on June 11, 2006 [2 favorites]

I don't want to add noise, but scarabic, occhiblu and scody have, consistently, remained down-to-earth and very, imo, wise, in their responses to "human relations" questions. That's not to dismiss the rest of you, but if i were to listen to anyone here (sorry to single you out), listen to them. If i were to post here about a relationship, i would listen to their advice very carefully.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 5:57 PM on June 11, 2006

Not being a smart aleck but have you ever heard of the website "Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About"? If not, please give it a glance. You will see the author, "Mill", an Englishman and his girlfriend "Margret", a German woman and their situation sounds a lot like yours. He writes humorously, but you can tell these are some real-world issues between them.
posted by Lynsey at 10:45 PM on June 11, 2006

You may have simply picked an incompatable personality. My GF is a Muscovite and we've been going together for around 3 years. I don't speak Russian but her English is superfluent, not completely but pretty damned close. She has been in the US for maybe 8 years. I think the language thing has come up in an argument once or maybe even twice but it was easily overcome. Otherwise her personality and mine mesh perfectly. We share a ton of similar interests and culturally I'd say even though she was brought up in the USSR and I in the states, there really isn't a clash of cultures. Part of it is that the way she was brought up and her way of thinking is very similar to my mine.
posted by JJ86 at 8:24 AM on June 12, 2006

Just to add a sidenote, the GF and I are in our early 40's so things are definitely different for our generation than for yours.
posted by JJ86 at 8:29 AM on June 12, 2006

urbanwhaleshark: "I don't want to add noise, but scarabic, occhiblu and scody have, consistently, remained down-to-earth and very, imo, wise, in their responses to "human relations" questions. "

I second that observation. I don't always agree with them, but if you want a sane version of the left-coast feminine take on an interpersonal issue, they're the ones to listen to.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 3:11 PM on June 12, 2006

Dude. I'm so putting that on my grad school application.
posted by occhiblu at 4:06 PM on June 12, 2006

Best of luck... ;-)
posted by Mr. Gunn at 4:44 PM on June 12, 2006

I'm the anonymous poster. Thank you all very, very much for your thoughtful and caring advice. To quote Molière from Le Misanthrope: Pure reason flees all extremes. I need to find my way back to a life balanced by a healthy relationship and common sense.

I didn't reveal her nationality/language because there is a long litany of ethnic and political tensions between hers and the Russians that would have certainly derailed the comments.

If I could add "best response" to these posts, I think that scarabic, occhiblu and scody, among others certainly deserve it.
posted by vkxmai at 7:51 PM on June 12, 2006

Are you not a fan of trying to understand problems?
I'm not a fan of expending a lot of energy trying to understand why someone consistently treats me badly. Whether she's acting this way because of her culture or because she's a nasty person, the outcome is the same.

Right, because only perfect relationships are worth bothering with.
There's a world of difference between imperfect but functional and relationships where there is a fundamental lack of respect and reasonable expectations.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 12:18 PM on July 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

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