How to explore cultural differences in your relationship

Being an expatriate, you are obviously familiar with negotiating cultural differences at the level of living in a country other than your own, adapting to a new set of social rules, and you are most likely no longer taken aback when you are confronted with a typical case of “Berliner Schnauze”- you may even have come to appreciate it!


But when it comes to intimate relationships, cultural differences can become more complex. At the beginning, you may have been secretly intrigued by differences in holidays and customs, or felt particularly attracted to your partner because of his or her different colour of skin. As curious people, we are often fascinated by difference, especially if you are someone quite keen to travel and getting to know other culture. Throughout later stages in the relationship, many couples I meet feel like they have“overcome” cultural differences and don’t notice culture or Race as something relevant to their relationship (anymore). Instead, they feel they have gotten to know one another as human beings, and appreciate each other for who they are regardless of their culture. While that is a really important achievement and development in your relationship, culture does continue to be an inherent part of us as human beings and influences our thoughts and actions throughout our lives. It directly influences what we believe is important, what we think is right and wrong, and what we believe it means to love and be in an intimate relationship. As your relationship grows and develops further, issues may arise that stem from more deep-seated cultural differences, and it might become important to take a step back and explore those differences again more consciously.


Cultural differences are about much more than differences in cultural customs, such as how to (or not to) celebrate Christmas. It might be what lies behind those feelings of “but I am right!”, or why you feel that your partner does not seem to want to be intimate with you (anymore), or why you feel you always seem to be the one having to make the decisions, or never seem to have a say in your relationship. These kinds of issues can arise in any relationship, but cultural differences can make them seem impossible to overcome.


A colleague once told me: “(referring to an English-Asian couple) they are just too different, it would never work. They were probably intrigued by each other in the beginning, but sooner or later they will find out they are just too different, and they will break up”. This view of intercultural relationships used to be commonplace, and many of us are still confronted with it in the voices we hear from family members (“well, we said you should not marry a non-Muslim!” ) or from friends (“he is just being a jerk,all [fill in the cultural background] are in the end” ). Even most academics used to (and many still do!) research intercultural relationships and marriages as a problematic proposition, for example by emphasising statistics on increased rates of divorce, and a higher prevalence of mental health problems among mixed race children. Of course we are influenced by these views around us, which can thereby become like a self-fulfilling prophecy.


So how do you start re-exploring the cultural differences in your relationship in a constructive way? It might help to start with yourself, by asking how you developed certain values that are so important for you right now. Why are these things so important to you, and why right now? How might this have changed over time? What influenced you in thinking this way? In what way do you think your partner influenced you? In what way do you think your family and friends influenced you?  And what influence do you think you had in making decisions about things like what language you speak together, the country you are currently living in, etc? And how do you think that has influenced your relationship?


This process of self exploration might help you not only to understand yourself better, but also to create some emotional distance and reflection when it comes to some of the arguments you might be having with your partner.


I don’t believe we ever stop developing our understanding of cultural difference, as it will come up anew with any major changes in your life, such as having a baby together, becoming older, illness, moving to a different country, etc. But by continuing to create moments of reflection and curiosity about each other’s differences in this process, you will be able to seize these moments as opportunities to make your relationship even richer and deeper, and feel a stronger connection to each other, while embracing both the differences and what unites you.


If you are interested in getting more ideas on how to explore cultural differences in your relationship, I found this book on intercultural couples quite useful:


“In Love but worlds apart: Insights,questions and tips for the intercultural couple” by Grete Shelling. It is a self-help book, written in a, for my taste, bit too instructive manner, but you may find some useful ideas for exploring what conscious or unconscious reasons might be causing arguments in your relationship and what you can do about it.