Knowing Your Worth In An International Relationship

Recognizing Your Self-Worth When Dating Someone Of A Different Culture

If you're in an international relationship, it's a good idea to be aware of the cultural factors that can not only affect your relationship, but your self-worth and self-esteem as well.

Since I started the Ask Hilary series, I’ve received a number of letters from both Japanese and international women asking about how they should feel in their relationship with their international/Japanese partner. Many of them describe the relationship starting off like a fairytale, but gradually becoming less fulfilling than other relationships they’ve had. It would just be easy to dismiss this as the end of the honeymoon period, or to tell them “that’s just how multicultural relationships work”, but that’s not necessarily the case for everyone. Open and honest communication is a huge part of having a successful international relationship but what if you’re communicating and still not satisfied?

Open and honest communication is a huge part of having a successful international relationship but what if you’re communicating and still not satisfied?

One common point mentioned by many of these women is somehow feeling “less” than their partner—be that for financial, physical, linguistic, or other reasons. I asked the women in five successful international couples how they handled this feeling, and all five discussed dealing with issues of self-worth.

Self-worth And Impostor Syndrome

Self-worth and Self-esteem - Knowing Your Worth In An International Relationship

Self-esteem and self-worth can be greatly affected by substantial changes to your environment and the new people you are surrounded by.

The dictionary definition of self-worth/self-esteem is “a sense of one’s own value as a human being” and “a feeling that you are a good person who deserves to be treated with respect”.

People with high self-worth feel good about themselves; they know they are a good person and take pride in their strengths. They know they have weaknesses, but aren’t defined by them. On the other hand, people with a low perception of self-worth feel like they are less than others and focus more on their weaknesses.

For the five women I spoke to, their self-worth initially hinged on their living circumstances. For some, coming to Japan felt like a new adventure at first. “I came to Japan with zero money, no friends, no support, and the barest minimum of Japanese skill. I felt like I was trailblazing my way through life. [Then,] I bought fabric softener instead of laundry soap, got the garbage days wrong, and I had to get a Japanese person from my office to come help me get a cellphone. I went from feeling like a badass to a needy loser. My self-esteem was the lowest it had been in years.” (S, American, 41)

I came to Japan with my N2, had a great job all set up at a Japanese company, and thought I was so cosmopolitan. When I got to Japan, I was three times the size of my coworkers, and I wore visible make-up instead of the fake natural look. I felt like this massive clown standing next to everyone, and that really screwed with my self-worth

For others, they were better prepared for the language differences, but issues related to beauty and body image caught them off guard. “I came to Japan with my N2, had a great job all set up at a Japanese company, and thought I was so cosmopolitan. When I got to Japan, I was three times the size of my coworkers, and I wore visible make-up instead of the fake natural look. I felt like this massive clown standing next to everyone, and that really screwed with my self-worth.” (C, Canadian, 34)

Another issue that affects your self-worth is impostor syndrome, which is “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’”.

If you don’t like yourself or feel like a fraud, you can’t have a successful, healthy relationship. Trying to date someone when you aren’t the real you can only lead to more heartbreak and issues with self-esteem. It becomes a negative spiral that leads many women to leave Japan in order to get professional help, rebuild their lives, or just escape the situation.

Culture Shock And Self-worth

Self-worth and Culture Shock - Knowing Your Worth In An International Relationship

Dating someone from a different cultural background means that culture shock and even microaggressions are things to be considered and managed so that your self-worth is not negatively impacted.

From each woman’s story, there’s a common thread of culture shock impacting their self-esteem. It’s easy to judge and say, “What did they expect? They’re dating someone from a completely different country” and so on. That’s not the point.

Culture shock doesn’t affect people in the same way. Plus there are also microaggressions to consider. These are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups”. Foreigner women living in Japan and dating Japanese men definitely count as a minority, and microaggressions can eventually wear you down.

It’s easy to judge and say, “What did they expect? They’re dating someone from a completely different country” and so on. That’s not the point.

“Wow, you can use chopsticks!” “Haha, great job saying ‘arigato’.” “You’re thin for a foreigner.” “You’re smart for an American.” “I’m surprised you can eat sushi, foreigners don’t eat raw fish.” “You’re pretty for a black girl.” “British people don’t really fit in in Japan.” “These clothes are really big, they should fit you.” “Do you wear men’s shoes, you have big feet.” “Japanese people can’t sleep with air-conditioning on, they’re too sensitive.” “Japan is the only country with four seasons.”

