Once upon a time when I was a wee little grad student, my plan was to specialize in working with individuals and couples in cross-cultural relationships. This interest sparked due to my own identity as a multi-ethnic, second-generation immigrant as well as my journey marrying someone of a different ethnic, racial, and cultural background than myself (in case my last name hadn’t given that away yet!).
Since then, my specialties have expanded quite a bit, but I still love navigating the nuances that come up in diverse relationships.
Types of Cross-Cultural Relationships
Sometimes society can have a very narrow view of what “cross-cultural” means, including interactions across race, ethnicity, and country. Certainly these relationships are all cross-cultural, but there are so many presentations of how “cross-cultural” can present. For individuals who immigrated from the same country, the difference could be whether they were first-, second-, or third-generation immigrants, what part of the country or city they moved from, age of immigration, religious differences, language proficiency, etc. Even for those raised within the U.S., it could be the cultural differences between the West Coast and the South or Midwest, small-town and urban, poverty and wealth, left-leaning and right-leaning, different sides of town, and so many more possibilities.
This list barely touches the surface. My point is, there are a wide array of shapes and forms cross-cultural relationships can take.
Is a Difference Unhealthy, or Just Cultural?
Whatever flavor of cultural differences exist within a couple, I often hear the question: is this difference unhealthy, or just cultural? The problem with this question is it assumes that attributing a perceived quirk to someone’s culture means it must therefore not be unhealthy and vise-versa.
If we dive further into this question, things start to fall apart quickly. Let’s pull it apart a little bit. To start: what is culture? Good ol’ Merriam-Webster defines culture as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time.”
I appreciate the second half of this definition because it illuminates that we all have our own systems of cultural values, even within smaller circles of family and friends. Therefore, all of our behavior patterns – healthy or not – can likely be tied to culture in some way or another. Assuming cultural differences only exist between race, ethnicity, and religious differences is rather narrow-minded and doesn’t reflect the deeply nuanced world we live in.
How to Navigate Difference as a Couple
Back to that question: is this difference unhealthy, or just cultural? When clients ask this question, I like to reframe the question by asking, I wonder what kinds of cultural factors are influencing this behavior? The goal is not to try to label a “quirk” as either “cultural” or “unhealthy,” but to better understand where it comes from with the assumption that all behavior carries some cultural influence.
Reframing the question this way also creates an opportunity for the couple: as they better understand each other’s cultural influences, they can make choices for how they wish to build their own culture together. Are there pieces from your background worth keeping? Are there some that don’t fit in the culture you are building together? The key to success in navigating cultural differences is understanding and collaboration.
If we were to stick with our original wording of the question, we may risk labeling a behavior as unhealthy when it also carries some cultural importance. Even if there is unhealth within a behavior, it’s important to acknowledge the cultural roots within it and see if there are healthy pieces of that culture that are important to hold on to rather than throwing the whole thing out. Couples who do so often find themselves feeling resentful over time.
If you’re in a cross-cultural relationship I encourage you to take the time to understand all aspects of your partner’s culture and to ask for them to better understand you too while the two of you build your own culture together.
As always, I’d like to be clear that this blog post isn’t intended as professional counseling or clinical advice. If you’re in need of support, please consider speaking to a professional to be evaluated.