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Intercultural relationship

When a relationship begins, the couple carries their previous experiences with them. This is part of adult life: there is baggage. It contains the joys and victories, as well as the disappointments and losses. The way each person deals with victories and difficulties does not just depend on their individual and family history. It is also shaped and influenced by the culture in which they grew up, the language in which they learned to name what they feel and to understand their experiences.

Every relationship has challenges due to individual experiences. However, intercultural relationships face ups and downs of their own, in addition to the common challenges that any couple faces. According to research, intercultural couples may experience more stress in their relationship (i.e. internal stress) due to their cultural differences compared to partners from the same country. Stress has negative effects on all relationships, but intercultural differences can be one more variable causing relationship stress, leading to negative effects on both individual and relational well-being. Stress, depression or other psychological problems can happen and it is important to be aware of this.

Intercultural issues that intercultural couple faces include loss of identity, conflicts over fundamental beliefs, differences in the way of raising children, anguish for not having a close family and/or a support network, in addition to constantly dealing with different interpretations of events that are apparently commonplace. In this article I explain three most common problems that I find in psychological care:

  1. Loss of identity - moving away from who you used to be without being able to visualize or feel secure about the person you are becoming.

  2. Daily disagreements over little things - cooking, hygiene, standards, rituals, etc.

  3. Communication - being able to express yourself and be understood.

1 - Loss of identity

When someone changes country, religion, or sacrifices something in their culture in favor of their partner's culture, they can feel estranged; feel distant from the person they used to be. Habits left behind begin to be missed, and the person begins to realize how important they were. Questions such as “who am I now?” arise; “where do I belong?” ; “Do I fit in here?” ; “Do I need to maintain my cultural heritage?” and the answers to these questions are not always straightforward.

The loyalty they feel towards their own culture and tradition can sometimes make it difficult to understand the other's culture. In an intercultural relationship, the overestimation of one's own culture can camouflage the individual feelings they have for each other.

What to do:

It is possible to maintain your identity while embracing a new culture. You can begin to explore what makes you who you are. After all, you are an individual, and while the culture you grew up in contributed to shaping your identity, you are in control.

Knowing your own story, giving new meaning to the experiences you are living, and feeling the support of your partner can help you rewrite your identity and keep your emotions healthy.

2- Daily disagreements over little things

He doesn't offer help because he believes she can do it on her own, she believes he should help because he's a man. Daily disagreements about everyday life are discussions that involve each one's lifestyle and expectations regarding the couple's life. These disagreements can sometimes be triggered by resentments because one or both parties feel that their culture is being rejected or attacked, when the other refuses to follow their customs or traditions. The most reported daily disagreements in sessions are about food and drink (what they can or cannot eat and drink, how and when, including alcohol consumption); clothing (especially if one of the partners has changed their way of dressing to suit the other's culture); distribution of household tasks (when there are different views on the assignment of tasks by gender) and money (how they handle, value and how they spend money can have great cultural differences).

What to do:

Look at what fuels these disagreements. Sometimes the problems are deeper than they first appear. Clarifying points of view and facing them brings benefits to the couple. Being able to identify what is fueling these conflicts and being able to communicate it to your partner is key. It is not always possible to do this alone. Seeking support, including professional support, to overcome these barriers is essential.

3 - Communication

Speaking can be an important part of communication, and it is not limited to language. A look here, a movement of hair, a stiffening of the shoulders. Every move communicates. This makes it possible for many couples to start a relationship without having a common language.

Gestures can convey different information according to cultural interpretations. Understanding your partner's sense of humor, being able to express your feelings in the best possible way and understanding the other's feelings are some examples of the importance of communication, including sharing a language. Misunderstandings generated by the difficulty in expressing themselves are common, which can lead to misinterpretations and conflicts. These difficulties extend to social and family relationships. Not being able to communicate freely with parents, family members and friends makes it difficult to integrate, form bonds and establish trust. Frustration at not expressing yourself the way you want can lead to feelings of alienation.

What to do:

While not sharing a mother tongue was not a problem at first, maintaining the communication in the long run is a challenge. Strengthening other communication channels, finding ways to reinforce messages to avoid misunderstandings, taking the time to learn the language of the other, even if they live in your country, are measures that indicate the appreciation of the partner's culture and the availability to build a effective communication between the couple.

Other influencing factors

There are other factors that influence intercultural relationships that are not always within the couple's control. In this case, knowing these factors can help the couple to look for different ways to face them together. Below are some of them:

  • Age and stage of life: people can be more adaptable when younger and want to grow together.

  • Perceiving yourself as equal can strengthen and benefit the couple. An example of inequality is not being able to get around without your partner because you don't know the local language. Feeling unequal and dependent (financially and/or emotionally) can limit interaction and promote isolation from the partner.

  • How long will you live here? Where you will live and how long you plan to stay are issues that the clearer they are to the couple, the safer they will be individually to invest in the relationship and cultural adaptations.

Intercultural couples need more support

Managing all the adaptations while investing in the relationship can be exhausting. Therefore, many expats and intercultural couples seek the support of psychotherapy to facilitate this process. By taking the time to listen to each other's stories in a comfortable and safe environment, with the mediation of a psychologist, a new level of understanding can be achieved, obstacles can be overcome and a plan for moving forward can be developed.

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