Cross-cultural relationships

All relationships are to some extent cross-cultural, in that both parties come together from different families to build a new unit together. Whilst for many couples this will be a natural set of compromises to which both partners will adjust naturally overtime – for others the differences can be fundamental, with one finding it difficult to understand the others way of looking at the world and vice versa.

The loyalty we often feel towards our own culture and traditions can sometimes mean we find it difficult to understand another’s. In a relationship situation when two people have differing beliefs, it is these feelings that can be pushed to the forefront, overwhelming the individual feelings we have for one another.

Cross-cultural issues faced by couples include loss of identity, conflicts over differences in fundamental beliefs, clashes in parenting tactics, struggles with unsupportive families and different interpretations of an event relating to some aspect of differing cultures.

Counselling for cross-cultural issues can help couples step outside of their restrictive cultural identities to see one another with greater clarity, as individuals. By taking the time to listen to one another’s stories in an objective setting with a counsellor, a new level of understanding may be reached, obstacles can be overcome and a plan for moving forward can be made.

What is cultural identity?

Culture isn't just about the things we can see. It's not just about the national dish, the fashions people wear, the gods they worship, or even the places they live. Culture is for the most part invisible; we hardly even notice it until we're forced to step outside and see it from a new perspective. A large amount of what we do, say, think, believe, and to some extent, feel - is shaped by the culture we come from. From a young age, the information we absorb from the world around us influences our:

  • ideas about how to behave
  • sense of self-worth
  • thoughts about what's right and what's wrong
  • aspirations and interests
  • values - the importance of things in life (i.e. family/money/freedom)
  • understanding of our individual places in society
  • ideas about birth, life and death

Cross-cultural relationship issues

Particular challenges faced by people in cross-cultural relationships include:

  • coping with religious differences
  • loss of identity
  • daily disagreements over small things - cooking, hygiene, standards, rituals etc.
  • different ideas about the meaning of love, family and relationships
  • different methods of dealing with conflict
  • unsupportive families

Lifestyle disagreements in cross-cultural relationships

Lifestyle disagreements are arguments involving daily life. These disagreements can sometimes be sparked by resentment because one or both partners feel their culture is being rejected or attacked when the other refuses to follow their customs or traditions.

Some lifestyle disagreements include:

  • Eating and drinking - Different cultures have different views on alcohol consumption and diets vary greatly around the world.

  • Clothing - Sometimes people change what they wear to fit in with another culture.

  • Chore distribution - Different views on gender roles can spark conflict when it comes to distributing domestic chores.

  • Money - Money can be a big stumbling block when it comes to relationship harmony. How people deal with money, how they value money and how they spend it can be quite dependant on the culture they come from.

Counselling can help iron out these domestic problems by looking at the driving forces behind them. Often, the problems run deeper than they first appear and couples can benefit from getting them out in the open to tackle head-on. With so many obstacles to overcome in cross-cultural relationships, having clear communication lines in everyday life is essential.

Religious differences

If you fall in love with someone who doesn't share your religious beliefs, how do you get around the fact that you might have different fundamental ideas about life? Are your beliefs compatible? Would you sacrifice some of your rituals, or soften some of your beliefs, to make your partner happy? Would you take the time to learn about their beliefs, or perhaps even go with them to their mosque/church/temple?

Some of the main religious issues in cross-cultural relationships include:

  • Incompatible beliefs - Two people might love each other for other reasons, but if a couple can't agree on fundamental values, conflicts can arise.

  • Unsupportive families - In some cultures, the preservation of religion is of the utmost importance. With rapid globalisation and the merging of cultures across the world, it's becoming increasingly difficult to hold onto some religious traditions. While some cultures still practise arranged marriages, not all young people are happy with this and many fall in love with people outside of their religion. This can cause huge family rifts and people are often forced to choose between their families and their partners.

  • Bringing up children - When two people with two different religions have a child, they have to come to some kind of agreement about how they bring up this child. Do they teach them about both religions and let the child decide when they're old enough? Or, do they choose one religion?

