3 Ideas for Reducing Arguments in Your Cross-cultural Relationship

If you’ve ever thought that John and I had this perfect marriage where nothing ever goes wrong, well, I’m here to burst your bubble.

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This picture may look perfect, but my marriage with John is not — and we’ve had our share of arguments!

You should have seen us a decade ago when we lived in Shanghai and had our share of arguments (including some explosive ones, with yours truly losing her temper and doing lots of yelling). I’m pretty certain I must have given some of our neighbors quite a “show” at times.

Arguments aren’t fun in any relationship, but they can get really ugly when you’re dealing with a cross-cultural relationship. Why? Because sometimes the ways in which we argue – and the things that get us irritated – relate back to culture.

After 10 years of marriage, we’ve learned a thing or two about each other and how to maintain a harmonious cross-cultural relationship – with a lot more happiness and a lot less arguing. Here are three things that have helped us get over arguments:

1.  How you manage anger and even argue can be a cultural thing – and sometimes the differences can set you off unexpectedly

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In my husband’s home, his family has always valued a certain emotional restraint and don’t really show their anger that much. But I’ve seen his family angry – specifically, his brother – and guess how he responded initially? He was silent. Didn’t say a word. (I can tell you, it was a pretty painful silence!)

On the other hand, in the family I grew up in, when you’re angry, you show it – which means you might raise your voice, yell and even go red in the face. I come from a long line of fiery women. We’re an expressive bunch and, when something bad happens, it needs to be hashed out immediately – even if it gets a little emotional.

So you’ve got one emotionally restrained guy who goes silent when he’s upset, with an emotionally expressive woman who vents her anger and wants to talk it out. Put us together and you’ve got the potential for a disastrous argument to happen. How do I know? Because John and I have had plenty of them.

They used to go something like this: I would start out with some anger, and because John wouldn’t respond to me, my anger would escalate until I suddenly turned into a mad tiger on the prowl (which made John even more likely to clam up and avoid me).

It took us a while to realize that part of the problem was our totally different styles of handling anger.

So, John has learned that it’s important to acknowledge and respond to me when I’m upset.

I’ve also learned that it’s important to manage my own anger. Sometimes when I let my temper loose, things can go a little overboard. John’s a great model and reminder that you don’t always have to be like that when you’re angry.

2. Recognize that living in a different culture can be stressful — so it’s important to provide some “compensations” to the person who left their culture

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When John and I lived in America, I started noticing that he was much more irritable than he used to be back in China. And it didn’t take much to set him off and start another argument. It was so unlike John, who had always been so easy-going, always ready to greet me with a smile. What had happened?

Then one day, it hit me – he was stressed out because of living in America, a different country and culture from his own. And adding to all of that stress, he was forced to navigate this new and stressful world in English, his second language.

Of course, this didn’t occur to me for a long time. Because I felt so comfortable to be back in America, the country and culture that I grew up in, I took it for granted that John would feel as comfortable as I did.

So, eventually, I realized what I needed to do: make room for some things that John missed from his own culture. In other words, provide some “cultural compensations” if you will.

Naturally, it started with food. You know how they say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach? Well, I figured that the way to quiet a man’s heart – especially when he’s stressed over living in another culture — is through his stomach too. I started cooking up his favorite Chinese foods and putting rice on the menu more often.

But then I moved on to other things that he missed from China. We rented Chinese movies and streamed Chinese TV shows on the Internet. I even let John teach me how to play some soccer (a sport that, while not Chinese, is so popular in China it might as well be the national sport).

All of it made John a much happier guy – and, by extension, ours a much happier marriage. And if I had only figured it out sooner, I might have prevented a lot of unhappy moments we had together.

3. Practice reciprocity

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When I tell people that I make my husband red-braised pork, yet I’m still a devoted vegan, they look at me like I’m insane.

Well, believe me, it wasn’t easy to pick up that raw meat one afternoon and turn it into one of my husband’s most favorite comfort dishes from China. A part of me (the part that knows I was definitely made to be vegan) still recoils whenever I see any kind of raw animal flesh in the kitchen.

Ultimately I did it out of love – or, more specifically, to reduce arguments in our marriage.

See, at the time all this started, I had subjected my husband to months of vegan dining, thinking that we could eat vegan together in America and live happily ever after.

But there was a huge problem with that.

John grew up in a culture and household where people eat meat. It’s a normal part of life in China. Granted, when he was younger meat wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. But if people had meat, they were going to put it on the table.

So when you try to force a guy who grew up eating meat to go without, he gets grumpy. And it’s not fun to live with a grumpy husband.

