Judi Brooks, a licensed marriage and family therapist, specializes in early childhood programs such as Head Start preschools. She is also married and a mother.
Cultural Differences and Value Similarities: How We Deal with It All
First the most obvious differences: he's black, I'm white; he grew up in the South (Miami, Fla.,), I grew up on the West Coast (L.A. Westside); he grew up going to church weekly, I only went to temple for other people's functions. His parents didn't finish high school; my mother graduated UCLA, my dad did a year or so of college. He graduated from high school; I have a master's degree and post-graduate license as a clinician.
A few of our similarities; We are both 45 years old, which is old enough to remember the pre-civil rights era, however, from different perspectives and experiences. We are old enough to have participated in the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. We each have deep connections to family members and enjoy horses and various equestrian activities.
Okay, so how do we make it work?
At the age of 34 and never previously married, we met at a horse event. He was polite, helpful and friendly. I wasn't left with any strong impressions; however he called afterwards, and over a few days we talked for hours. We discussed his profession and mine--he was a celebrity singer of Pop and R&B (sometimes working, oftentimes not); I was a psychotherapist (always working). We revealed our personal histories, and so forth. On our first "date" he asked me a question that became a pivotal point for our evolving relationship: What were my plans for if and when my parents became ill/elderly and unable to live on their own. I shared my thoughts and feelings on this, and so did he--we had the same approach: we would do everything in our power to have them live with us, avoiding any institutionalization if at all possible. We both recognized a strong and common value.
From that point on, we intertwined our lives more and more. Our personalities are strong. We are equally willful, competent, confident, loving, protective--and traditional, yet not.
Many interfaith, interracial, inter-ethnic, or inter-socio-economic couples encounter strained relations with family members who "don't approve" of the relationship. Neither my husband or I experienced those tensions or conflicts. This is not because we have fairy-tale type families where everything and everyone is wonderful. I believe it is because we were individually confident and comfortable with one another, did not shy away from overt or covert concerns about our differences and plans to cope, and we each made genuine efforts to "join" the families. Whatever preconceived notions anyone had prior to being with us, they were replaced with the real experience of knowing us.
Our relationships with our families have only deepened over our 10 years together. This is truly because of our personalities. My mother-in-law confided to me many years ago that she felt much more intimate with me than with her other daughter-in-law, who shares most of the cultural, racial, socio-economic characteristics of my husband's family. Why does she feel this way? Because I call her by her first name or an endearing term (Mama J), and we talk, really talk. Her other daughter-in-law continues to call her Mrs. Last Name and makes superficial conversation.
We rarely encounter serious marital difficulties because we tend to respect our partner's right to his/her beliefs and the life experiences that helped to shape them. Additionally, and just as importantly, we communicate on a very real and intimate level. We each know in our innermost core that we married someone who allows and accepts the "real" person to be, and that we can negotiate our way through rough spots. We now have a 5-year-old daughter.
As I think to how we make a marriage of two people from vastly different life experiences work, I recall the points of passage and the accommodations we made for each other. Case in point was our wedding. I wanted to be married by a rabbi; he wanted to be married by any clergyman and a rabbi was okay. Not only was it okay with him, it was acceptable to his parents as well, since it would be "a man of God" marrying us.
An obvious cultural difference between us is our ethnicity. Although I view these differences as being contextually important, our regional, socio-economic, religious, educational and racial factors are the cumulative total of our cultural differences. These are each critical to who we are.
We do have different perspectives on racism and its role in our lives and the world at large. I feel and believe that racism exists, but only infrequently intrudes upon my life, whereas my husband feels and believes that racism is frequently a part of his life. I struggle with this difference since I believe it affects the quality of our lives at the very core of being human--our relationships. The issue becomes one of trust and of being cynical of people and their motivations or behaviors. I am cynical, critical and observant, but these traits are not based on a worldview of racism. Perhaps my husband's similar characteristics are not based in racism either.
Nonetheless, when an issue comes up, we consistently express our opinions (at times in a heated style!), offer some background to aid understanding and reach some resolution. Resolution may mean merely accepting that we have a difference in opinion and that we agree to disagree.
At some point in our daughter's infancy, I expressed my concern about the way my husband would refer to people unknown to me by their race or ethnicity. I didn't want this to become one of our daughter's earliest ways of differentiating people. He felt that at times it was an important detail to convey, but decided he'd spell it out. That was enough for me; his awareness had been heightened and he was willing to accommodate my needs while meeting his own. As an aside, after years of explaining to our daughter that she has a combination of features from mommy's and daddy's bodies, and prior generation's genetics as well, intentionally creating a very diverse group of friends and colleagues, and attempting to provide a bias-free environment, she announced to me that she is "black". When I gently questioned her, she reported that while she knew that daddy's skin is not black, nor my skin white, and that her skin is a light brown, "the world calls people that look like me and Daddy, black." Okay, she knows.
A big difference between my husband and myself is our religion. He is a practicing Christian, I am primarily a secular Jew. Our daughter (very verbal and inquisitive) had begun to ask about the origins of the world and its occupants. "How did the world start?" "Who is God?" "Who makes nature?" These questions make my emotions do a little somersault, and then I answer in my best simple yet honest manner. I seem to start my response with, "I'm not exactly sure, but . . . " or " . . . many people all over the world believe that God made the world, while other people try to explain it with science . . . " "God is called different things by different people and mostly is a feeling and belief about how people should live their lives." I typically end my response with, "Why don't we talk with Daddy about his ideas and feelings?" This meant honoring, not belittling, my husband's beliefs and faith.
I give my scientific-flavored response coupled with the faith-based response. I want our daughter to understand that there is a spectrum within which we all live, and that we are somewhat fluid within it. I want our daughter to understand that our realities are indeed influenced by our circumstances and hope that this awareness may assist her in developing resilience and an openness to others that may serve her well.
I must be honest and say that we did agree at our wedding that she'd be raised Jewish, with my family having the most influence due to proximity. However, I am not telling her that the millions of Christians or Hindus, etc., are wrong. I present a view of religion as it is linked to us and the growing circles of people she is aware of. Her understanding will broaden and deepen as she grows.
I am writing this after preparing a New Year's Day dinner for our family, including my parents. Our meal may serve as a metaphor for our relationship. We had a roast turkey stuffed with kasha varnishka, gravy, cornbread and pumpernickel bread, coleslaw, black-eyed peas, fruit and brownies. I prepared it, we all enjoyed it, and after putting together a meal-to-go (of leftovers) for my parents, my husband cleaned.
My husband and I each know our strengths and weaknesses. We pull the slack for each other. That's how it works.