Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Love Across a Cultural Divide

Love conquers all, or so we'd like to think. But when a relationship comes up against the ties of family, culture, and tradition, it helps to have the patience of a saint and the skills of a diplomat. Increasing numbers of American couples claim mixed racial heritage, and millions of others come from mixed religious backgrounds. While many of these couples are indeed drawn to one another in part because of their differences, the same qualities that may have attracted them can become relationship stumbling blocks.

Susan and Arturo are part of this growing trend toward multicultural, multiethnic relationships. Susan, a strawberry-blond optometrist from Seattle, prepared to travel with her fiancĂ© Arturo to spend Easter at his family home in New York City. The couple had met just seven months earlier when the dashing sales rep, originally from the Dominican Republic, came into Susan's store to check his prescription. "One of the things I noticed immediately about Arturo is that he is extremely chivalrous — so different from the guys I knew," says Susan. "Arturo is always appropriately dressed, holding the door open, escorting me somewhere. I had always looked for that chivalry in a guy, but I had been looking in a world where that just didn't exist — until I met Arturo."

A Game of Tug-O-War

Susan was excited to meet her future mother-in-law, Marie, and Arturo's extended family. But when she arrived at Marie's pleasant Washington Heights apartment, she was wholly unprepared for her greeting: "Oooh, you're so skinny!" said Marie with genuine alarm, leading Susan to the kitchen table and piling high a plate of oxtail stew. Susan, who had recently gone on a diet in preparation for her wedding — and wasn't sure how she felt about oxtail to begin with — didn't want to seem rude by declining Marie's cooking.

As the weekend progressed, Susan felt increasingly disoriented. Since there were a fair number of children in Arturo's extended family, Susan expected a traditional Easter egg hunt. But there were no chocolate eggs in sight. Instead Marie served up a traditional Dominican Easter pudding made with sweet red beans and decorated with a crucifix made of red wafers. Small things, to be sure. Yet taken together, these details had Susan thinking about just how different her experiences had been from those of her fiancé. "Even though it was nice, it was unfamiliar," she recalls. "For a moment, there, I had to ask myself whether I could feel at home with a family that was just so different from mine. But once I familiarized myself with their way of celebrating, I began to relax and enjoy myself."

When Linda, who is black, and Alan, who is white, were first married, they both believed that their love could overcome all obstacles. But from the very beginning, their marriage lacked the support of either of their families. This increasingly painful situation strained their relationships with their parents, and consequently began to try their own relationship. Alan's father, James, with whom he was very close, was the first to fully accept the couple. James became an ally, instrumental in helping to influence the other parents. Tragically, just before Linda became pregnant, James unexpectedly died. And Linda and Alan began to argue about what to name their son.

Learning to Compromise

"I wanted to give him a name that was more traditionally African-American," says Linda. "It was important to me to preserve my culture and to hand that down to my son, who was going to be perceived by the world as a Black man. But Alan wanted to name our child James in honor of his father." Melissa Mertz, a family therapist in private practice in New York, sees this cultural "tug-of-war" often.

"For some couples, the issue of cultural survival is very tricky. But couples have to learn to compromise. The issue of cultural differences is an easy one for people to use in order to stay disconnected from each other." Mertz counsels couples to grow together. "People need to understand that if they're still holding on to the traditions of their family of origin to the extent that it's hurting their relationship with their spouse, they need to divorce their family of origin so that they can really be married to each other."

Mertz herself is a Catholic married to a Jewish man. At one time, she reports, their religious differences caused considerable stress. "We used to fight about the Christmas tree because I saw it as a ritual and he saw it as a religious symbol," she recalls. "Rich and I even went to classes to help us deal with this issue. He began to accept it as a ritual that was important to me, and I was able to communicate to him that my need for it had to do with the fact that it was the only connection I had with my family." This acceptance works to affirm, rather than divide, a family's closeness.

Jenny and Sanjit, who have been married for 10 years and have seven-year-old twins, say that cultural differences have added richness to their family life. Jenny, who is half-Chinese and half-white, introduced Sanjit, who is Catholic and Indian and observes all the traditional Western Christian holidays, to the celebration of the Chinese New Year. Linda and Alan ultimately settled on the name Jamal—similar enough to James to satisfy Alan but with an African-American flavor, which pleased Linda. "We each learned how to compromise," says Linda, "we're too important to each other not to." Like Susan, Alan and Linda learned that cultural identity needn't be a threat to the relationship.

A mixed marriage may not be without its problems, but it adds enormous richness to family life, as well as insight into other communities. "Deciding between my traditions and hers was never an issue," agrees Sanjit. "We just celebrate everything. The twins, of course, think they're the luckiest kids in the world!"

Tips on Bridging the Cultural Divide

* Get in touch with his family before the first big meeting, especially if it's planned for a big holiday. Holidays are emotional times for many families, and therefore not the best time to spring big issues. Getting together for a lunch or dinner date, or for a play or other cultural event can provide a chance to get to know one another a bit under more relaxed conditions.

* Recognize the importance of an ally. As in the case of Linda and Alan, one parent who is accepting of your relationship can ease the fears of the others. Parents may be more accepting if the "seal of approval" comes from one of their own peer group, or because they don't want to be seen as the "unenlightened ones" in the equation.

* As Melissa Mertz discovered, it's important to discuss why rituals and cultures are so important to us. Tell your partner that Easter dinner makes you feel like an important part of your family, since it's something you've always shared, rather than simply insisting on attending.

* Focus on building your own rituals and experiences together. These are the ones you'll treasure in the years to come. Bringing other family members into these events may even lead them to have more respect for your relationship.

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