So I started making a little meat on the side, just for John. Some red-braised pork. Baked chicken legs and chicken wings. The occasional fish too. Anything his carnivorous side desired.

Suddenly, my husband transformed into a much pleasant guy. It was a miracle for both of us to finally live in a house with a lot less arguing going on.

And since he was happy about his food, he decided to reciprocate. So whenever I went to do shopping at the store, he would encourage me to indulge my crazy vegan cravings and buy what John called a little “rewarding food”. Things like vegan cheese and faux meats and soy yogurt.

Sometimes, we’d end up having meals where the two of us might eat completely different things. At one end, there’s John digging into his red-braised pork. And at the other, there’s me tucking into a vegan Mexican wrap (with my favorite Daiya vegan cheese).

As bizarre as it might seem to be eating two different things at exactly the same time, it has really worked for us. This is reciprocity in action – both of us were happy because we accommodated each other’s personal cravings and needs.

We’ve extended that kind of reciprocity to other things in our life. For example, nowadays when we watch TV here in Hangzhou, I’ll let me husband tune into some of his favorite China news programs. Then he’ll toss me the remote after a while, so I can catch the kind of TV I like (such as romantic comedies and love stories – yeah, I’m a sucker for romance, can’t you tell?).

I think any couple – especially couples who hail from different cultures – would benefit from a little reciprocity in their lives.

What do you think? What strategies have you used in your own relationship to reduce arguments?

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34 thoughts on “3 Ideas for Reducing Arguments in Your Cross-cultural Relationship

  • November 3, 2014 at 9:20 am
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    Thanks for posting this. It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to in my relationship. I often wonder how much is cultural and how much is personal. There is a very thin line. I think Susan’s book “Good Chinese Wife” actually made me question this more and more.

    As for number one, how much of this is really cultural? I’ve heard that Chinese men (sorry, big generalization coming here) are often gentle but then have fiery tempers. This is certainly true for my husband. I have a bad temper, too, but I don’t think that has anything to do with being American. I think when it comes down to it, my husband and I can’t blame our temperaments too much on culture, though how we deal with conflict may be somewhat different due to the culture we grew up in. He is obviously more concerned with ‘saving face’ than I am.

    No. 2. . . I try to argue this point with my husband and m-i-l sometimes. Not to be whiney, but I want to be cut a little slack because I’m in China. I think they do try to take it easy on me, though sometimes I’m told “When in Rome. . . ” And the last point I definitely think is important for any couple or perhaps in any relationship.

    Reply
    • November 7, 2014 at 3:05 pm
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      Thanks for the comment R Zhao! It’s a good point about what is cultural and what is personal. Sometimes it’s definitely not clear.

      Yeah, everybody should be cut a little slack when they’re in a culture that’s not their own!

      Reply
  • November 3, 2014 at 10:39 am
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    Jocelyn, the last picture in this post made me smile – John looks super pleased with the meat in front of him and your smiles says ‘I did it out of love’!!

    My husband and I have lived in Taiwan since the beginning of our relationship and I think that we enjoy the best of both worlds – for example, we enjoy Taiwanese food and Western food but we watch more English TV though. I have also learned from being together for so long that approaching a situation calmly and talking it though is better than having a big outburst of anger.

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    • November 7, 2014 at 3:06 pm
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      Thanks Constance! That’s great that you and your husband can enjoy the best of both worlds in your life. 🙂

      Reply
  • November 3, 2014 at 10:45 am
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    Both me and my Chinese girlfriend get quiet when we’re upset. That’s a good match – the anger disappears and then we can talk. We never had a serious argument with yelling and red faces in the last 5 years, and that’s one reason I love her 🙂

    So I think culture plays a role, but maybe not as much. There are for sure enough emotional and expressive people here who have no problem speaking their mind – some of them I hear through the apartment walls, and if they’re not fighting then I really have no idea what they’re doing, because many of them sound like “I’m gonna throw plates soon!” 😉

    But I think how you handle conflict is something quite personal, shaped by many different things, and culture may be just a small part if it. When you have your conflicts, and which ones you pick, that seems to be more culture influenced. For example a difference I noticed is that people show anger or restraint in totally different situations than I would. I came across Chinese arguing in situations I would find quite embarrassing (for example, the heated open street argument with dozens of bystanders), and in other situations everyone kept their calm except me.

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  • November 3, 2014 at 8:30 pm
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    I can definitely relate to all three of those great pieces of advice.

    As for number three, you are amazing. I’m not a vegan, but I can imagine if I were, it would be incredibly difficult to have to deal with meatーespecially raw meat.

