The twenty-first century has seen the largest human migration in history. Not only are more people pulling up root and settling in other parts of their own country than ever before, they’re also moving to foreign countries in record numbers. The magnets of this migration are large cities with vibrant economies that embrace cultural diversity.
Many people who head across the country or around the globe seeking educational or career opportunities are also of the age when they’re looking for a long-term romantic partner. As a result, the incidence of intercultural marriage is steeply on the rise as well. In some culturally diverse areas, such as Australia, Hawaii, and Singapore, one in three marriages involve partners from different cultures. And even in other parts of the Western World, such as the United States and France, about one in ten marriages are intercultural.
Building a life with another person is always a challenge, but it’s even more so when the two partners come from different cultures. This is because our culture provides us with a set of expectations about how things work in the world—and this includes the dynamics of relationships. Since these cultural scripts were laid down in our psyches from an early age, we rarely question them. Instead, we tend to accept them as obvious truths about the world.
Two people from the same culture may enter a relationship with similar assumptions, but that isn’t necessarily the case for intercultural couples. Thus, the extent to which each partner can understand and accept the culture of their spouse, the happier the relationship should be. This was the hypothesis investigated in a recent study published by University of Queensland psychologist Melisa Kaya and her associates.
The University of Queensland is located in Brisbane, Australia, a city with a highly diverse population. The majority of people there are Western in culture, which for the purposes of this study includes not only those born in Australia but also immigrants from Western Europe and North America. The minority population consists of many different ethnic groups, but the largest of these is Chinese. As a result, Mandarin is also the second most commonly spoken language in Brisbane after English.
For the purposes of this study, Kaya and colleagues recruited four different types of couples living in Brisbane:
- Western male with Western female
- Western male with Chinese female
- Chinese male with Western female
- Chinese male with Chinese female
Each couple individually completed surveys that measured the degree to which they identified themselves with Western culture and with Chinese culture. They also responded to a questionnaire that assessed their level of relationship satisfaction.
The researchers hypothesized that couples from the same culture would report higher levels of relationship satisfaction than those from different cultures, on the assumption that cultural differences would be potential sources of conflict. However, the results were more complicated than expected.
Overall, Western-Western couples reported the highest level of relationship satisfaction. Conversely, Chinese-Chinese couples indicated much lower levels of happiness in their relationship. In fact, couples consisting of a Western male and a Chinese female reported levels of relationship satisfaction in between these two types of same-culture marriage.
Before we jump to the conclusion that Westerners are happier than Chinese, we need to take into account the issue of reporting bias. In surveys measuring satisfaction in life, career, and relationships, Chinese consistently report lower levels of happiness, whether these studies are conducted in China or the West. Since humility is more highly prized in Asian versus Western culture, it’s likely that Chinese people under-report their degree of satisfaction.
While couples consisting of a Western male and Chinese female were relatively happy, the same couldn’t be said for those in the reverse situation, who reported the lowest level of relationship satisfaction. The researchers speculate that differences in cultural attitudes toward gender roles may lie at the root of this discrepancy. Specifically, males are more likely than females to favor traditional gender roles, and Chinese more so than Westerners. Therefore, there’s likely to be less disagreement on this issue between a Western man and a Chinese woman compared to the reverse.
The researchers also predicted that intercultural couples who identify strongly with their partner’s culture would report higher levels of relationship satisfaction. This hypothesis was supported to some extent, but it was also more lopsided than expected. In fact, the most important factor was the extent to which the Chinese partner had acclimated to living in Western society. It was less important that Western partners identified themselves with their Chinese spouse’s culture.
This pattern of acculturation makes sense, given that all the couples were living in the West. However, future research needs to tease out whether the reverse pattern will obtain among Western-Chinese couples living in China. Other factors, such as societal acceptance of intercultural marriages, also likely play important roles in influencing a couple’s satisfaction with their relationship.
Finally, the authors make a special note about the dynamics of acculturation. When people choose to migrate abroad, they usually are already familiar with the culture of the new country and have a favorable attitude toward it. Emotional ties to their native culture also tend to be weak, which allows them to escape the gravitational pull of their homeland. Thus, they’re better prepared for acclimating to the new society, and they’re also more open to the idea of marrying someone from the majority culture.
In sum, intercultural marriages can work, but couples need to have an open attitude toward cultural differences and a willingness to compromise. By becoming aware of our own assumptions and biases, we develop a more accepting stance toward other ways of thinking and doing things. Of course, this last observation is just as applicable to couples from the same hometown as it is to those from opposite sides of the planet.
Kaya, M., Halford, K, Hiew, D. N., Sheffield, J. & van de Vijver, F. J. R. (2019). Ethnic identification and relationship satisfaction in Chinese, Western, and intercultural Chinese-Western couples. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 8, 121-136.