Cross Cultural Relationships

Cross Cultural Relationships

Relationships that involve two people deciding to spend their lives together as a new unit are all cross-cultural to a degree as both parties come from different families and backgrounds. For some couples the differences will be minor and easy to adjust to; however for others the differences in our customs and beliefs can become an issue.

Most of us have an inherent loyalty to our families and cultures so when these are at odds with those of our partner we may feel we have to choose one over the other.

Some issues faced in a cross-cultural relationship include:

  • Differences in religious or fundamental beliefs
  • Loss of identity
  • Alienation from the respective families
  • Different beliefs regarding things like gender roles and handling conflict
  • Conflicting ideas about the meaning of love, family and relationships
  • Regular disagreements over lifestyle differences including cooking, hygiene and leisure time

Counselling can help by showing couples how to ‘see’ the other person as an individual first, outside of their cultural identity. Each person can explore their own beliefs and values to discover which of these are an essential part of their own identity and which are not.

Taking the time to talk through these issues with a counsellor gives both parties the opportunity to voice their feelings and work together to overcome obstacles so that they can strengthen their relationship and move forward together.


What is cultural identity?

Most people think of culture as the things we see that are unique to different communities such as fashions, religions, foods or community structures. While these certainly form part of the picture, much of our cultural identity is shaped by the things we believe, think, do, say and feel. We absorb these messages from those around us from a very young age. They affect our:

  • Standards of behaviour
  • Sense of right and wrong
  • Values – the things we believe are most important especially regarding family and finance
  • Aspirations and interests
  • Sense of self worth and our understanding of our place in the world
  • Views on the nature of birth, life and death


Lifestyle disagreements in cross cultural relationships

Differences in lifestyle practices can lead to one or both partners feeling defensive or resentful when the other does not want to follow or value their customs. Areas of conflict could include:

  • Money – values, saving and spending practices and decision making
  • Clothing styles and social etiquette
  • Domestic chores and gender roles
  • Parenting styles
  • Attitudes to alcohol
  • Diets and food preparation


Religious differences

What do you do when you love someone who holds different religious beliefs to you? Are your beliefs about the fundamentals of life compatible? How prepared are you to learn about your partner’s beliefs, participate in their ceremonies or even change some of your own views or practices in order to make your partner happy?

Areas of discrepancy could involve:

  • Conflicting core values regarding the nature of life and death, for example you may have differing views on abortion
  • Family rifts – often caused by moving away from traditional practices like arranged marriages or by valuing the individual before the family
  • Raising children – should they be taught the practices of one religion or both and at what age should they be allowed to choose for themselves
  • Guilt and resentment caused by sacrificing some or all of your traditions or core beliefs

Conflicting religious differences have often caused the breakdown of loving relationships. A counsellor can help by allowing both parties to reflect on the issues of most importance to them and to find ways to deal with the obstacles.

Dealing with religious differences in cross cultural relationships

Having religious differences does not mean a relationship has to suffer. In fact having conflicting views can lead couples on a positive voyage of self-discovery and enlightenment. The aim of couples counselling in this instance is to help you learn to step back and see your relationship as a separate entity to both you and your partner. Your counsellor will help you examine the role of religion in your individual lives and in your relationship with each other. What areas does it impact? Your daily routines? How you communicate? How you feel about each other?

As part of this process your counsellor will help you to discover the initial point where religion began to impact your relationship in a negative way. Was it at the very beginning or did it become an issue at a later stage? By returning to this point, you can then reclaim the feelings you originally had for each other and bring them back into your present situation.

It is quite possible to maintain your personal identity and beliefs alongside those of your partner. Showing respect for the other person’s beliefs and traditions is vital but it need not come at the expense of your own. Open acceptance of both sets of beliefs can add to the richness of the relationship and allow both partners to be happy.


Language barriers

While love is a universal language, we do need other ways to communicate with each other. Verbal communication is certainly important but we also communicate using non-verbal methods such as glances, body language and touch. This is especially true in a romantic relationship.

Sometimes, couples may not share a common language at all so this can make for some interesting (and fun) non-verbal communication. Often one partner can speak the mother tongue of the other but they may not be fluent in it. Having a shared first language is not a pre-requisite for a great relationship but not having one can lead to some challenging obstacles such as:

  • Not understanding each other’s jokes or sense of humour
  • Misunderstandings; especially in terms of instructions or directions
  • Inability to express concepts like thoughts, ideas and feelings, leading to deep frustration
  • Feelings of alienation and isolation – especially when one party is surrounded by people who don’t speak their language such as their partner’s family or a social group

