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Clinical Social Worker/Therapist

We've come a long way in this country in terms of racial and cultural integration.

I teach in a two-year college in Manhattan that serves mostly urban minorities. Most of my students report that they have no problems being in an interracial or intercultural relationship. However, almost all of the students who have been in such relationships report having problems either from their parents or from the reactions of general society when they go out.

This, of course, is not only between Caucasian and African-American couples but also between Hispanic and African-American couples, Chinese and American Indian couples, Caucasian and Malaysian couples - and any other type of intercultural or interracial union.

Since society still holds onto some traditional prejudices there are therefore still special challenges in building healthy intercultural relationships. More importantly, many of the strategies used by successful intercultural marriages can be used by people in intracultural (from the same culture) marriages. In fact, whenever two people establish a long-term intimate relationship there are always differences in "culture", and each side has to negotiate how much of their own family's culture needs to be put into the new relationship.

In a recent article appearing in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, by Gita Seshadri and Carmen Knudson-Martin1, interracial and intercultural marriages were analyzed and four successful coping strategies were described. Three of them are applicable to all couples, even couples who are from the same race and culture (see the end of the article for these!) But before we get to the various coping strategies, first we need to understand the basic structures that all couples adopt to deal with differences.

These 4 structures are:

  1. Integrated
  2. Coexisting
  3. Singularly Assimilated
  4. Unresolved

Four Systems for Dealing with Differences

1. Integrated Couples

When each partner validates the other's point of view and there is open communication about what is liked and disliked about each culture then the couple is on the way to being integrated.

If Kim (from a Korean background) is married to Rodney (Caribbean) they might have had very different diets in their parents' homes. If they are mutually interested in the background of the partner, and Rodney learns and cooks galbi and Kim learns and cooks plantains then we might say that they are acting in a manner of an integrated couple. In other words, integrated couples show mutual curiosity and consistently validate the partner's point of view.

Of course, validation can happen even if they don't agree - they can still cook the galbi, even if he decides it's not to his liking.

In an intracultural relationship the discussion might be about how to celebrate the Fourth of July.

2. Coexisting Couples

In coexisting couples each side respects the other but is not really willing to get involved with the other person's style of living. This is often the style that people adopt when they marry somebody of another religion.

In coexisting couples the basic message seems to be that what he/she does is nice or cute, but just leave me out of it (It also includes a message that what he or she does is okay because I can ignore it.)

3. Singularly Assimilated Couples

Some couples seem to work on the assumption that one spouse's culture is better or "more correct" than the other, and he will adapt to her family's customs and culture – or she will adopt his.

This is sometimes extremely useful. For example, in a couple where one partner came from a lower economic-class home and the other from a middle or upper-class home, there will be aspects of life that they might see as more correct due to what is expected and accepted in their present social standing.

This is also true for cross-cultural couples. While it is perfectly acceptable in some cultures to reach across the table to get the food you want, in American culture it is usually accepted that a person asks for the food to be passed to him or her. If you're raising a family in the United States it is probably helpful to consider American table manners as "right" and to consider foreign table manners as inappropriate.

On the other hand, consider that in one culture it might be considered brazen to talk to the person sitting next to you on the airplane, and in another it is thought of as good manners. In a singularly assimilated couple both partners accept the “rulings” of one culture as better or more appropriate than the other.

4. Unresolved or Conflictual Couples

There are people who just don't know what to do with the different cultures they're bringing into the marriage. Many times they will just ignore the differences and leave those issues as "unresolved."

At times conflict will arise around these unresolved issues. If we go back to the example of whether it is appropriate or not to talk to somebody sitting next to you on the plane, a simple friendly conversation could be perceived in a way that would evoke dangerous jealousy.

Three Strategies for Coping with Differences

In truth, while most couples gravitate toward one of the aforementioned structures, they tend to have some sort of combination of all four, and differences will always arise, from time to time.

So regardless of how a couple structures their relationship, they will still always need to learn to cope with and resolve differences.

There are three main strategies for coping with differences. These three strategies are:

  1. Creating a “We”
  2. Framing Differences
  3. Emotional Maintenance

1. Creating a “We”

One successful way of dealing with daily differences is by creating the sense that as partners in this relationship we are something special and unique. This is called creating a "we".

  • This can be done by forcing a sense of friendship. If you cultivate the feeling that we are good friends, we have fun together, we forget our mistakes - and there are some negatives that get ignored out of friendship, there will be a sense of togetherness that will help ease any conflict.
  • Another flavor of the "we" comes when the partners share some sort of common ground. If they can point to a value system which unites them then the differences in background and culture and family traditions can become secondary. It might not make a big difference if I really don't like her food because we are both devout (fill in the religion of choice), and that's so much more important.
  • Similar to the idea of common ground is the idea of similar goals. Common ground refers to values and foundational beliefs while goals refer to something that has to be worked toward and will happen in the future. This can be a financial goal, such as buying a house and paying off the mortgage or a social goal, such as getting a candidate elected.
  • The last way of creating a "we" is somewhat simple, but seems to engender a very strong sense of "we". This is by working together over time with commitment. Spending weeks, months, and years keeping family first and staying loyal and faithful to the family builds a very strong feeling of mutual commitment.

2. Framing Differences

It is also useful to have a framework for viewing differences instead of ignoring them. Here are some of the strategies that have been found to be helpful.

  1. View the differences as secondary in the relationship. Recognize that there are differences but that the other aspects of the relationship and the people in it are much more important.
  2. Sharing differences as an attraction. Especially when it is an interracial relationship - "Sure I love pink, but chocolate is even better!"
  3. Flexibility, respect, and understanding. When confronted with cultural differences, even if you cannot accept them into your own life, it is important to understand that other people might have different ways and to respect that. If you're going to your in-laws' house, and they come from someplace in the Middle East and don't always use a knife and fork for their meals, it is important to respect that - or at the very minimum, to not make fun or denigrate the custom.
  4. Differences are something to learn about. Even better than flexibility, respect and understanding - if you show a genuine curiosity and openness to learn about the differences that your partner is bringing into the relationship you will likely foster a great deal of positive feelings.
  5. Celebration and appreciation of the partner's culture...And one step up from curiosity is to celebrate the differences.

3. Emotional Maintenance

Even the best of couples experience difficulties and conflict -  so how does one maintain stability when the boat is rocked by different cultural perspectives too?

For this there are three main strategies: communication of emotions and or insecurities, making adjustments, and finding support.

  1. Communication of emotions and or insecurities. It important to talk about the perceived differences. Being open and honest can help with understanding.
  2. Making adjustments around culture. Even though this is the core characteristic of couples who are not conflictual, making adjustments can sometimes be very trying. In a couple where she is from Argentina and he is from Great Britain, she might have to "cool it" a bit but he might need to learn how to be a little more excited.
  3. Finding support as a couple. Talking to friends who are in similar situations can be extremely helpful to give perspective on any particular difficulties. And then there are times where friends are not enough and it is useful to engage a professional coach or therapist.

Improving Your Relationship!

Look at your relationship. See where you and your partner fall in the categories of integrated, assimilated, coexisting or conflictual.

Then look at the tools you use to make the relationship work. You can then decide on how to increase the sense of "we", how to view and deal with the differences, or perform some sort of emotional maintenance.

  • 1. Seshadri, G. and Knudson-Martin, C. (2013) How couples manage interracial and intercultural differences: Implications for clinical practice. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 39(1), 43-58
About the author Ari Hahn:
I am a professional helper since 1976 and an LCSW since 1991. I have specialized in survivors of trauma. Presently I also have an on-line therapy and coaching practice where I also specialize in helping families and loved ones of ex-abused people. I also am a professor at TCI College in NYC.
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Page last updated May 07, 2013

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