Ask the Expert: How do we manage a cross cultural relationship?
Each week, we #asktheexpert to weigh in on issues that impact couples the most. This week, we are featuring Genesis Games, LMHC. Genesis is a licensed mental health practitioner and is also bilingual. She works as a therapist in Miami at South Miami Psychology Group supporting individuals, couples, and families on acculturation issues. You can follow her @themiamitherapist.
“Every human encounter is a cross-cultural encounter”
That phrase, said by my graduate school professor, struck with me until this day. There is so much power to it. We are all so very diverse because our differences are not just based on which country we live in or which language we speak. A lot of our differences are based on our family of origin. Our families’ unwritten rules and expectations. The way they expressed love, anger, happiness, sadness, and guilt. The family traditions that bounds us together, or that we totally hated.
The trials the we overcame together, or not. the way we were disciplined. And, most importantly, what we made out of all of this.
What was our interpretation?
Did we learn how to express our needs in a healthy manner? Did we learn what a loving relationship looks like. Did we feel loved and protected?
Certainly, when we add the layer of culture, language, and religion things can seem to get a bit more tricky.
As an expert in acculturation, I work with individuals, families, and couples where one person belongs to the majority culture and the other is undergoing their own process of acculturation. Misunderstandings often arise because of intense emotions, unrealistic expectations, assumptions, and poor communication.
Curiosity about differences
My approach with couples is one of an open mind and an open heart. I encourage my couples to be curious about everything related to their partner; this is actually what I suggest to all my couples, period. Don’t assume that because you’ve assimilated smoothly to a new way of life, your partner will too. Don’t expect your partner to have the same expectations that you have about the relationship. For example, courtship is a dying concept in American culture. In other cultures, courtship is highly valued and a must. Another example, American culture is individualistic in its nature and puts a high value on independence. Latinx culture is collectivistic and puts a high value in interdependence and the wellbeing of the family. These marked differences, if not spoken about with an open mind and an open heart can lead to hurt feelings and lots of friction. Again, be curious and never assume that you know your partner’s intentions, feelings, or perceptions.
When someone arrives to a new country, state, or city that is widely different from their home. The goal is not for them to let go of their roots and fully submerge into this new culture. This is not healthy in any way. Instead what you can expect is for the person to undergo a process of grief for what they left behind, enthusiasm and anxiety for the opportunities that lie ahead, a process of learning and understanding everything about the new culture (language, laws, societal rules), and then developing an integrated identity. The integrated identity is comprised of the aspects of their own culture they want to continue to honor and live up to, and the aspects of the new culture they want to adopt. There is no timeframe for this process and it is not always linear. People may struggle at different parts of the process and can often experience conflicting feelings.
As a partner, the best thing you can do is be curious. I know I sound like a broken record, but it is that important that it is worth repeating. Hold space for them and do your best to see things from the other person’s perspective. If applicable, learn about the other person’s culture as much as you can, as this will help you better understand them. If you are comfortable, ask to be part of some of their cultural traditions. This lets your partner know that you care and that you accept them for who they are. Their cultural background is a big piece of who they are.
Will we fail?
Couples often ask me if their relationship is more likely to fail due to differences in cultural backgrounds or their acculturation gap, and my answer is simple: all relationships are a cross-cultural encounter, yours is not the exception. Be patient and compassionate with yourself and with your partner. And one more time, be curious!
Interested in learning more about Genesis?
You can visit her website at https://www.southmiamipsychologygroup.com/meet-our-team
She can also be found @themiamitherapist where she shares information about mental and relationship health.