DEALING WITH CULTURAL DIFFERENCES IN RELATIONSHIPS
by Annie Gurton, Imago Couples Counsellor on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
Love does not recognise skin colour, social backgrounds or cultural boundaries. It is notoriously random and, of course, blind. And when we fall in love and enter a relationship, the problems that may lay ahead caused by our cultural differences are low on our priority list. But as time goes by, issues such as unsupportive families and friends, experiencing prejudiced, conflicts over parenting styles, clashes over fundamental beliefs or loss of identity can undermine an otherwise strong union.
Coming from different cultures, you are likely to have different thoughts about what is right and wrong, have different aspirations and ideals, have different values over issues such as family, money, religion and freedom, have a different understanding on gender and liberty, maybe have different ideas about how each should behave in certain situations. The list is long.
In some ways all relationships embrace difference, but in couples from the same community these differences are limited to, perhaps, matters of taste in choice of home or choosing schools. Yet everyone comes from a different family to form a new unit. No-one’s thinking or choices are exactly like another’s, but these are insignificant differences compared with the issues faced by couples from different countries, race or creed.
Its not that you want to be exactly like your partner, in fact, its important to be different and individual in your relationship. If you are too symbiotic, too closely attached to your partner, there is a risk of becoming co-dependant, where your happiness depends on the happiness of your partner. That’s not good. It becomes suffocating. There needs to be a level of individuation which allows you both to follow different interests, have separate friends, and be able to be apart.
However, if you come from different cultures the differences can seem so huge that the natural tendency to compromise which is evident when we first get together, is insufficient to overcome the deep and fundamental differences that emerge over time. But there are ways to bridge the gap, and create a family unit which works well in both worlds while retaining integrity and authenticity.
HERE ARE A FEW TIPS ON HOW TO MAKE LIFE EASIER:
1. Ensure that you have good ways to communicate, so that as soon as you feel or think something uncomfortable, or an issue arises, you have the strategy to connect and cope. The recommended communications technique is the Imago Dialogue (for details, contact your nearest Imago Relationship Therapist).
2. Accept that its going to be difficult at times and will require an effort – this is not a relationship which is going to be simple, because of all the extraneous influences.
3. Talk through your agreed ‘position’ on the various questions that others will ask, so that, at social settings for example, you are not ‘sandbagged’ or taken by surprise, or led into saying anything that would upset your partner.
4. Accept that its going to take extra time for this relationship to find its own ‘tone’ and for you both to find agreement and understanding on issues such as religion, domestic chores, childcare and so forth.
6. Discuss the different love languages of your different cultures – in some cultures touch is more important that speech, while in others its all about gifts, and in others its about tokens. Share how love is expressed in your culture and which way works best for you, and learn what your partner is used to and expects.
7. If you are the one who has moved into your partners world and you find yourself in a new country, or have adopted a new religion, you may feel that you have sacrificed your own culture to integrate yourself. This may leave you feeling that you have lost some important parts of you, or you have given up some pleasurable habits or practices. You may wonder, Who am I?, Where do I belong?, Do I fit in here? If so, it is important to:
a) talk to your partner about your feelings and
b) work out how you can hold on to your old self while integrating with the new. You should not have to give up on everything that you held dear. Think of ways you can reclaim parts of your old identity in a way that doesn’t stop you integrating well into your partner’s culture. It is possible to hold onto your identity while embracing a new culture and you can start to explore what makes you you. After all, you are an individual and while the culture you grew up in might have helped shape your identity, but it does not own you – you are in control. It is entirely possible to integrate into a new culture while holding on to the essence of who you are.
8. Try to understand your partner’s culture, respect the differences and be able to compromise. Don’t expect your partner to fit perfectly into your way of life, or you into theirs. Respect the differences, find a comfortable balance and be prepared to let some things go – compromise is essential.
9. Learn about your partner’s culture – don’t just expect them to adopt yours. Read up on their cultural history and try to learn their language. Making the effort shows that you are prepared to compromise.
10. Be positive about your differences. Having different influences can be very enhancing and empowering, so make the best of what you’ve got.
11. Don’t be afraid to use humour, provided it is kind and not cruel, and gentle. There are bound to be some amusing moments – enshrine them in your family memories.