Dealing with language issues in cross cultural relationships

There are a number of ways a counsellor can help couples improve their communication, especially where there are language issues involved. They create an environment where both parties feel comfortable expressing the feelings and frustrations that rise from their language barrier and help them to work through each issue together. In order for this to work both parties need to:

  • Be willing to make the effort to address and solve each issue, especially when one partner is living in a new country or community
  • Take the time to learn their partner’s language and try to be part of their world too
  • Use multiple channels of communication to reinforce messages and avoid misunderstandings; for example drawing pictures of a clock face and train to say “I’ll pick you up from the train at 4.30”
  • Be considerate in social situations and either ask everyone to speak in your partner’s language or to speak slowly and use non-verbal communication
  • Be patient – learning a new language is challenging but with patience, love and understanding your relationship will become stronger


Loss of identity

When you become immersed in a new culture you may find yourself feeling disconnected from your old self and your old life which can be quite distressing. You many have changed some of your old habits or sacrificed your own culture for that of your partner. On the surface this may not seem so bad but in time it may become more apparent that the things you have left behind were actually a big part of your sense of identity. You may have thoughts like:

  • Who am I really?
  • Where do I belong now?
  • Do I fit in here? Is this even possible?
  • Can I be an effective part of both worlds?
  • Should I feel obliged to maintain my cultural heritage?

With the support of a counsellor, you can discover ways to reclaim the parts of your old identity that are most important to you while still integrating well into your new culture. You can definitely have both. A counsellor can help you identify the essential characteristics that make you a unique individual. You are not your culture, it is part of you but it is not all of you. You have control and can decide which aspects of your culture you want to embrace and which to leave behind.


Advice and coping strategies for maintaining cross cultural relationships

Every relationship is different so what works for one couple may not work for another. There is no right or wrong way to create a happy and lasting cross-cultural relationship. Whenever you come across obstacles with language or culture it is important to think back to what first attracted you to each other and what factors influenced your relationship. The chances are those initial factors and feelings still exist.

No matter how long you have been in your relationship here are some practical tips for avoiding challenges before they become major problems.

Understand, compromise and respect

Rather than expecting your partner to completely adopt your way of life it is far better to view the relationship as a blending of two cultures, especially if they are the outsider. Do your best to understand their culture and respect their differences. All relationships need balance and compromise to work smoothly so the effort needs to come from both sides. Look for areas where conflicts may occur and plan how you will avoid or resolve them beforehand.

Try to walk in their shoes

Make an effort to experience your partner’s culture for yourself as much as possible. This could involve learning their language, spending time in their country or participating in their religious ceremonies. This will help to show them that you are genuinely interested in their background and cultural identity.

Share both cultures with your children

There are many issues that can arise within a cross-cultural family. Will you lean more towards one culture or create a blend of the two for your children to experience. This may include observing different religious holidays or cooking foods from both cultures. Aim to give your children a sense of their own identity that includes both cultures. Teaching them to be bilingual is an excellent way to avoid alienating one of the parents.

Embrace and appreciate your differences

Seeing life from a new perspective is always beneficial. Couples who enjoy global travel or are interested in history, anthropology and so on often have a stronger relationship than those who are less inquisitive. Learn from one another and think positively about your differences.

Use humour in awkward situations

If one of you uses incorrect language, has a strong accent or has a different idea of mealtime etiquette, instead of laughing at them laugh with them. This can turn a potentially upsetting situation into one that can draw you together in a positive way. Be prepared to have fun poked at you too.

Be willing to defer to your partner

In many cases, one party within the couple will agree to adopt the language or customs of the other to help make the relationship work well.

Look for a happy medium

Find areas of common ground where you can blend your beliefs, values or expectations. It is rare for cultures to be completely at odds with one another. Look for the similarities as they usually far outweigh the differences.


How does counselling for cross-cultural issues work?

Your counsellor will encourage both of you to share your personal stories and backgrounds in a safe and non-judgemental environment. They will allow you to speak openly and candidly about your differences in race, ethnicity or religion. You might cover your experiences with your family and religious traditions, schooling, pastimes, friendships and more.

During your sessions you will likely discuss things like:

  • What you are each looking for in the relationship
  • What initially brought you together
  • The positives and negatives of being in this type of relationship
  • How your relationship affects your sense of self
  • The areas that may cause you conflict and what you can do about them
  • What you each envision your future to be
  • How you will raise your children

As all couples have different needs and experiences, your counsellor will work with you to find the approaches that fit best with your situation.


What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?

There are no official requirements for a relationship counsellor to have a particular qualification or level of training; however it is a good idea to check that they are experienced in the area(s) where you want help.

Using a therapist that has recognised qualifications in some form of relationship counselling will help give you confidence and trust in them.

It is also useful to see if they are a member of a related professional association as this will show they have completed specialist training in their field.

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