    YJ has been more sensitive about number 2 after watching “Massan” with me, though we both agree that Ellie’s sacrifices aren’t comparable as we have planes, the internet and other ways of staying closer to “home”. And international grocery stores with imported yummies. ^^

    As for the arguing, I suspect one of the reasons we don’t really argue much is down to to reasonsーregular exercise (for me at least it means I don’t get as easily irritated!) and YJ being a great peacekeeper, haha! I’m sure I try his patience a fair bit sometimes. 😉

    Reply
    • November 7, 2014 at 3:08 pm
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      Thanks Ri! YJ sounds like a wonderful guy and exercise is a great way to lower stress (and reduce the possibility of an argument).

      I really need to watch Massan!

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      • November 8, 2014 at 10:12 pm
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        He is! And yes, exercise is great. It’s easier to keep up with it when I remind myself it’s not just for my sake. 🙂
        And yes, please do! (We’ve both learned a lot from Ellie and Massan’s arguing too, haha!)

        Reply
  • November 3, 2014 at 11:58 pm
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    luckily meat was never a problem for us because we are meat lovers. to avoid the argument I try to avoid his Mom – if she doesn’t show up in any context we simply don’t argue haha, because whenever she is mentioned she has some ‘brilliant’ idea that I will hate haha.
    really, we argue only on THOSE days and only if his mother is around because she spies on me – how much water I drink, how cold the drink is, how much sweet I eat… give me a break, I will bleed for few days and you want to make me even more uncomfortable?
    in other situations it’s really easy to compromise on a tiny things 🙂
    PS it always warms my heart to see how happy you two are together, you can just feel all that love and happiness coming from the pictures 🙂

    Reply
    • November 7, 2014 at 3:10 pm
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      Lina, haha, gosh, I also have to admit I get really touchy on THOSE days myself. If I had a MIL spying on me too, I would probably go crazy too!

      Reply
  • November 4, 2014 at 5:06 am
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    Thanks for posting such a special and succinct post with very practical advice! We’ve found ourselves in similar situations and it’s good to know how someone else works through the rubs in their marriage.

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  • November 4, 2014 at 8:29 am
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    Oh wow, I had no idea you are vegan. Impressive. Has that been stressful living with your in-laws (and not eating the food they serve?)

    I used to get nautious at the smell/taste of cooked fish. No idea why. I had been like that for as long as I remembered… but Ryosuke’s family eats tons of fish.
    It was really stressful when we were living with them.

    Now, for whatever reason, I can stomach the taste of fish much more (I even LIKE some types)… so it’s not as bad.
    I was wondering if China has some of the same rules for family + food.

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    • November 7, 2014 at 3:13 pm
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      Thanks for the comment Grace! It’s not stressful at all b/c I have the nicest in-laws ever. My MIL always makes me tons of delicious vegan food whenever I’m at the family home.

      I don’t know if it would be different with another family, but I can tell you John’s family has always gone out of their way to accommodate my vegan diet. (I’m sure it also helps that I’m willing to cook meat/fish and the like for John!)

      Reply
  • November 4, 2014 at 1:18 pm
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    A good post with some excellent advice based on your years of experience.

    I’m amazed that John accepted vegan meals for as long as he did. Judging from the example of my husband, Chinese men like their meat a lot.

    Eugene was a big, enthusiastic eater. When we were still dating, my parents invited him and his brother to dinner at our house. My mom served what for us was an ordinary meal: fried chicken, potatoes, vegetables, a salad, and dessert. But since my dad was a small eater who always ate just one piece of chicken, Eugene and his brother ate the same amount. Afterwards, they rushed home, boiled a pot of rice, fried a chicken and a half, and ate it all. For dessert (their second dessert), they put a half gallon of ice cream on the cutting board, cut it in half with a butcher knife, and ate the whole thing out of the carton.

    The moral of the story, as Eugene told it (over and over), was that a man has to have enough to eat.

    Reply
    • November 4, 2014 at 6:04 pm
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      My husband is the same. The first time we were in Austria he was always hungry because we don’t eat as many different dishes as they do in China. When we went for my birth, we made sure to serve a bigger variety of dishes.

      Reply
    • November 4, 2014 at 7:03 pm
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      @ Nicki & CES,

      Is either of your husbands of portly build? I notice that many Asians seem to have the ability to eat considerably more than white people and still maintain a svelte physique.

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    • November 7, 2014 at 3:15 pm
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      Thanks for the comment Nicki! Yeah, this is true — most Chinese, and certainly men, like their meat.

      Reply
  • November 4, 2014 at 7:12 pm
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    Also almost vegan (eat a little seafood but no dairy) and married to a Tibetan. I hear you. We speak mutual second languages (Chinese) and live in Korea… so try that on! But yes, I think you’ve got a lot of good points here. Intercultural is hard, but… my sweetie is worth it.

