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The I Do's and Don'ts of Intercultural Marriage

March, 2003

This article is reprinted from The Washington Post Style Plus Page with permission of the author.

Intercultural marriages — marriages between people of different faiths, races, ethnicities and geographic regions — have become commonplace in American society.

Still, such marriages have complications and such couples see high divorce rates, so the relationships need extra attention. "If someone from Beijing descended upon the dinner table, we'd be conscious of making them feel comfortable," says Stanley Ned Rosenbaum, co-author with his wife, Mary Helene Rosenbaum, of Celebrating Our Differences: Living Two Faiths in One Marriage (1994, Ragged Edge Press, $19.95). "But here we assume that we are all on the same page because we think of America as a melting pot."

Popular culture provides some examples of the challenges presented by an intercultural relationship. In the movie The Way We Were, loud, aggressive Katie (Barbra Streisand) falls in love with excessively reserved Hubbell (Robert Redford). His perception of her as overly serious and brash, and her perception of his friends as excluding her, prove to be too divisive and eventually they separate.

In Annie Hall, Woody Allen plays a Jew from Brooklyn who falls for the WASPy Annie (Diane Keaton). During dinner at her house, he feels completely out of place in the sedate Norman Rockwell-like setting, contrasting it with his all-speak-at-once, chaotic family meals.

In the 1991 movie Mississippi Masala, Dimitrius (Denzel Washington), an African-American carpet cleaner, falls in love with Mina (Sarita Choudhury), the daughter of recent Indian immigrants. Her parents vehemently oppose the relationship, so she leaves home to be with him.

In reality, cultural differences often show up in more subtle and unpredictable ways than in the Hollywood models. Dot Lin, a Washington area lawyer, and her husband, Ben Lin, an economist with the federal government, have been married since 1987. She comes from a Methodist family that can trace its American roots to the 1600s; he was born in Taiwan and came to live here when he was eight. Ben likes anyone entering their house to take off his shoes, a Japanese custom that was brought to Taiwan. Dot disagrees, so they have compromised by having a shoeless rug area; in other parts of the house, she may wear sandals. Ben also cares more about cleanliness at home than does Dot, which she attributes to his Southeast Asian roots. When it comes to vegetables, frozen ones are fine for Dot, but Ben wants his cut fresh and with sauce.

Even when people think they are marrying someone of the same background, intercultural issues crop up. A forty-five-year-old Chevy Chase mother of two remembers growing up in Texas with her Eastern European observant Jewish father and more assimilated Texan Jewish mother. "I saw them as being from two different worlds — old world and new world," she says. They eventually divorced. "My parents probably said, 'Hey, we're both Jewish,' when really they had bigger cultural differences than my Presbyterian husband and I do."

Though it's hard to know which intercultural matters will surface months or years after the wedding, experts point to three issues that frequently cause misunderstandings and fights. The first is speaking styles. Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen, author of I Only Say This Because I Love You: How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives (2001, Random House, $24.95), says intercultural couples often attribute disagreements to other factors when the real cause is a difference in conversational style.

People are so oriented to psychological interpretation that when a wife feels her husband isn't paying attention to her, she doesn't realize it's because he has a different way of listening or of being involved in the conversation," she says. Depending on what culture people are from, they will differ in how loudly and quickly they speak, and how they argue, tease and listen, explains Tannen.

In a high-involvement speaking culture, such as Italian, Brazilian and Greek, people frequently interject comments. Arguing over a minor point may be a way of getting close, while failing to interject may be taken by the speaker as a sign of indifference. In a Scandinavian or Japanese culture, on the other hand, a person may perceive arguing as a verbal attack.

Second, discord frequently occurs over child rearing. According to New York therapist Judith P. Siegel, author of What Children Learn From Their Parents' Marriage: It May Be Your Marriage, but It's Your Child's Blueprint for Intimacy (2001, Quill, $13), couples are often shocked when they become parents and realize that they have very different perceptions of how kids should act.

Specifically, discipline, expectation of appropriate gender behavior, types of toys and the teaching of manners are very much culturally derived. "Two people may be attracted to each other because they found their differences to be a source of pleasure, yet bringing up children differently from the way they grew up raises an awareness of otherness which can create tension, anxiety and even fear of difference," says Siegel.

Linda Caro Reinisch, a local musician who grew up in a Jewish family, and her Chinese American husband, Al Twanmo, an actor, are currently dealing with issues of parental respect and outspokenness as they raise their two children, ages five and three. Reinisch's childhood household was kid-oriented, while Twanmo's was more adult-centered, with a strong emphasis on respect for adults. As a result, they now need to compromise on how deferential they expect their own children to be toward them. Similarly, he is uncomfortable by the attention drawn to him when one of their children has a public tantrum, whereas she views the tantrum as age-appropriate behavior. When their older child recently started kindergarten, they began sorting out "how much to speak up for the child and at what point to be quieter," says Reinisch. This is an issue because Twanmo's cultural instinct, compared with Reinisch's, is to be less outspoken.

