Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Advice to the Lovelorn: What to Do If You're Considering Marrying a Serb

I know I said I wasn't going to post again, but since my farewell post, have been deluged with letters from women around the world agonizing over whether they should marry their Serbian boyfriend.

So here is my advice - take it or leave it as you please:

1) I'm glad I married a Serb.
The experience was well worth the final pain. I learned so much, had many wonderful experiences, and filled my life with so much love. Serbian families, the country of Serbia, the culture... all worth experiencing and learning from. I'm not sorry I did it, and I hope you won't be either.

2) Some Serb-American marriages are great successes.
My step-brother has been married happily for more than a decade to a Serbian woman who previously immigrated to the US where they now live. A friend of mine's parents were a mixed marriage of Serb and Swede, both US immigrants, who apparently had a wonderful marriage until the day the husband died.

3) Plan ahead for child custody battles.
I am lucky not to have this problem, as we had no children of our own, but have heard of several battles that were far more agonizing (not to mention expensive) because each parent planned to live in a different country and wanted their child by their side.

I cannot underscore enough how important it is for you to have a prenuptial agreement in writing, hopefully recognized by courts in both countries, that spells out which country children will be raised in should you split. Be generous and assume that the child should have ample experience of both countries as they grow up.

4) Keep some cash in your name in your country.
Less important than child custody, but worth mentioning. If you ever do separate, it may be difficult for you to access funds in your own country. Keep a single (not joint) account in your name. Also, this keeps you safe if Serbian banks fail (as they have done in the past) and you have to wait years to get the small portion of your money that was covered by government insurance back.

Also bear in mind that if you spend much of your working life in Serbia, you and your spouse may not qualify for Social Security or other US government benefits someday. You never know if or when you'll want to move home (what if you are widowed?) so think ahead about how to establish retirement in both countries. Don't put your eggs in just one basket.

5) Don't move in with his family.
It's not unusual for adult and married children of Serbs to live with their parents for eons. You can move in "just for now" and suddenly months and years have gone by. It's hard enough to adjust to married life with a foreigner. Don't add in the burden of integrating with his family in their home as well. Your husband will never truly understand how hard it is for you if you're from a country without that tradition. Insist on your own home, from day one. Luckily furnished and long-term rentals are very cheap in Serbia, especially compared with buying!

6) Make your own circle of friends.
Most Serbs have lots of friends and very active social lives. It's easy to get swept up in your beloved's circle. That's great, but make an effort to create your own circle as well. You need your own support system separate from his.

7) Don't assume you'll find paying employment in Serbia.
Even well-connected and educated Serbs have trouble. You'll probably either wind up doing volunteer work (lots of opportunities with needy organizations) or starting your own business.

If you do start your own business, don't start it (at least at first) with your fiance or husband. It adds extra strain to a marriage to work together, especially if you grew up in different cultures regarding work and capitalism, and you'll already have enough challenges with culture, family, language, etc. Also, better if you own something yourself than being too dependent on a single person in a foreign land. That said, I do know foreign women who have run great businesses with their husbands in Serbia.

8) If you live outside Serbia, be prepared for long-term guests.
When relatives visit from Serbia, they often expect to stay in your home with you for weeks or even months. It's normal. Think you got out of living with his parents when you moved away? Think again. I thoroughly enjoyed this, but some women would not.

9) Your vacations will be probably spent in the Balkans.
Expats need to go home. It's understandable. And their family is expecting them to come. They don't understand about measly US two-weeks-per-year-only. And it may be tough if you ever had a yearning to go to other places in the world on vacation... Serbia here we come.

10) Don' promise to learn to speak Serbian if you live outside the Balkans.
Unless you are a language genius or perhaps grew up speaking another Slavic language, learning Serbian will be harder than you expected. You really do need to live there for the lessons to sink in and your knowledge to stick.

That doesn't mean your husband will only speak English in your household (although your children unfortunately may, even if he wishes they would use his language). There will be many times when he's speaking to friends, family, etc and you'll have no idea what's going on. You're going to feel left out sometimes, but you probably can't help it.

11) If you intend to live in the Balkans, don't marry him first before you visit thoroughly.
You're marrying a man and a country. Don't jump into either without adequate research and personal experience. If you plan to move to the Balkans, move first and marry later. You've got plenty of time.

So that's all my advice. Good luck and best wishes!