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Increased international migration has brought the integration of immigrants to the forefront of socio-political topics in Europe and North America. Although the economic and political aspects of immigrants’ integration have been scrutinized, little is known about immigrants’ social interactions with the native population. Inter-ethnic marriages have been posited as a factor that undermines racial barriers and, thus, contribute to the integration between immigrants and natives (Bossard 1939, Kennedy 1943, Price 1982, Giorgas and Jones 2002). While the probability of people from different ethnic groups to intermarry has been widely examined, few researchers have focused on the success or failure of these intermarriages. This project aims to contribute to this field by building and testing a theoretical model in which individual, cultural and environmental factors such as the opportunity cost of migration, cultural distance between partners and immigration policies interact to predict the marital success rates of international couples across host countries. More specifically, the main goals of the project can be summarized as follows: (1) to build a conceptual framework for the survival of ‘international marriages’ (i.e. couples in which at least one of the spouses is foreign-born) that involves the interaction of individual, cultural and environmental factors; (2) to provide a theoretical model to assess the effects of the opportunity cost of migration and of the couples’ internal cultural differences on the success of international marriages in two scenarios: in countries with favourable environmental conditions for the integration of immigrants and in integration-adverse countries; and (3) to empirically analyze this model in selected European and North American countries in order to assess and compare the effects of individual, cultural and context-related factors on the success of international couples.

In order to achieve these objectives, the following body of work was carried out between January 2011 and December 2013: for the theoretical part of the study, a literature review was written, based on which, a conceptual model was designed. A paper summarizing the theoretical work of the study was sent and accepted for publication at the International Journal of Migration and Residential Mobility (forthcoming in March 2014). As for the empirical part of the study and based on the conceptual model designed for the theoretical part of the study, two questionnaires were designed and translated into French and Spanish to be distributed in Canada, the United States (US) and France. A pilot survey was launched in Canada in 2012 and used to improve the questionnaire. A final version of the survey was distributed in Canada, the US and France in 2013. In addition to the survey, interviews with lawyers and people who used to be part of international unions but separated at the time of the interview were conducted.

The main findings of the survey conducted in Canada, the US and France can be summarized as follows: whereas the North American study shows that international couples’ separation rates are slightly lower than those of conational ones, and that differences in parental origin (or ethnic background) do not explain higher separation rates, opposite results were found in France. The results of the French study reveal that international couples’ separation rates are higher than those of conational couples and the separation rates of couples whose parents come from the same countries (i.e. same ethnic background) are lower than those of couples who do not share an identical parental origin.

Differences in the significance of religion and religious affiliations as well as family and friends’ perception of a couple’s relationship were found to have similar effects on couples’ marital stability in North America and Europe. Having the same religion, a high significance of religion and a positive perception of the relationship by others increase couples’ chances of staying together. Finally, some other factors cited in the divorce literature such as age, previous marital history, parents’ marital history, employment and income and having children were found to be significant predictors of international and conational couples’ marital stability and consistent with previous studies. These results confirm our main hypothesis about the challenges of migration and the previous findings on the adverse effect of cultural differences on international couple’s marital stability in France but not in North America. Although a more extensive study in Europe needs to be conducted before making final conclusions, we argue that the cited differences may be caused by country-level environmental factors such as immigration policies, history and integration policies in North America versus Europe.

A few in-depth interviews with people who had been involved in an international relationship and with immigration lawyers in Canada and the US were also conducted to complete the information gathered by the survey. According to these narratives, most people who had a partner from a country other than their own were interested in different cultures and thus attracted to the foreignness of their partner. However, in the long term, the cultural distance between them and the some related pressure from society made their relationship become challenging. They also reported some difficulties derived from the migration of the partners and his or her integration in the new country such as difficulties finding a job because their knowledge of the local language was not high enough, their university degrees were not recognized, etc. Finally, a few differences were found between the Canadian versus US immigration system in the interviews with lawyers, with the main one being that immigrants to Canada who are sponsored by their partners are able to stay in Canada even after they divorce while this is not always the case in the US. These findings confirm some of our hypotheses about the adverse effect of cultural and linguistic differences, as well as the influence of the environment, on the survival of international couples.

The significance of the success or failure of international marriages impacts not only the social and psychological spheres but also the economic sphere. As an indicator of integration between immigrants and natives, higher divorce rates of international couples compared to co-national couples may also suggest a failure in the integration between these two groups. Some serious psychological and social consequences of divorce involve family dissolution, distress and, in some cases, impoverishment. In the case of international couples, these consequences could be more serious, especially if they have children and the foreign-born partners decide to return to their home countries. The economic consequences of the decision to leave the country are also to be taken into account, since the potential loss of foreign-born workers may affect the labour market of the country of residence. Finally, intermarriage is considered to be an indicator of integration, with a higher number of mixed couples suggesting the existence of a higher social cohesion in a geographical area. However, if the present state of the art of the literature on intermarriage and divorce is confirmed in future studies, i.e. if international couples are found to be more prone to separate than conational ones, the link between intermarriage and “successful” integration may have to be revisited.