Source: 123RF, used with permission
More and more couples are marrying interculturally. Therefore, it is not unusual to see couples who don’t look like a traditional image of couples (perhaps, typical example of this might be heterosexual, same race couple). Many people are using online dating sites or dating apps to meet their partners. In 2017, the popular wedding magazine and website, the Knot surveyed more than 14,000 engaged or recently married individuals and reported that 19% of brides said they met their spouses online. According to this survey, meeting via dating websites has surpassed more than traditionally popular venues such as through friends 17%, during college 15%, and at work 12%. Is it possible that this trend of meeting a potential partner via online allows us to open up to possibilities for love and partnership in ways that were not available to us before? Is it also possible that along with these possibilities come challenges that we were neither aware of nor prepared for? And, might it be that this is just fine?
So what might the unity of intercultural couple look like? The interior of intercultured couples is likely to be multi-layered and multi-dimensional—embracing differences in cultural characteristics and rituals; geographical location, patterns of up-bringing (urban, rural, suburban), language, age, gender, cohort, family configuration and dynamics, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, socioeconomic status, employment, education, occupation, political affiliation, migration, and stage of acculturation (Falicov, 1995).
But how does the cultural differences manifest in their day-to-day life? Some cultural difference in a couple can be overt and can sound like this: “My husband is Swedish and he likes to skate every weekend in winter while I enjoy staying home and bake cookies and pies.” But mostly the cultural differences that come to the surface of an intimate relationship are more nuanced and disguised—playing out in mundane interactions and communications.
In this blog, Couples and Culture, I would like to bring these nuanced differences in couples’ dynamics that can unexpectedly surprise and confuse the players in the relationship due to the culturally-prescribed meaning and culturally-relevant gravity attached to an experience. These differences, seemingly subtle but profound in meaning and impact, might be also embedded in expectations towards the roles of oneself and our partners in the coupledom. And the differences can extend to how couples relate to the external world—family, friends, colleagues and anyone else in their lives.
Saying “No” is not an option with Tomoko While Saying it is John’s reality
John said to his wife, Tomoko, “You could have said ‘No’ to my parents! Why didn’t you?! Why are you getting upset with me?”
Tomoko replied, “I could not have said ‘No’ to your parents! How could I? They are your parents! Not mine! But you could have said ‘No’ to your parents for me since I was exhausted from translating! I can not believe that you were not aware of my exhaustion!”
“You did not tell me that you wanted me to say ‘No’ to my parents, “ retorted John. “How could I have told my parents that we wanted them to take the later flight when you did not communicate with me regarding what you needed. Take some responsibility for your action!”
“Do I have to spell out everything I need from you? You did not realize that I was looking exhausted from caring your parents all week long without having my own time! You took my translating for granted and did not care to pay attention to what I was possibly feeling! You are so self centered!!!”
Tomoko and John are married couple in their early 40’s with two school-aged children, 10 and 8. They are reflecting on the vacation they took two weeks ago with John’s parents. They went to Japan where Tomoko grew up. It was a week long vacation full of activities and amusement. On the day that they were supposed to return to the United States, John’s parents were informed of their flight cancellation and were given two options: 1) take a later flight on the same day, and 2) take the same flight on the next day. Tomoko was already exhausted from translating for John and his parents and needing a break from translation role. But in reality, she could not say no to her in-laws and felt resentful towards
her husband for not realizing how exhausted she was feeling. She felt she was taken for granted and invisible.
Both of their claims could be understood and validated fully from their own cultural background. However, they each wanted so much to be understood (without actual, direct communication) that they could not see, hear or incorporate the partner’s perspective.
Tomoko grew up in Osaka, Japan until 12 years old. In her culture, being considerate of others by accommodating family and friends’ preference was emphasized in her upbringing. Particularly, she was taught to be thoughtful of her older family members including extended families. Almost always saying yes or agreeing others’ desires was considered thoughtful in her culture.
John, in contrary grew up in New York, United States where he was taught to speak his mind articulately, and individual independence was highly encouraged by his parents. Both of John’s parents are of European decent and believe that people have the rights to express their ideas and thoughts. Growing up in New York taught him to be very assertive of his feelings, thoughts and preferences.
According to Tomoko, John should have acted more thoughtfully by observing Tomoko’s exhaustion and suggesting that his parents take the later flight and not wait until the next day. According to John, Tomoko should have pulled him aside and spoken to him about how exhausted she felt from not only traveling with her in-laws but also translating for him and his parents. Therefore, she wants his parents to take the later flight.
The same scenario, but two players in the relationship experienced the event very differently. Can two different experiences co-exist? Can they possibly appreciate the experience even if they saw it very differently? How could they move from their own understanding of the event and appreciate the partner’s experience?
I would like to ask Tomoko, as much as Tomoko wants John to understand her perspective, can she do the same for John? And this question can be applied to John as well. Can he want to understand what it was like for Tomoko? Of course, they need to be willing to communicate what’s going on with each of them to be able to reach each other.
I believe they truly had a wonderful family trip together, and this miscommunication stemming from having two different understandings is now giving them an opportunity to understand each other, particularly each other’s cultural difference, in more complexity and depth. Can they see this trip as an opportunity rising to explore each other’s culture and come to a more experienced appreciation of their difference? Or do they have to see it as a disastrous event that they both got so hurt and disappointed from having a partner not willing or able to understand their perspective?
Circumstances like this would give us an unexpected opportunity to use a creative part of ourselves, thinking and feeling our way through the situation by putting
ourselves in someone else’s shoes. This process might be difficult since both Tomoko and John were already very hurt by the circumstance. However, using them as an example, if you let yourself imagine what is it like for my partner, you can not only integrate your view and your partner’s, but may also be able to experience genuine empathy in your relationship.