When Love and Culture Collide

Romantic accents, fanciful customs and exotic trips make cross-cultural relationships particularly exciting, but when novelty fades into reality, ambiguous cultural nuances and unspoken taboos become like relationship landmines. Distinctly different backgrounds and native languages often lead to misunderstandings and misaligned expectations.

Despite these very significant challenges, cross-cultural relationships can be uniquely fulfilling and satisfying. When cross-cultural couples embrace their differences as assets, they are able to combine the best parts of their cultures. Leveraging the strengths of their cultural backgrounds they can build strong, healthy, connected family units.

Below are the stories of three cross-cultural couples who have successfully navigated some common cultural differences. If you are dating or married to someone from a different culture, this practical advice is for you.

Food, language and lifestyle
In cross-cultural relationships, what may be completely normal to one person may be strange or even considered wrong by the other. Deeply ingrained cultural mindsets can impact even the smallest elements of daily living. Cross-cultural couples must also decide which languages to speak in the home and how they will merge their tastes in food and decor.

Take Katie, a mid-western bread and potatoes girl who had only ever eaten rice as part of Chinese take-out before marrying her husband, Junior, who was born in France and raised in Haiti. Junior does not feel like he has eaten if his meal does not include rice, but to Katie it was a nuisance and so she initially balked at making it a daily staple. “Along the way, I finally realized how serious my husband’s love affair is with rice,” Katie says, and now she always serves rice.

Junior and Katie say the most important way they have integrated their cultures is by teaching their children to be proficient in both languages. This will enable them to communicate with both sides of the family and they will have the substantial advantage of being bilingual. Being a bilingual family is a way Junior and Katie have let their cultural differences complement one another and have created the “best of both worlds” for themselves.

In-laws and extended family
In many cultures around the world, family structure is elder-centric and built around multi-generational homes. There are often serious expectations regarding care of one’s elderly parents who sometimes continue to have authority over their adult, married children.

Katherine and Petar, who is Eastern European, were very pragmatic in how they addressed these cultural differences. “I knew that the paradigm in my husband’s country was that the newly married couple moved in with the in-laws and that families are multi-generational. I made it very clear to my then fiancé that living with his mother would be a deal breaker for me,” says Katherine. Petar agreed to live separately from his mother, but was upfront about his responsibility for financially supporting his disabled mother indefinitely. Before they married, Katherine and Petar openly discussed these issues and came to specific agreements about them.

“What feels like ‘we can make it through anything’ in the throes of new love can be the blueprint for a lot of unhappiness, or even the undoing of a marriage if not dealt with realistically before making vows before God,” Katherine cautions. Cross-cultural couples should not underestimate the potential for different expectations regarding extended family. While compromise is ideal, Katherine says each person should be honest about their “non-negotiables.”

Parenting styles and methods
Many cultures are less permissive than Americans and expect children to assume more responsibility at younger ages. Cross-cultural couples often disagree about many aspects of how to raise children from discipline to daycare.

Stephanie, who lives far from her New England upbringing with her Congolese husband and his family, has learned that most cultural differences are a matter of preference, not right or wrong. “For example, in Africa, babies suck on a chicken bone when teething. Both of my kids have been given a chicken bone to suck on when we have been around extended family. While I keep a close eye on them and cringe a little on the inside I let them have it and they love, love those chicken bones,” says Stephanie.

While Stephanie has made her peace with her children teething on chicken bones, she is much more assertive about her views on issues like discipline. Stephanie encourages cross-cultural couples to compromise and let the little things go, but also stand up for the values that are most important to them.

Finding balance
Cross-cultural couples have both unique challenges and opportunities. To successfully channel the cultural fascination of courtship into a long-term marital partnership takes intentional communication and open-mindedness. If done with care, the flavorful and unique ingredients of both cultures can be sifted, blended and stewed into a rich, balanced and flavorful relationship.

Keri is a freelance writer. She blogs regularly at keriwilliams.wordpress.com.

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