Intercultural Couples: Using Love to Bridge Across Differences

By Allegra Lucas, MA. MFTI


Intercultural Couples

Couples often contact the center for support in their intercultural relationships. Being in an intercultural relationship can mean that each partner comes from a different race, has a different nationality, ethnic background, religious or spiritual practice, partners may have a significant difference in age, come from different socioeconomic backgrounds or have disabilities that highlight difference in relationship. These differences are often what draw people together! The attraction is likely driven by an initial curiosity and appreciation for someone completely unlike you. As time goes on we recognize that cultural differences run deep and can significantly impact the dynamics in your intimate relationship.


Potential Challenges of Intercultural Couples

Sometimes cultural differences show up as challenges in intimate relationships. Cross cultural difference in partnership may express itself in the form of challenges in communication, in the management of finances, as a misalignment in demonstrations of affection, as conflicts between extended family members,  as varying ideals about marriage, about children, politics and parenting. Intercultural relationships can also unearth differences in sexual needs or desires.


The Rupture

When couples fail to develop skills around cross-cultural communication. Discussions become arguments wrought with frustration and defensiveness. These hurts can erode the connection between partners. Often times shame is the element that interrupts that initial curiosity and appreciation that brought the couple together to begin with.

Gershen Kaufman describes shame as a “rupture of the interpersonal bridge.” After engaging in a conflict with your partner where you discover there are stark differences rooted in what you consider to be the fabric of your being, there is a tendency to enter what shame specialist Sheila Rubin, LMFT calls the “Shame Freeze.”  The Shame freeze is induced by the belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. So at some point in your discussion across difference with your beloved, behaviors were enacted or words were exchanged that made one or both of you feel fatally flawed. This is when we shut down the desire for true intimacy because it seems too risky.


The Bridge

Diversity Advocate Verna Myers urges us to walk towards our discomfort rather than away from it. In a discussion about race in America she says, “Intercultural communication is NOT about perfection it is about connection.” Discussion across difference is a practice. None of us will get it right every time but what matters is the strengthening of the connection between two people when both parties commit to engaging in these discussions in spite of the inherent risk. It’s as if to say,  “We are in this together. I will not abandon you when it gets scary even if I don’t know what comes next.”


Some Useful Tools in Building the Bridge

Empathetic Listening. Listening with your heart not just listening for an opening to present your reality as a singular truth but listening for something that is unfamiliar to you. When you encounter something that you don’t understand, pause and honor the difference in experience.  Its ok if you don’t know what its like to be your partner.  You may never know what its like to be a woman of color or a first generation immigrant or what its like to be from an impoverished neighborhood growing up but what you can offer is a commitment to the quest for greater knowing.

Practice Healthy Curiosity. Making Inquiries such as, “What is that like for you? Help me to better understand what happens for you? What can I do to improve our communication and increase our connection?”

Commitment to Change. As a partner, how and in what ways are we willing to adjust, stretch or even leap into new territory for the sake of deepening intimacy across cultures. Are you willing to incorporate new language or omit certain words from your vocabulary if it means you can have a more productive conversation with your partner?

Recognizing Privilege. If you recognize certain privileges that your partner does not benefit from, are you ready to give up some of your privilege? Can you imagine asserting your power in a way that advocates for the rights of your partner?

Explore culture on your own. And finally please do not turn your partner into a specimen. Explore culture on your own through other sources. Read, watch films, talk to others, cultivate a diverse community and do your own personal excavation regarding your cultural biases as a way to reduce potential harm. In the modern world so frequently we are seeking out commonalities as an indication for potential connection but I’m a firm believer that true intimacy is developed while building a bridge of love across differences.