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