What Advice Can Help Couples Navigate Cultural Differences in Marriage?


    What Advice Can Help Couples Navigate Cultural Differences in Marriage?

    Navigating cultural differences in marriage can be complex, so we've gathered seven pieces of advice from experienced therapists, including LMFTs and AMFTs. From acknowledging extended family dynamics to bridging gaps with open communication, these insights offer valuable guidance for couples blending diverse backgrounds.

    • Acknowledge Extended Family Dynamics
    • Unpack Cultural Identities Respectfully
    • Be a Curious Student of Culture
    • Embrace Cultural Differences as Gifts
    • Celebrate Your Cultural Diversities
    • Foster Empathy and Curiosity
    • Bridge Gaps with Open Communication

    Acknowledge Extended Family Dynamics

    I encourage couples to be consciously aware that even though they may accept their cultural differences, some extended family members may struggle to do so. This difference can impact how involved the couple is willing to have family members in their lives. If one partner comes from a collectivist culture, they may expect to have family more involved than a partner from an individualistic background. By having this awareness, they can have direct conversations about what boundaries they will establish to protect themselves from those family members who have chosen not to fully embrace their marriage.

    Michele Clark

    Unpack Cultural Identities Respectfully

    When I am working with couples who are seeking support around navigating cultural differences, I like to facilitate conversations about where and how those pieces of their identity were formed. All couples have cultural differences—whether they be linguistic, racial, socioeconomic, religious, political, regional, etc. When we take the time to thoughtfully unpack the unique contexts in which those cultural identities were formed for ourselves and for our partner, we have the opportunity to build respect and empathy for both perspectives. From there, we can sift through values that are rooted in those cultural systems and make conscious decisions about what continues to be important to us, what we are willing to shed, and what would be beneficial to integrate from our partner’s divergent culture.

    Sophia Willis-CongerAssociate Marriage and Family Therapist, Riviera Therapy

    Be a Curious Student of Culture

    Having worked with many cross-cultural relationships, I often encourage each person to spend time being a curious student of the other person's culture in order to develop respect and love for their origin. Mutual respect can really build a solid foundation for the challenges that the relationship will face in the future.

    Marty SchwebelLMFT, New Roads Counseling

    Embrace Cultural Differences as Gifts

    Although they are initially experienced as challenging and disconnecting, cultural differences are actually a beautiful gift in a relationship. They allow two people to bring their individual backgrounds and sacred histories to create a unique dynamic and relationship that honors both partners' ancestral lineages.

    Whereas most people think they need to 'assimilate' cultural differences in order to make the relationship work (i.e., abandon their identity and change their practices, beliefs, and cultural values to make them similar to the other partner), accommodation and acculturation are much more effective ways to navigate cultural differences.

    Accommodation is when both partners keep their individual cultural identities and find ways to coexist in their relationship. It involves mutual respect, acknowledging and honoring differences, and creating a space of inclusivity. Partners must find ways to adjust and compromise with each other as it relates to their identities. Accommodation entails validating and supporting the other's differences, while standing in your own unique cultural identity.

    Acculturation is an even more collaborative process where partners bring together their two different identities and cultures and create a 'multicultural' relationship. It's a two-way exchange of beliefs, values, practices, and cultural identity. Acculturation involves both partners finding ways to honor and incorporate each person's cultural identity and beliefs into the relationship. This allows the partners to create a shared and mutually agreed upon relationship identity that encompasses both of the partners' cultural backgrounds.

    Difference isn't bad; it's just different. And people don't need to come from similar backgrounds to create a mutually satisfying relationship—they just have to both be willing to make space for each other.

    Natalie StanishLicensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Divorce Coach, Co-parenting and Child Specialist, Introspective Family Therapy

    Celebrate Your Cultural Diversities

    To all couples and those united by cultural diversities—appreciate each other, embrace one another, communicate completely, and celebrate your differences.

    Julia Marcus PaulAMFT, Matters of the Heart Counseling Centers

    Foster Empathy and Curiosity

    As a therapist engaged in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), I often emphasize the importance of nurturing empathy and curiosity when couples navigate the complexities of cultural differences.

    Empathy and curiosity serve as the bedrock for turning potential discord into bridges of connection. Your cultural heritage is a profound aspect of your identity, shaping your very essence. When broaching cultural differences, it's crucial to be open to your partner's cultural perspective.

    During these conversations, it's beneficial to momentarily set aside any apprehensions or concerns about how to integrate this into your relationship. Listen attentively, summarize their points with empathy, and fully immerse yourself in their cultural narrative. Then switch to have them be curious about your cultural identity. This approach of mutual understanding and respect for each other's cultural roots paves the way for a deeper bond. Once there is a mutual feeling of connection and understanding, the conversation can naturally progress to discussing how to celebrate each partner's cultural identity within the relationship.

    Kyle Benson
    Kyle BensonLMFT, CST, Kyle Benson, LLC

    Bridge Gaps with Open Communication

    The tapestry of our lives is woven from the threads of diverse backgrounds, each enriching us with unique values and experiences. When we embark on the journey of marriage, these differences can become a treasure trove of discovery, adding depth and richness to our connection. While cultural distinctions may initially stand out, they needn't be a source of conflict. By embracing open communication, we can bridge the gap between experiences, fostering empathy and understanding. By actively listening to our partner's thoughts, emotions, and values, we gain a deeper insight into their actions, paving the way for a stronger and more vibrant bond.

    Richard Lam
    Richard LamLevel 5 TEAM-CBT Therapist, Feeling Good Institute