External stressors are magnified in cross cultural marriages because of disappointments when cultural assumptions are unmet. Developing a shared identity is the key to growth.
My wife Dalia and I met in our senior year of college. And, for much of that final undergraduate year, I was on my best behavior to win her over. When she finally said “yes”, my youthful naiveté led me to believe I had gotten through the toughest part. It wasn’t long after our nuptials that I realized just how wrong I was.
I expected some bumps on our marital road. I knew marriage comprised constant adjustments and difficult compromises. But nothing (neither our parents, our respective churches nor our college education) prepared us for what we ultimately would find most challenging – thriving in a cross-cultural marriage! On the day that Dalia, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Panama, and I, an African-American from the rural south, wed, “culture clash” was furthest from our minds. But, it wouldn’t be long before its presence was felt.
Disappointment: The Threat to Your Cross-Cultural Marriage
My first clue that Dalia and I were going to stumble over some cultural differences came when she lovingly offered to fix me chicken with gravy. “Excellent!” I replied. I could almost taste my grandmother’s succulent smothered chicken with biscuits.
But, when Dalia served dinner, I was visibly disappointed by the chicken entrée. Instead of the flour-based brown gravy that I was expecting, Dalia used a tomato-based gravy common to Panamanian dishes. This was certainly not what my grandmother would have prepared. After a few rounds of clarification, the misunderstanding was clear. Dalia and I used the same term “gravy” with a completely different set of expectations.
Disappointment associated with unmet expectations is a drain on many marriages. However, the threat of unmet expectations to cross-cultural marriages is more pronounced because of differing cultural idiosyncrasies. What makes the pain more difficult is that the disappointment often extends to your parents and others who are most important to you. Generally, the more dissimilar the cultures, the more pronounced the disappointment.
For Dalia and me, cross-cultural conflict has revolved around the authority of our parents, financial decisions and social interaction. Whether your expectations come from your family of origin, the social context in which you live or simply your ingrained attitudes, fundamental differences in beliefs and behaviors often impede the sense of covenant that God expects. What are your examples of unmet expectations in your cross-cultural marriage?
With twenty years of experiences in a cross-cultural marriage, I have learned that culture influences nearly every important aspects of marriage. To a large extent, communication style, boundary setting, elderly care, parenting, gender roles, food preferences, biblical interpretation and even worship style are negotiation points for the cross-cultural marriage.
When you married your spouse, you married his or her culture too. This is both the challenge and opportunity of cross-cultural marriage. Just as the kingdom of God is enriched by the diverse background and experiences of the people that worship Jesus Christ as Savior, diversity enhances marriage. Though from a different culture, your Christian spouse and you are joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). This shared identity, enabled by honest communication, transforms your differences from liabilities to assets by leveraging cultural strengths. Your marital diversity covers one another’s weaknesses, broadens your ideas, models healthy conflict resolution and extends your reach for ministry.
Ten Tips for Protecting Your Cross-Cultural Marriage
Despite the stressors and disappointments in your cross-cultural marriage, if you desire God’s gifts for your marriage, He promises you a more excellent way (1 Corinthians 12:31). As you and your spouse attend to the following ten tips, I am convinced that you will see each other and your marriage the way God sees it – a vessel of honor:
- Prioritize your spiritual identity as a Christ follower over your cultural identity.
- Prioritize understanding over judging.
- Do not minimize what your spouse maximizes. (If your spouse thinks it is important, it is!)
- Everything important to you should be explained to your spouse rather than assumed.
- Honor and value your spouse’s parents and extended family.
- Negotiate boundaries with your extended families that are acceptable to each of you. (Caution: In a healthy marriage, parental loyalty should never exceed spousal loyalty.)
- Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt. (Grace asks that you assume the best of your spouse rather than the worst.)
- Embrace your identity as a cross-cultural person. (Value the fact that you represent the fusion of two cultures that enhances your perspective.)
- Integrate elements of your respective cultures in your daily living (e.g. food, language).
- Pray daily for the wisdom, grace and patience necessary to treat your spouse with trust and respect.