Third, disharmony can result from differing cultural attitudes toward the extended family. The Rosenbaums recall hearing from a Hindu-Christian couple; the man's Hindu family joined them on their honeymoon, much to the dismay of the new wife. "To the Hindu family, marriage was not about two individuals but rather about two families. Thus it was incomprehensible why the whole family could not come along and have all their meals with them," says Mary Rosenbaum.

On the other extreme, in-laws may be deeply committed to their cultural identity and unable to appreciate the ways in which their adult child is broadened by or attracted to the partner's culture; thus they limit contact or never warm up to the partner.

How can intercultural couples cope and maintain a loving relationship when faced with multiple roadblocks? Here are some strategies:

  • Learn all you can about your partner's culture — become familiar with his background with no obligation to change yourself or convert to the other's style. "Go to his church and see what it's like. Experiment with each other's rituals without making any promises," says Joel Crohn, author of Mixed Matches: How to Create Successful Interracial, Interethnic and Interfaith Relationships (1995, Fawcett Columbine, $13).
  • Sample foods from your partner's culture or read about it. Look for guidance from a book, Web site, newsletter or therapist. "Don't think you can plan to marry someone of another culture if you're not interested in that culture," says Linda Reinisch. Her husband had many Jewish friends and knew Yiddish phrases when they met. For their wedding, they blended their cultures by using Chinese silk sent by relatives from China to hang over the traditional Jewish chuppah. They had a Chinese banquet for the rehearsal dinner and a mostly Jewish wedding ceremony.
  • Negotiate and renegotiate dicey issues. Ideally, the time to discuss and make agreements about intercultural topics is before the wedding. What are each of your commitment levels to your cultures? Does being Greek mean taking pride in Greek culture and history or taking a trip to Greece every summer to visit distant relatives? Does saying you want to raise a child as a Catholic mean going to Mass every Sunday or having a very traditional Christmas? In reality, many such subjects are not foreseen before marriage. "How can one know what it will feel like to have your 4-year-old ask about God?" says Crohn, a California psychotherapist.
  • Renegotiation is possible and sometimes essential. "The partner who likes it as is may view making changes as a betrayal, but the longer it's gnawing at you, the tougher it is on the marriage," Crohn adds. The Rosenbaums suggest beginning by saying, "I think we got off on the wrong foot" or "I didn't mean to make you feel X or Y" or "At the time it felt like that, but now it feels different," depending on what the issue is. Frank discussion can go a long way toward healing a wound, whereas silence can cause a slow erosion of the relationship.
  • Communicate with in-laws. It is wrong to assume that older people are incapable of change or that they won't talk about cultural issues, says Crohn. Some situations cannot be corrected, but it is important to challenge the assumptions of the older generation if it's causing you marital problems. It is also wrong to assume there's a perfect time to discuss tough issues — there isn't. With in-laws, make it clear that you are not trying to hurt them or undermine all that they hold dear. "There comes a time where both sides have to say there are boundaries and neither is rejecting the other, it's just that we are doing things differently," says Mary Rosenbaum.
  • Be tolerant. "You need to allow for more than one right way of doing things," says Dot Lin, the lawyer. She clears dishes off the table to accommodate her husband's desire for a clean table, and he doesn't protest when she leaves them in the sink for a while. Ed and Linda Archer — he a retired and she an active Foreign Service officer based in Toronto — have been married for thirty-seven years. Though he is African-American and she is white and Jewish, neither pushes the other toward one culture, and they raised their children as bicultural. "Linda does not care whether I eat ham, and I don't care if she eats gefilte fish. In fact, I like gefilte fish more than she does," says Ed.
  • As a parent, try to anticipate the knee-jerk reaction that you might have when your partner tries to promote his cultural ways or when your child adopts elements of your partner's culture, says therapist Judy Siegel. If you immediately get upset at the prospect of your child saying daily prayers as your spouse does, ask yourself why you are being so rigid.  If you are Christian but your husband is Jewish and you have decided to let the children choose their religion, do not erupt when your daughter says she wants to have a Bat Mitzvah. With in-laws, it's best to do things their way at their homes and your way at yours, experts say.
  • Recognize differences in conversation styles. Sometimes it helps to ask your partner if he or she might react differently if you change the way you say something.
  • Be optimistic about raising bicultural children. "Growing up in a bicultural family can offer children a rich background," says Brenda Lane Richardson, author of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Celebrating Interethnic, Interfaith, and Interracial Relationships (Wildcat Canyon Press, $14.95). It's important not to compete for the children's interest but rather to let them see who you are and where you come from. They will not consider the difference between their parents as a negative if you don't, and they may rejoice in being bicultural. Living in a diverse community such as Washington helps children feel that they belong.

 

Yiddish for "stuffed fish," a patty made of ground up varieties of fish, matzo meal and spices, boiled in fish broth. A popular dish on Passover, sometimes served on Shabbat and other holidays as well. Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino.
Rebecca R. Kahlenberg

Rebecca R. Kahlenberg is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Maryland. She specializes in writing about family, relationship and lifestyle issues.

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