These are only some of the comments that all five women (and countless other foreigners) have heard repeatedly while in Japan. Most of them aren’t negative per se, but they aren’t exactly friendly or welcoming either.

If you’re single, these can be something to complain about with friends over a drink or three, but hearing them from someone you’re dating? They can easily be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. “This guy I was casually seeing kept being surprised I knew general Japanese culture stuff. He made me feel like I was so stupid, even though I was doing things right, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to dump him.” (T, Australian, 29)

Self-worth Versus Cultural Expectations

Say you manage to get beyond that. You’ve dealt with the culture shock, the annoying microaggressions, and you find yourself feeling good and ready to start dating in Japan. “Then you have all these cultural hang-ups that smack you in the face.” (S, American, 41)

Everyone has their own unique culture based on their ethnic, national, religious, and familial background. What is true to one family is not always true of another, and when it comes to international relationships, these differences can not only impact your self-worth but might also make or break a couple.

You need to have a serious conversation with your partner about what you are feeling and why you feel that way and vice versa. The issue could seem minor and petty on the surface, but could be coming from a much deeper miscommunication between you and your partner.

Self-worth vs Cultural Expectations - Knowing Your Worth In An International Relationship

Having open communication lines with your partner will relieve any cultural expectations one may have.

It could be issues about your own sense of femininity and how it differs from Japan’s cultural norms. “I have four brothers and both my parents are big on sport. I’ve always been rather extroverted and not all that delicate. When I first started dating my Japanese boyfriend, he’d ask me why I didn’t wear dresses or worry about my appearance more, and over time, I started feeling like something was wrong with me. We ended up having this massive argument one morning that lasted until the evening. I told him all about who I was, why I liked what I do, and at the end, we were finally on the same page together. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t pretty, but we managed it.” (E, British, 29)

Or perhaps your family dynamics are very different from one another. “Where I come from, family is everything—we spent a lot of time together, cousins feel like siblings… My [Japanese] husband is estranged from his family and feels uncomfortable being the only one that looks different when we visit mine. It was one of the most frustrating parts of our relationship, it made me resent him and feel guilty for putting him in that position. We sat down together and I asked him why he felt uncomfortable, what would make it easier, and talked about how I felt and things made sense. We both knew what the other was trying to cope with, and how to support each other better.” (J, Afro-Caribbean, 37)

Whatever the issue is, if you and your partner are serious about having a relationship together, you will need to understand how the other thinks and feels. It isn’t always a pleasant conversation, but hopefully, you and your partner will be able to come to a better understanding of one another.

Whatever the issue is, if you and your partner are serious about having a relationship together, you will need to understand how the other thinks and feels. It isn’t always a pleasant conversation, but hopefully, you and your partner will be able to come to a better understanding of one another.

In Japan, thanks to the #MeToo and #KuToo movements, there has been some progress regarding how women are perceived, but the traditional ideals of femininity and girl power still have a strong hold on society. These don’t necessarily match with your own way of thinking, which means that, for the most part, international couples need to do a lot more communicating and be a lot more supportive of one another than those from similar backgrounds.

“Some Japanese men just don’t get it…they like the status quo, and if you contradict them, it takes them a while to come around. The good ones will come around, and you’ll have a better relationship because of it.” (C, Canadian, 34)

That being said, if you and your partner can’t seem to come to terms with how either of you are feeling, you also need to be mature enough to know when to call it quits, which can be extra hard when your self-esteem is at its lowest points.

Know your worth 

Know Your Worth - Knowing Your Worth In An International Relationship

Know your worth. Don’t let a relationship determine that.

Your self-worth shouldn’t be brought down by your partner’s actions/inactions. If that is happening, then you should take a moment to reevaluate your relationship. If you find yourself actively seeking your partner’s approval for everything, rationalizing their bad or rude behavior, letting good friendships fade out, giving up activities that you like, or dramatically changing your life goals for your partner’s sake, stop. You’re literally strangling your own sense of self-worth.

If you are feeling less than worthy of love, struggling to keep going in a relationship that doesn’t make you feel good, or find yourself thinking that your partner is so much better than you because X, Y, and Z, it’s time to put that relationship aside and refocus on yourself. When you can actively treat yourself with respect, then you’ll be ready to handle anything that comes along in Japan or elsewhere in the world.


What are the challenges you’ve faced in an international relationship? Have you experienced a hit to your self-worth or self-esteem because of it? Share with us any thoughts or advice you have!