Are you in an intercultural relationship? Do you know firsthand the unique joys of having a partner who enriches your worldview, and the frustrations of having a partner with whom you are often on different pages, based on different points of reference, different societal norms and countless different cultural nuances? In my counseling practice, I work with many intercultural couples who find that in spite of enjoying the richness of two worlds in their relationship and family – and often two or more languages – they are also struggling with how to bridge the gap.
At first glance, the issues seem to be no different than the major stumbling blocks for couples in general, regardless of background. Specifically, the areas of finance, child rearing and overall communication are those that come up most often. What is different though, is that for intercultural couples, the expectation of “societal norm” varies enormously, creating even more fertile ground for miscommunication, discord and, eventually, general discontent, if not managed properly. Add to that a different mother tongue for each of the partners, which can hamper even the best attempts at open communication, and you have a recipe for a potentially challenging situation.
While each intercultural couple and family is unique, I often see patterns with Italian/Anglo Saxon unions regarding family finances, parenting and gender roles. For example, Anglo Saxon women raised in their home countries often have a culturally and societally driven expectation of open communication and shared information regarding the state of the couples’ finances. However, Italian men, who were raised with a wholly different set of culturally and societally driven expectations often have a much less transparent approach, and do not expect to talk balance sheets, investments and daily spending with their partner. Neither of these attitudes or expectations is good, bad, right or wrong. It’s a question of not only first being able to understand where each of you is coming from, but often, why? Understanding more about the culture, attitudes and societal norms that shaped your partner will lay the foundation for greater understanding and more successful outcomes when navigating complex issues.
Evidence-based research on couples and on what differentiates happy, successful unions from the unhappy, unsuccessful ones shows that to make a relationship last, couples must become better friends, learn to manage conflict and create ways to support each other’s hopes for the future. While some challenges that intercultural couples face may differ from partners who hail from the same country, they can take heart remembering that a strong friendship, an agreed upon approach for handling conflict and finding ways to support each other are objectives for couples one and all.
So, what can couples do to work toward these objectives?
To help build and strengthen friendship, couples can start with remembering to continually update what they think they know about their partner. We all change over time, and many couples stop asking each other open-ended questions. Remember when you were first getting to know your partner and you asked questions in an effort to learn exactly who this person in front of you was? What you learned in those early stages should be consistently updated and added to over time.
All couples have conflict, but it’s how those conflicts are managed that make the difference between happy and unhappy couples. For every couple, some issues are resolvable and others are perpetual, and for the perpetual problems, it is key to develop a productive dialogue. For example, imagine you and your partner have never been able to agree on how to manage the housekeeping, since one of you is neat and the other is messy. The issue of having very different approaches is not going to change. It is how you and your partner talk to each other about managing the issue that will make the difference.
When couples find themselves gridlocked in the same arguments over perpetual problems, what often lies underneath are feelings and dreams that aren’t being communicated. The next time you and your partner find you are having the same fight over the same issue, try to listen to your partner the way a friend would listen. Ask questions that draw out your partner and their point of view. Suspend judgment and try to listen to what’s behind your partner’s position on the problem.