Marrying the Greek Family

By Kathy Tzilivakis
Athens News

THERE'S an old cliche that says you don't marry a person but a family.

Many an expatriate in Greece would agree. In-laws are a fact of life, and they can be a great joy and support, or a force to be reckoned with.

We've all heard the stories of the overbearing mothers-in-law: the overprotective fathers-in-law and the caravan of aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and cousins that make up the typical Greek family unit. The immediate relatives can, and often do, outnumber the non-Greek spouse's extended family.


"For several years before we moved here, I only had to put up with [the in-laws] for a few weeks during the summer," says Vivi, a German woman married to a Greek. "Now we see them almost every day. And every time, I seem to disappoint them because I am not Greek enough. At least that's what my father-in-law tells me."

Often, the non-native spouse (usually the wife) feels isolated and lonely and has a difficult time adjusting.

"I had no family of my own, no friends and my in-laws only speak Greek," recalls Stella, a Bulgarian who met her husband while vacationing on the island of Rhodes. "It was very, very difficult for me and his mother, especially, to get along. It was clear that she did not expect her son to marry a foreigner."

Psychiatrist Susan Gregory, who has worked extensively with foreign women married to Greeks, notes that some men may choose a mixed marriage precisely because of the way in which it isolates their spouse.

"One thing that many women talk about is that Greek men, especially those from a village - a rural background - Choose to marry a foreigner because she comes by herself," says Gregory. "She doesn't bring the mother-in-law, the father-in-law, the brothers and sisters who are going to beat you up if you are nasty. So, she is defenceless and husbands feel they have more power. I can't say whether it is true or not. But many women have mentioned it. So, that is why things that give you equal power -like employment and having your own social life outside the home - are good."

The stress and tension stemming from cross-cultural differences may lead to "destructive results" in the relationship. "So," says Chris Kondoyanni, the director of the Greek branch of International Social Services (ISS), "it's often very hard on the [expat] spouse, especially if she feels she is cut off and has lost her own social network and may not understand the Greek culture. This certainly results in problems."


It gets worse if you are not a westerner. "The Greek [in-laws] are usually more willing to accept and to support an American than an Albanian, a Bulgarian," says psychotherapist Maria Lazaridou, a couples counsellor in Athens. "From my experience, the Greek family is not always ready to accept foreign spouses if they are from these [non-western] countries. There is a lot of racism."

After 18 years of marriage, Mercy, a Kenyan businesswoman, has yet to feel "accepted" by her husband's family. "It was very difficult at first because I was far from my family and my husband's family made it very clear from day one that they did not approve of him marrying a foreigner - a black person," she says. "One of his uncles even tried to talk him out of it before the wedding... even today they will invite only my husband to a family gathering. His family still has not accepted me as his wife. My husband has stood by me all these years despite the pressure I know he is under. That's probably why I haven't left Greece."

Her in-laws' unwillingness to invite her into the family is the reason why Mercy decided not to have children. "It's hard enough on me and I'm an adult," she says. "I did not want to put a child through this."


At the other extreme, many mixed couples face the overbearing intrusion of the Greek family into their private lives.

Troubles for Kalliopi, an American-born Greek, came later when she and her Greek husband decided to find a house of their own.

"My in-laws assumed we would move into the upstairs apartment in their building," she says. "It is a nice and spacious apartment, but I didn't think it would be a good idea to live so close... My husband's sister lives downstairs. An aunt lives right across the street."

Her in-laws have yet to fully understand their decision not move into the family building. "To this day they still don't get why we decided to take on the added expense of a mortgage when we could be living in the upstairs apartment for free."

Mary, another American, who lives with her husband in the family-owned apartment building on the island of Crete, says she was "surprised by what she calls the open-door policy that prevails.

"We live right downstairs from my mother-in-law and one floor up from my brother-in-law and his family," she says. I soon realised that cooking, cleaning and other chores are a family affair... Morning coffees and afternoon meals are something of a daily ritual and there is little privacy."

On the upside, the in-house childcare is greatly appreciated. "It makes it very easy for me to find work outside the home and not have to worry about finding a babysitter and knowing that my son is being looked after by his loving grandmother."

According to psychotherapist Grigoris Vassiliades, who has 11 years of experience in couples therapy, discord in cross-cultural marriages invariably stems from differences in family values.

"It is not something that will necessarily lead to the dissolution of a marriage," he says, "as long as the couple can communicate in order to bridge their differences. This applies to all couples, but even more so to cross-cultural couples."

Kondoyanni, who counsels couples in cross-cultural relationships, also stresses the need for spouses to be open to each other's cultural peculiarities.

"For those who intend to enter a cross-cultural marriage, it is important that the prospective spouses are well prepared to accept and respect each other's culture, instead of one trying to change the other. Often the spouses are trying to make the other partner as they are."

Mixed-marriage troubleshooting

In a mixed-marriage, friction with the family relations (in-laws) is, in the end, often unavoidable. While changing the family is impossible, here are four things you can do to keep the maniage strong.

Keep communication lines open between you and your spouse

Make sure that the native spouse understands the difficulties facing his/her non-Greek spouse, who is also trying to adjust to a new life in Greece

Respect the other's cultural differences (of both the native and non native)

Both sides need to compromise from time to time

(Posting date 22 June 2006)

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