  • Guilt - The ideologies we grow up with never really leave us. Even if you reach a point in life where you lose or change your faith, those core principals you grew up with can leave their mark. Guilt is a big part of letting some or all of your beliefs and practices go, and this guilt can quickly lead to one partner resenting the other for leading them away from their birth culture.

Religious differences have been known to rip good, loving relationships apart. Learning how to deal with them is paramount.

Dealing with religious differences in cross-cultural relationships

Religious differences don't have to signal the end of a relationship - having conflicting views about the world can be a healthy and enlightening experience. Couples counselling is designed to help you step back from your relationship and see it as a separate entity, away from both you and your partner. Your counsellor will encourage you to investigate the role religion plays in your relationship. What parts does it impact? Your daily routine? Your conversations? The way you feel about each other? Next, your counsellor will help you identify the point at which religion started to have a negative effect on your relationship.

By looking back at how your relationship formed and the role religion played right at the beginning, you can work on reclaiming those initial feelings. Your religion need not smother your personal identity. It is possible to accept and embrace your partner's beliefs while staying true to your own. Variety is the spice of life, and as long as you respect one another's decisions, the odd disagreement shouldn't stand in the way of happiness.

Language barriers

Language is an important part of communication, but it is not actually necessary. Thousands of unspoken messages pass between people whenever they meet. A glance here, a foot tap there, a flick of the hair, a tensing of the shoulders. Every movement tells a story and romance offers the richest vocabulary. While many cross-cultural couples start out not understanding each other at all, normally at least one partner speaks the others' mother tongue - albeit basically. While a shared first language is not necessary for a happy romance, not having one can bring up challenges in the long run, including the following:

  • Humour - A lot of humour is verbal; could you cope with your partner not understanding your jokes, or you not understanding theirs?

  • Misunderstandings - Language is the key to instructing, directing and expressing. If you can't do these things properly then you open yourself up to misinterpretation, which in turn can lead to conflict.

  • Frustration - When you have feelings for someone, you probably want to get as close as possible to them. Not speaking the same language as them means you will always have a barrier between you, something which can become very frustrating over time.  

  • Alienation - Meeting a partner's friends and family is a nerve-wracking experience for anybody. When you don't speak the same language, this experience can be 10 times as daunting. How can you prove yourself to be a good match for their son/daughter/grandchild if they can't even understand you? When everyone around you is speaking in a different language, it can sometimes feel like they are talking about you. Although they probably aren't, the paranoia and the frustration of not being able to engage in the way you want to can lead to feelings of alienation.

Dealing with language issues in cross-cultural relationships

Counselling can help to improve communication pathways between couples, even when those couples don't share a first language. By clearing up misunderstandings and voicing secret feelings about alienation and frustration, couples can step out from the tangle of problems miscommunication presents and start with a clean slate.

Make sure you:

  • Make the effort - Even if your partner is a foreigner in your country, by taking the time to learn their language you can show that you want to be a part of their world as much as they've become a part of yours.

  • Strengthen other communication channels - Find ways to reinforce messages to avoid misunderstandings - especially things like times and places to meet.

  • Consider social gatherings - Ask friends and family to speak in your partner's language if possible, or to speak slowly without using informal language they might not recognise.

  • Be patient - It takes time and practice to learn a new language. Eventually, with patience and understanding, you will find a unique way to communicate with your partner.  

Loss of identity

If you've moved to a different country, changed religion, or sacrificed your own culture to embrace your partner's, you may begin to feel a little departed from the person you used to be. When you integrate into a new culture, you often have to leave some of your old habits behind. Soon, it becomes apparent just how important those small habits were to you, and how much they impacted your own sense of identity. You might wonder:

  • Who am I?

  • Where do I belong?

  • Do I fit in here?

  • Do I have a responsibility to hold on to my cultural heritage?

A counsellor will help you to think of ways you can reclaim parts of your old identity in a way that doesn't stop you integrating well into your partner's culture. It is possible to hold onto your identity while embracing a new culture and, with the help of a counsellor, you can start to explore what makes you, you. After all, you are an individual and, while the culture you grew up in might have helped shape your identity, it does not own you - you are in control.

