It’s hard enough being a couple in a world loaded with responsibilities and stressors about children, finances, work, family obligations, etc. As a therapist, I often see couples of mixed cultures who have to withstand the difficulties of one or both adjusting to a new life with numerous challenges, such as having to create new social networks, learning a new language, and adjusting to new cultural norms.
The many small social cues that we become so accustomed to we take for granted, until we find ourselves in a new culture where the rules are completely different. When we are thrust into new cultural situations, we often misread the signals. For instance, small talk is generally much less prevalent in Denmark than in the U.S. This we may perceive as people being inaccessible and unfriendly.
It is similar within the “mixed couple”. Couples with partners from different countries can find themselves struggling with some of the same issues inside their relationship.
Different native languages within a couple can limit the couple’s deeper understanding of each other. The feelings of alienation or being “other” in a different culture can be transferred to the relationship and feed misunderstanding and a lack of connection.
Consider – for instance – the ongoing effects on the couple which differs significantly on levels of independence-interdependence.
One aspect of interdependence is an assumption that our partner should understand and react to our needs without being asked. A more independent person, on the other hand, may assume that the only reasonable way of behaving is to clearly communicate your needs, and to then negotiate around how to get these needs met.
Such a combination of traits can often cause confusion and disappointment when you feel unheard or misunderstood. We tend to expect our partners to at least hear us, to at least try to understand what we are communicating.
In my practice, I often see that such frustrations can lead to anger and judgment of the other.
Over time, cultural differences can wear on a couple in ways that are quite unique to the mixed couples’ situation. Even slight differences in beliefs can cause couples to repeatedly argue over apparently mundane things, like who does the dishes or who picks up the kids from daycare. Or less mundane disagreements, such as those related to religious and spiritual beliefs. Culture influences us in ways we often are quite unaware of.
There is a significant upside to these difficulties, however. Much like living abroad, living with a partner from a different culture can help you open yourself up to new possibilities and a deeper understanding and appreciation of others. Mixed culture couples must discover that the set of rules they learned growing up is just one of many.
The effort and mutual respect it takes to successfully make room for the other person’s values is often rewarded with a closer and deeper relationship that can better withstand life’s trials and tribulations.
It does require work to get there. You must be willing to look both at yourself and your partner with openness to the differences and a willingness to explore. As an expat, perhaps you already have these qualities?
If you and your partner struggle with cultural differences, here are some things you can do. Being as aware of the conflicts as possible is really useful. Only when you have identified the problem can you do something about it. This means becoming aware of your own values, as well as your partners.
I often give couples the following homework: Set aside at least one hour a week to spend together without distractions. During this hour, you are to practice listening to the other without judgment or disagreement. So, you can ask questions, you can repeat and you can reflect. This means asking questions to explore and deepen your understanding, not to voice your judgment or disagreement. Repeat what the person said, but in your own words, then wait for them to respond and add more to their message. Finally, reflect on what the other person has expressed, and see if you can express this reflection without judgment or condescension.
It takes practice and effort, but with time you can begin to change the way you communicate!
Hanne-Berit Hahnemann has a Master's degree in clinical counselling with a supervisory license from Cleveland State University and many years of experience in private practice in the United States. As an expat herself, she specialises in internationals and the challenges that come with moving to another country. She sees clients at the MacFarlane Psychology Group, a Copenhagen practice offering psychotherapy in English.