The Three Types of Intercultural Relationships

As the United States population becomes increasingly diverse, intercultural relationships are also growing in number. Nowadays 12% of new marriages in the U.S. occur between spouses of different races, and 7% of married couples are mixed-nativity, meaning one partner was born in the U.S. and one was born in a different country.

Intercultural relationships can be exciting, challenging, and alluring. As a member of an intercultural relationship myself, I can attest to both the thrill and the strife of these liasons.

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Let’s just call it tin foil

Amol and I love to giggle over the way we pronounce things differently (him: al-u-MIN-ee-um; me: ah-LUM-in-um) or what we consider “breakfast foods” (him: some kind of savory, often spicy, grain with vegetables; me: some kind of sweet cereal with milk or yogurt and fruit).

Yet we also face our share of concerns: we worry about how to look after aging parents on two different continents and whether one of us should renounce our home country so that we can both become citizens of the same nation.

For me and Amol, our dissimilar cultural heritages have proven to be a source of strength rather than weakness in our relationship. But this is not always the case. Sadly, intercultural marriages are more likely to end in divorce. Because Amol and I tend to run in very multicultural circles, we’ve had the occasion to observe three approaches to intercultural relationships: two of which are potentially shaky long-term and one that seems destined to last.

1) Romeo and Juliet

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The “star-crossed lover” approach to intercultural relationships is, unsurprisingly, ill-fated

This relationship involves overcoming cultural barriers in order to be together. Don’t get me wrong, falling in love with the social equivalent of “forbidden fruit” makes for some highly dramatic romance and a heck of a lot of passion… but Shakespeare scholars classify Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy, not a romance.

That’s because these types of relationships are simply not sustainable. People in a “Romeo and Juliet” intercultural relationship see their cultural differences as a roadblock that needs dismantling, rather than an opportunity for mutual growth.

But cultures are sticky – they leave their mark on us from birth, and erasing our cultural tendencies just to make things easier on our partner is a losing battle. It may be possible to change superficial things – such as how to pronounce ‘aluminum’ or what to eat for breakfast – but bigger, deeper cultural issues – such as which country to raise your kids in or how financially responsible you are for your parents – require thoughtful negotiation.

For many Romeos and Juliets, they resolve cultural differences by merely capitulating to one partner, or one person attempts to assimilate into the other’s culture. Being a Montague or a Capulet is seen as a hindrance, rather than a help, and like most hindrances in life, we tend to seek shortcuts when resolving them.

2) Jesse and Céline

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French girl meets American guy on a train to Vienna; short-lived intercultural relationship ensues

Richard Linklater’s iconic film, Before Sunrise captures the fleeting romance of intercultural relations – emphasis on fleeting. For these folks, there is nothing more romantic than falling in love with a foreigner who barely speaks their own language. The “Jesse and Céline” couple came together under the intoxicating allure of the exotic “other.”

Like two poles of a magnet, these opposites attract simply because they find their differences so novel and exciting. Yet this attraction is doomed to be short-lived once the luster of surface-level cultural differences wear off.

This happens because intercultural relationships are, quite simply, a lot of work. Things that seem obvious to one person would never have occurred to the other: “Of course we need to save up for a plane ticket to go visit my family for Thanksgiving!” “I didn’t even consider that your mom can’t go out to dinner with us on Monday because she’s fasting.”

Communication is often prescribed as the most important ingredient in a successful relationship. Well, you can double or triple that prescription in an intercultural relationship, where even the smallest decision cannot rest on a taken-for-granted logic.

The trouble comes for the “Jesse and Celine” relationship when the spark of the “exotic other” is not enough to fan the long-burning flames required to get through everyday life as a couple.

3) Margaret and Gregory

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Anthropologist couple Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead

Famed social scientists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson were a wife-and-husband team who worked together studying family systems in Indonesia and New Guinea. The “Margaret and Gregory” couple turns their anthropological gaze inward, to themselves.

Unlike the “Romeos and Juliets,” they do not see their cultural differences as a problem to be resolved. And unlike the “Jesses and Célines,” they do not expect that their foreignness is enough to sustain their relationship, nor are they surprised when their cultural differences produce discomfort or even conflict in their partnership.

Margaret anticipates that Gregory will approach the various aspects of life in a different way than she would – and this provides a fascinating occasion to question the conventional wisdom she’s been taught about that particular issue.

I had a “Margaret” moment when I learned that Amol’s parents came together through an arranged marriage. My own upbringing – which, in the U.S., emphasized freedom of choice – led me to envision an arranged marriage as forced, lacking in sentimentality, and bubbling over with resentment. This conventional American wisdom couldn’t have been more wrong. I quickly learned that Amol’s parents – like many in arranged marriages – are actually just as satisfied, affectionate, and happy as those in non-arranged (“love”) marriages.

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Breakfast?

All in all, being partnered with someone from another culture serves as far more than a lesson in how things are done somewhere else. The Margarets and Gregorys realize that their partner’s otherness serves as a mirror to their own culture, reflecting back to them the implicit assumptions that guide their thinking, and how these assumptions are often inaccurate or outdated. As careful anthropologists, the “Margaret and Gregory” couple views their relationship as an opportunity to constantly teach each other and learn from one another about everyday life.

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Breakfast!

And this optimistic, bilateral, and continual process of cultural learning holds the key to why this type of intercultural relationship offers the most promise for a sustainable, fulfilling partnership between two people from distinct backgrounds.

The fortunate truth about the three types of intercultural relationships is that they are not set in stone. In fact, the only thing differentiating Romeo and Juliet or Jesse and Céline from Margaret and Gregory is mindset. Anyone can turn on the anthropological lens and see cultural differences as an opportunity for self-growth and mutual development as a happy and long-lasting intercultural couple.

Author: Lauren

PhD candidate in sociology, research fellow for Hindu life at Duke University, vegan, yogini, crazy cat lady, pursuer of wanderlust

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