“You married into our family, you are now a part of our family." Shouldn’t it be this simple when you fall in love with the person of your dreams? Unfortunately, it never is this simple, especially when you are marrying someone of a different background, who may hold, or have family that does, a very different outlook on life than the one you were raised with.
Premarital counseling can be beneficial for every couple but particularly for couples of different backgrounds. Differences in religious beliefs or cultures can create tension and pose serious problems between couples and their respective families. Having a difficult conversation about these differences can feel very intimidating, but avoiding the discussion will likely lead to difficult challenges down the road.
Couples in culturally diverse marriages may often struggle with:
- Emotional pressure from family members
- Guilt over “abandoning” their religion or culture
- Community prejudice
- Challenges building intimacy
In diverse marriages, there can be big differences in how each person was raised, how events are celebrated, and even how facial expressions and gestures are interpreted. These disparities can open the door to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, and even intimacy can be compromised. Take for example a union between a Chinese-American and a Protestant from an old New England family. The idea of “family", and the basic social unit to the person of Asian descent may include the parents and siblings and their children, whereas to the Protestant, the thought is of the nuclear family; the couple and their children only.
Couples who do not share the same religious traditions or values may find it challenging to parent children, assign household responsibilities, celebrate special occasions, and even to prepare meals . A couple’s ability to discuss their own individual values and beliefs prior to marriage can help clarify and set expectations as well as identify areas that need to be worked on prior to union. Conversations around these topics can increase our own self-awareness and help us determine values and beliefs that are important to us, and more importantly areas where we are willing to adapt or compromise.
So, before you get hitched, consider the following advice:
- Learn about and understand your partner’s faith – talk about your religious background, traditions, and experiences. These things will give you insight into your partner’s patterns and behaviors.
- Talk about your differences – discuss the role faith and other cultural norms play in your life. Talk about how faith influences your thoughts and actions.
- Ask the tough questions first – what are your childrearing beliefs/practices? Holiday traditions? Religious customs? Household responsibilities? What faith will the children be raised in? How do your future in-laws view interfaith and interracial marriage?
- Find a common ground – what are the most important things to both of you? Take your parents and families out of the picture and truly look at what is important to you as a couple. Use this as a base to grow from.
- Develop personal, couple, and family goals – this is good for all couples to do but is even more important for intermixed couples. Having a plan for the future that involves a unified vision on religion and culture helps keep couples focused.
- Learn effective communication and conflict resolution skills – master how to resolve problems before they become acute. This is the key to keeping your marriage marriage healthy and happy.
- Recognize the beauty – acknowledge what is beautiful about your union. You will have the chance to learn and grow from each other in big ways as you embark on an exciting life journey together.
Have these conversations with an open heart and an open mind. Practice holding space with a “beginner’s mind," avoiding criticism and judgement. All marriage takes work. Rather than hoping differences subside, address them head-on. Don’t wait until problems emerge and instead make premarital counseling a priority in your wedding planning.
Heather Sutter, LCSW, is a psychotherapist who works with kids, families, adults and couples in NYC. To learn more about her, check out her page on the website here.