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 other 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

Multicultural, cross-cultural and intercultural relationships:

We often refer to 'cross-cultural' when discussing relationships, when in reality we may mean something different. There are some similarities between multicultural, cross-cultural, and intercultural relationships, however, each has slight differences, so it's important to understand these before discussing issues that can surface within cross-cultural relationships specifically. 

  • Multicultural refers to a society containing several cultures or ethnic groups. This can mean that people live alongside one another, but do not necessarily engage and interact with other groups. 

  • Cross-cultural is typically associated with the 'comparison' of different cultures. This is often used to describe the acknowledgment and understanding of individual cultures, but it can be hard to bring about collective change. This can create issues when two people in a relationship have different cultures. 

  • Intercultural describes communities that have a deep respect for all cultures. In regards to relationships, this is ultimately what we want to achieve as the couple can grow together. However, it can be tricky to fully understand one another, which is when issues can arise.

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 dependent 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 them 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 principles 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 from 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.

If you feel you need help navigating your cross-cultural relationship, read our article ‘Advice for cross-cultural relationships’.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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