Advice for cross-cultural relationships

There is no single formula for a happy, long-term cross-cultural relationship. Relationships are always different and what works for one couple might not for another. Whatever challenges you face on your journey, whatever complications arise from the differences between you, it is important to always remember that there was a reason you started your relationship in the first place. It might become tainted, marred, or forgotten - but that reason will never really disappear.

Here are some tips for avoiding challenges in cross-cultural relationships:

1. Understand, respect and compromise

Don't expect your partner to settle seamlessly into your way of life. Even if they're the foreigner and you're the native, you should see the relationship as a merging of cultures rather than that person adopting yours. Respect their differences, learn about them and look at where you might have to compromise to help them feel happy. Relationships should always be about finding a comfortable balance. If one of you isn't making enough effort, then cracks will start to form.

2. Get first-hand experience of each other's cultures

Visit each other's home country, learn one another's language (even if they speak yours) and read up about their religion and cultural history. If you're not interested, why are you with this person? Making the effort to get out there and experience life from their perspective shows that you care and that you want to know them better.

3. Pass on both cultures to your children

The issue of children can be a big one for cross-cultural couples. How do parents from different heritages instil a solid sense of identity in their child? Instead of seeing yours and your partner's separate cultures as two different identities, see your relationship as one. Teach your children about both cultures and explore with them the differences between the two, focussing on how they work together and the positives that can be drawn from both. Rearing your children to be bilingual is also a good idea so as not to alienate one half of your couple.

4. Think positively about your differences

Having a different perspective on life is a valuable thing - you have so much to learn from one another. See your differences as a good thing that enhances your relationship, rather than a stumbling block.

Coping strategies for conflict in cross-cultural couples

A study by U.S. scientists at Sam Houston State University, Texas, found that cross-cultural couples tended to use a set of coping mechanisms to manage their cultural differences. These were the most common:

  • Humour - The cure for so many relationship problems, humour enables people to be frank and refreshing about potential problems. By poking fun at your partner's bad English, or unusual dinner table etiquette, you can highlight your differences in a way that draws you together. As long as you can take a joke yourself, humour is a great tool for overcoming potentially awkward situations.

  • Cultural deference by one partner - Often one partner will adopt the language, customs and attitudes of the other to make the relationship work.

  • Blending of values and expectations - Finding common ground in the beliefs and values of each person's culture is a good way to find a happy medium. Cultures are rarely incompatible with others - all it takes is a little education, understanding and compromise. After all, we're all human.

  • Appreciation for other cultures - Cross-cultural couples who have an appreciation for global travel and different cultures generally fare better than those who don't. Having a natural interest in anthropology, history and exploration means the relationship takes on an inquisitive dynamic - each partner is always keen to learn something new about the other, which keeps them together and prevents their differences from becoming negative.

How does counselling for cross-cultural issues work?

In couples counselling, you and your partner will be encouraged to talk about your respective backgrounds. You may be asked to talk about your past experiences before your partner came into your life, and you may be encouraged to think about the following:

  • What brought you two together in the first place?

  • What's good and positive about the relationship?

  • How do your differences impact your relationship?

  • How can you balance your own cultural beliefs with that of your partner's? Can you find a suitable blend?

  • How do you envision the future?

  • What do you want from the relationship?

  • What values would you want your future children to have? (If appropriate).

A good counsellor will:

  • Have an open dialogue regarding religion, ethnicity and race.

  • Show no prejudice or bias.

  • Understand that each client is unique with different needs.

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

Whilst there are no official rules and regulations in position which stipulate what level of training and experience a couple’s counsellor, marriage guidance counsellor or relationship counsellor needs, we do recommend that you check your therapist is experienced in the area for which you are seeking help.

A Diploma level qualification (or equivalent) in relationship counselling or a related topic will provide assurance and peace of mind that your counsellor has developed the necessary skills.

Another way to assure they have undergone specialist training is to check if they belong to a relevant professional organisation that represents couples counsellors.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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