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  • November 5, 2014 at 3:42 am
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    I am surprised that you are a vegan and how you manage this in China! (didnt read all the comments yet).
    I mean in even in vegetarian dishes they put some meat so I wonder how it works 🙂

    A working relationship without fights just does not exist. My wife and I had our share of fights and over the years learned how to deal with them and learn from them, but from time to time there is always something.

    About that silence thing when being angry, ohhh, I really think it is an Asian thing or at least a very common Chinese. When my mother-in-law was with us for three months and there was a major fights between her and my wife they just stoped talking for a few days. Just great, two angry women not talking to each other and me in between in that tiny apartment, guess how great that felt!
    Another example is from another Chinese-Finish married couple. Once they had a very bad fight and she just stoped talking for a month with him. I really wonder how this can settle anything, in my humble opinion I believe a fight can only be resolved by communicating, so silence makes it even worse…

    Reply
    • November 7, 2014 at 3:20 pm
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      Thanks for the comment Timo! It’s possible to be vegan here as long as you’re not militant about it. I’m a 99 percent vegan (because goodness knows, there’s going to be that 1 percent non-vegan).

      Wow, that would tough having two family members angry together and not talking!

      Reply
  • November 5, 2014 at 1:09 pm
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    Great ideas and ones that I think would suit almost any marriage. 😀 I’m still questioning culture and personality in overcoming relationship hiccups. As someone else mentioned, culture can inform personality but regardless, I think every cultural group has every possible personality. And as you said, stress can push normally calm people over the edge! I think patience, knowing your partner, communication, and being open to compromise are really important.

    I think the biggest obstacle in multicultural couples is language. Not being able to fully share and express yourself can lead to building and eventually boiling over frustration, anger and misunderstanding.

    Someone talked about silence or bottling up feelings as an Asian thing. I feel this is partly learned and partly personality and is not necessarily related to cultural background.

    And on an unrelated note, a belated thank you for adding my blog to your blog list! I’m thrilled to be in such great company. 🙂

    Reply
    • November 7, 2014 at 3:21 pm
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      Thank you for the comment Hilary and for sharing your thoughts on the topic. Glad to add your blog!

      Reply
  • November 5, 2014 at 6:18 pm
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    Great post, Jocelyn. And I love the pix. The shogun won’t let me post any of him publicly, but I think Japanese culture tends to be more private about photos than Chinese, maybe. In any case, just wanted to add that sometimes, paradoxically, speaking 2 different languages can really help. Then neither one of us can argue very heatedly… All the best to you and John!

    Reply
  • November 6, 2014 at 2:50 am
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    yes, most Chinese men don’t express much anger and they might avoid the problems ;however, don’t push them too far. They might really show you at the end.

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  • November 6, 2014 at 6:37 am
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    Great post! Thank you so much for writing this! This just confirms that I was not the only one not realizing why my man didn’t enjoy living in the UK! haha. He might have not enjoyd also because I was in Norway, and he was there alone, experiencing this new culture and food all alone! But whenever I came to visit and I suggested we’d go out for dinner, he would only want to eat Chinese food, while I was forcing him to eat western food as he had to “explore” the new culture, and food.. Well, one day he just stopped me said “U know what? I don’t like this new culture, I miss home, I miss my mum’s cooking” haha, cute, and very unexpected from a guy like him.. It made me realize why he was getting all grumpy and quiet often though. As of the arguing, I’m like you – I just say it. Thats what I learnt while growing up, while he learnt to just be quiet and not “lose face” -.- Now that we have talked about all of this, I’ve stopped with the arguing and he’s the one that have started with answering me if I become grumpy. haha. Although we don’t argue as much as we did when he first came to the UK. I guess it is all about talking to each other figuring it out, why your better half is not in a good mood, and talk it out. 🙂

    Reply
  • November 8, 2014 at 5:46 am
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    Being from 2 different cultural backgrounds definitely triggers more arguments but over time I noticed that serious arguments with my husband mostly stemmed from miscommunication due to the fact that neither of us are native English speakers. I found that out the hard way when I used the word “Karma”…

    The best decision for us was to pick a location where neither of us are from. This way, we sort of supported each other through this change and shared frustrations/excitements.

    Aside from the meat, chinese cooking isn’t too bad for a vegan so that’s somewhat lucky! Imagine if you had married a Frenchman!

    Reply
  • November 22, 2014 at 10:57 am
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    thanks Jocelyn for the post. I had something similar happened to me too.

    Reply

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