Signing up for a life-long commitment with another person can be one of the richest and most rewarding experiences. Marriage is also hard work and requires effort and attention. A relationship in general means that two people from two different backgrounds come together and then try to unify their different experiences into a set of expectations for the future. Each partner incorporates his or her background, upbringing and beliefs into his or her expectations of the relationship and future together. When the partners are from the same culture, there are many traditions beliefs and values that overlap, yet there will still be a great many differences in how each partner views the relationship. When partners come from two different cultures as well, then the differences can be vast.
This is not to say that cross-cultural marriages can’t work – they certainly can, but it is important that both partners are at least aware of the potential differences and challenges they face. Not only do you now bring different family backgrounds and experiences into the mix, but you also bring different cultural attitudes and beliefs. Essentially you will notice that each partner thinks differently about the world and the issues within it. Common differences may exist in topics relating to politics, gender roles and religion for starters. You may notice that your partner holds vastly different views about these. It is very important that you learn about these potentially differing values and beliefs while you are still in the early exploration stages of your relationship. Ensuring that you are both able to present your views and be respected, despite the differences in them will go a long way to keeping your relationship healthy and on track despite being from different cultures.
In fact, in many ways, learning to accept and respect the differences between the two of you can create a unique opportunity for personal growth and learning within the relationship. You can learn to listen more, empathise more and generally understand more. On the other hand, differences in world views and opinions can also leave one, or both of you, feeling isolated, misunderstood and alone when one partner overrides the other’s opinion. This is something to be aware of. Depending on where you reside, it is possible that one of you will be “out of your depth”. You may be living in a new country that is not your own and feeling like a foreigner. This feeling of isolation deepens when you and your partner are not sufficiently aligned with your values and beliefs or when you don’t discuss the cultural differences. Spending time with family and having a support network of friends and peers is important. Technology can help when it is not possible to be physically present yet it is not a full solution in itself.
Making time to incorporate the respective holidays of both families and both cultures becomes very important in a cross cultural relationship. Healthy communication practices between partners becomes critical in deciding which traditions and holidays will be acknowledged or not honoured for each family and which new traditions and holidays will be celebrated as a new blended family. Cross cultural marriages can be difficult in this sense, especially when they considering spiritual or religious practices and holidays. It is essential to understand both of your individual beliefs and practices and respect both points of view. By aligning yourselves in advance on a position around a given tradition or holiday, the partners can then better support one another when informing family members who may be less than happy with the couple’s perspective.
The most difficult thing that a cross cultural marriage may face is lack of approval from family and friends. In many cases, one or both families may not approve of the cultural integration and this can leave the couple disengaged and isolated from family and much needed support. While it can be a difficult road to choose, cross cultural marriages can work and can be extremely rewarding when partners are pro-active and build healthy communication practices between themselves and their families. Psychologists at the Centre for Human Potential have experience working with cultural differences in relationships, diversity and transitioning into new countries and cultures.
Lisa Kunde has ten years experience working as a psychologist with adults in both private and public hospital settings (oncology, palliative care, chronic pain, cardio-pulmonary, psychiatric and alcohol and other drugs units).