More on Weathering Those Cross-Cultural Differences in Your Relationship

IMG_20160227_165522I’ve been happily married for over a decade to someone from another country and culture. And like many folks in my shoes, sometimes I forget how far I’ve come from the early days in my relationship…from those arguments, misunderstandings, and stumbles to where John and I are now.

I was reminded of this after seeing the following comment:

I took the chance to read once more your post on cultural differences in intercultural relationships, especially today since I am back to South France after a week spent in Tokyo; I was there for work, commuting everyday from my boyfriend’s place (he is from Inner Mongolia, now living and working in Japan).

It was a hard week, under many aspects. I will quit my present job and move to Japan in August this year, and we already made plans for the future, everything is almost set, but last week we often discussed over each other’s “domestic” habits.

I wanted to ask if you, or your husband, ever felt that the other, sometimes, does not think/understand that there is always “another side of the coin” speaking of how things should be done or viewed. I feel this way, now, but also believe some time together, only the two of us, and at a normal rhythm, is what we need.

Oh, believe me, I’ve been there.

When my husband and I first started living with each other full time in Shanghai, we definitely had our share of ups and downs:

Like the weather, relationships have their own rapid fluctuations — as I have discovered in this month. In only a few minutes, your congenial conversation might end with the thundering echo of a slamming door, just as ours did a few weeks ago, when John and I were sitting on the bed after eating dinner. I bolted down the street to my yoga class, hoping the asanas would help to cloud over the events of the evening. But in the end my eyes let out a deluge of tears. And, to my surprise, when I came out of the gym, there was John sitting on the steps, ready to clear the skies with an apologetic embrace.

This wasn’t the only inclement moment this month. Frankly, not a week has gone by without some petty quarrel — and it has brought me into a strange fog of anxiety and depression.

I should have seen it coming. We’ve both been burdened with a potentially explosive combination of ingredients: John with his thesis and test preparation; me with applying for John’s green card and my work. Throw into that your standard communication gaps between men and women plus cultural misunderstandings, and you’ve got a volatile combination that even the sturdiest chemistry lab hood couldn’t protect you from.

Ironically, I least expected cultural differences to get in the way of my relationship with John. When you’re in love with someone from another culture, when you treat them as your equal, it’s easy to forget that you learned different ways to respond to problems, and different ways to communicate.

Whenever people start living together full time, I think there’s always going to be an adjustment period for everyone. You’re seeing more of that person, right down to those everyday home behaviors you didn’t really see before (like how they deal with chores at home). But when you add cultural differences into the mix, you’re dealing with a whole lot more.

As I wrote above, sometimes I didn’t even think about the cultural differences — when I probably should have acknowledged them more. John and I had different expectations for a lot of things we had initially overlooked, such as how to tackle and resolve conflicts. Tempers flared and sometimes we said things we shouldn’t have. (Ouch.)

Honestly, I think it took us a few years to work out those “kinks” in our relationship and really get to a place where we understood each other. Where we were willing to listen and adjust how we responded to each other. Where we could, as the commenter referenced above, acknowledge that there was more than one way to do things. (For example, John learned how I liked to be talked to during an argument, while I learned to tone down my anger and control my temper.)

Getting to that point takes time, patience and a willingness to make things better. And sometimes it doesn’t happen through conversations alone. Early on in our relationship, I remember how watching American movies and TV with John actually deepened his understanding of my own habits. (Like how I love to spontaneously dance around the house whenever I hear a great song. 😉 ).

To all of the cross-cultural and international couples just starting out, I wish you lots of understanding in your journey to marital bliss. John and I weathered those hardships starting out in our marriage…I know you can too. 🙂

5 Replies to “More on Weathering Those Cross-Cultural Differences in Your Relationship”

  1. Absolutely! My hubby and I have been together 9 years and I agree that I have forgotten about the cultural differences more than once. We’ve had a lot of talks about having different perspectives but in the heat of the moment, one or both of us (okay, usually me!) forgets and emotions rule the show. It’s really so very hard sometimes! But I like to think that couples who grew up down the street from each other can also have their share of communication hiccups.

    The major event that changed our relationship again was having a child. It has become harder for us to have time to chat and simple stare into the eyes of the other, remembering why we fell in love so many years ago.

    Like you, I wish others well! It won’t be easy but stick it out if you believe it to be best for both of you. Relationships are never easy all the time especially since people just can’t seem to stop growing and changing. 😛

  2. Nice post. Just a penny of thought – While I do see there are challenges in terms of cultural difference in an intercultural or international relationship, I still think communication and personality factors play more of the important roles when it comes to whether a relationship is successful or not.

    Sure, maybe a person would approach a problem differently to his/her partner due to cultural influence, but if they are on the same page in terms of their outcome then that’s not a problem. One just has to explain to one’s partner. Of course that would provide an opportunity to see the world differently. 🙂

  3. What a great post Jocelyn! I think you offer some really great advice up there. I mean, I think it’s ridiculous to NOT live with your partner before marriage. You learn so much about another person by sharing your everyday life and home with them. It’s really eye opening.

    I do agree that cultural clashes can strain a relationship (especially when it comes to communication styles and views on life goals). I think the most important thing though, as Phil mentioned up there, is personality and compatibility. With my ex-boyfriend in China, we fought and fought and fought and fought. I felt a lot of cultural tension because I found that his personality type found it difficult to sympathize. While I conceded a lot of my needs and personal freedoms because I knew it was not acceptable in China, he rarely did the same for me (he was dumbfounded by many western values and refused to accept them, or even try to).

    My current relationship with my Chinese man is a success and I’m happier than I ever could be, and that’s thanks to our willingness to mutually sacrifice and understand one another, despite cultural blunders here and there.

  4. My Chinese husband and I were together for thirty years, long enough that it was hard to remember any cultural differences we had. He had lived in the United States for four year before we married, and we stayed in the US for another four years before moving to the Philippines. Being a “trailing spouse” was so much harder for me than adjusting to cultural differences.

    To anyone who is just beginning a cross-cultural relationship, I wish you happiness. Share, communicate, and be willing to compromise.

  5. Hi Jocelyn,
    Another excellent article. I didn’t really think about race when I was dating even though I dated mostly Asians. I don’t think my wife or I think much about cultural differences when we first started dating. I think she probably experiences more cultural “conflicts” than me just because Chinese culture has a lot of traditions. As everyone knows, marriage in Chinese society is not just about 2 people, it’s about two families. It’s a lot more complicated when you have to deal with that. You have to be open minded and adventurous in an interracial relationship to fully appreciate and embrace it. And communication is crucial! The funny thing is that I think her personality is more Asian and I am more American! 😀

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