Across the world, intercultural relationships are on the increase as global travel becomes easier. Sadly though there is a higher prevalence of divorce in intercultural relationships which is linked to the idea of heterogamy i.e. difference values and cultures between the partners. How do you make these differences work for you and not against you to make your relationship more likely to succeed?
1) Understand the normal process that all relationships go through over time.
During the initial attraction or honeymoon phase there are feelings of attraction, a sense of adventure and optimism, an emphasis on similarities and the differences are seen as “exotic is erotic”. After time, the relationship goes through a settling in phase where comparison of values happens. At this time the couple will be getting to grips with their differences, discovering some causes of confusion and friction. Exotic becomes exasperating! With even more time, the relationship becomes established and the differences are resolved or accepted. This is also called the role comparison phase where the house rules and roles of the relationship become established.
There can be many trouble spots during this process such as comparing values, politics, religion, friends, finances, male-female roles, raising children, food and drink, attitudes to time, language and communication. This list can seem a little overwhelming and although many of these factors are challenges for all couples– the potential differences are often greater for an intercultural couple.
Try and focus on what attracted you to the person in the first place. What differences are complimentary, and which are sources of conflict? Which can you learn to laugh at, let go of and accept and which need to be negotiated and resolved? What are the benefits of your differences?
2) Thinking about culture as an iceberg can be a useful metaphor.
On the surface level, there are observable and more conscious aspects of culture, including behaviours, appearance, language, food, art, music and so on. However this is just a small part of what culture is. Below the surface are hidden many more deeper, non-observable more unconscious aspects of culture. For example – beliefs, expectations, roles, values, assumptions, concepts of child raising, concepts of the self, rules of social etiquette, handling emotions, work ethics and many more. These ideas are so ingrained that often we are not aware of how our culture has influenced our behaviour.
Take an example of attitudes to time. In some cultures, punctuality is important and if you get an invitation to a party starting at 7pm, you are expected to turn up at 7pm. In other cultures, there is a more relaxed attitude to time keeping and if invited to a party at 7pm, there is an unspoken awareness that no one will arrive until about 9pm. Unless you are aware of and understand these differences, you may see your partner turning up late as extremely rude and it becomes a source of conflict.
Try to become more aware of your own cultural values and what these mean to you. Go beneath the surface. Find out as much as you can about each other’s culture.
3) Be curious, not furious!
When there are differences be curious and ask lots of questions. Why does your partner do X? What does it mean to them? Where did this behaviour come from? Is it common in their culture or is it more of a personal preference? Share your views on the same topic – what similarities and differences are there? Share your feelings about how the behaviour impacts on you and what ideas you both have about resolving the conflict. E.g. could your partner make an effort to be on time when they know this is important to you? Could you be more relaxed and accepting of their behaviour knowing this is not personal and not about rudeness?
There is no right or wrong way to resolve your differences – the solutions you come up with to follow both your cultural practices and/or combine these into a third culture will be unique to you.
Just remember to keep communicating and remember these negotiations may change over time.
Some useful resources:
Intercultural marriages: Promises and Pitfalls by Dugan Romano (2008)
Mediating Cultures: Parenting in Intercultural Contexts by Alberto Gonzalez and Tina Harris (2014)
Familia are an excellent organisation working with people in intercultural relationships and have a lot of different groups in Helsinki: