All too often I see multi-cultural couples in therapy who’ve been together for a year or so; the novelty of marriage has worn off, and now they are realizing things that usually only surface after you’ve been living together for a while. While the foundation of a good marriage can depend on things like friendship, commitment and a shared meaning in life, each of these factors varies significantly according to cultural norms. It can be hard enough for a homogenous couple to adapt to marriage. A multi-cultural couple has to adapt at a whole different level.
For example, a common problem I see in multi -cultural marriages is differing expectations regarding the rights and responsibilities towards the in-laws. The saying goes that in-laws can make or break a marriage. The collectivist mind-set takes it for granted that in-laws are part of the immediate family, they must be respected, involved and prioritized. It’s expected that in-laws will participate in all aspects of family life, and sometimes even be key decision makers. This view is not shared by those with an individualistic orientation, who may interact with in-laws on a “by invitation only” basis, and who value privacy, autonomy and independence. Another old adage is that you marry a family – this is so true for many cultures where joint living is the norm. In most of the cases that I’ve worked with, the adjustment has to be done by the young couple – rarely does the family system change to accommodate new blood. Just like in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” where the influence of the girl’s traditional family was all-powerful, and her husband adapted to it.
Sometimes I see enormous strain on partners who come from an individualistic culture, but have to adapt to living close to the in-laws. Many times the relationship with in-laws starts off with the latter imposing their family value system onto the new family member, who suppresses resentment which leads to strong negative feelings. This adds stress to an already vulnerable marriage. These relationships have to be navigated delicately and the coping tools must include patience, compromise and an open mind. Unfortunately, many traditionalists don’t realize that if they just let the couple lead their own life, the new spouse may gravitate towards the family on their own, at their own pace and in a healthy way. This would set the stage for a genuine, mutually affectionate relationship, as opposed to a forced and contrived one which is usually toxic. If in-laws from a collectivist culture also practice patience, compromise and an open mind, then they too may enjoy a good family life.
Family culture can differ between two partners, even when both are homogenous. Two families can have very different values and behaviors, even if they seemingly share the same roots. Remember “Meet the Fockers”? Whatever the nature of culture clash, the number one solution is healthy communication. Having realistic expectations and clarifying your needs and desires is crucial. Practicing active and empathic listening with the willingness to compromise is also essential. Regardless of your world view, these fundamental skills are the building blocks for healthy marriage in any culture.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA