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Cross-Cultural Relationships – the 8th Wonder of the World

It’s been said that it takes about seven years for a blended family to find its groove and start to feel like a cohesive unit.  It’s also been said that it takes seven years for a marriage to either cement itself or fall apart. It seems like seven is the magic number here, like the Seven Wonders of the World (although I’m guessing by now, there are way more than seven wonders of the world…cross-cultural marriages might as well be added to that list).

The first year, as in most relationships, is exciting.  You’re getting to know each other, falling in love with everything your lover does and is, nothing they do could ever annoy you.  That is, until it does…a few years later, when you’re finally living together and realize that falling in the toilet in the middle of the night because he leaves the seat up is not a cute habit, or you keep missing the final touchdowns of your Sunday game because she insists on going over the upcoming week’s schedule. These habits are simple to fix with a little two-way communication and management of expectations.

What isn’t as straight forward, is compromising on habits that stem from deeply rooted cultural traditions, especially when those traditions have significant emotional or religious anchors. If you truly believe that the toilet seat must stay up because your great-grandfather did it in his 1800’s outhouse in order to be more efficient in the middle of Winter and he wrote in his will that all future generations shall leave toilet seat up, then you may have to resort to the fact that you’ll have a miserable spouse (or separate bathrooms). So that may be a silly example, but it illustrates how silly we sometimes do get when refusing to budge on a habit that may no longer fit our lifestyle and relationship.  The first and most important thing, is to be willing to have an open dialog to discuss the what, why, and how of compromising. I mean, would you really be willing to make the love of your life miserable by making her keep falling into the damn toilet? And yes, I’m biased…because I hate looking at the exposed ceramic bowl and being reminded of all the grossness that it comes in contact with, and then falling into it. Think Tarzan in the city…”the most important thing you need to learn, is to leave the seat down.”

Ok, venting aside, let’s get back to the topic of open dialog and managing expectations. As you share more and more of your lives and culture with each other, things will start to come up that seemed inconsequential before.

Here are a few tips to always keep in mind.  We will explore each of these topics in more depth in future articles, as well:

  1. Never assume your partner is doing something to spite you.  Assume the opposite – that whenever your partner does or says something it comes from a place of love, and is not intended to hurt you (and if you truly feel it is intended to hurt, then you may have found yourself in a toxic relationship and should address that ASAP).
  2. What is common sense to you, may not be to your partner (and vice versa). If something is bothering you, speak up and/or ask questions. Discuss what is bothering you, how and why you both do it differently, and how you can find a new way of doing it that will be mutually appreciated. For the longest time, I would get frustrated and angry when my stepsons, their biological mom’s family, AND my husband’s family would walk through our home in their outdoor shoes. That is a big sign of disrespect in my Polish culture, as it not only brings all the outdoor germs into your clean home, it shows a complete disregard for the effort and time spent cleaning.  I assumed I was being “stepped on” for being different, and took it very personally. After continuous nagging (to my husband, not the parties involved) I finally opened my heart to a conversation, and realized that it wasn’t personal after all. It was an American habit that no one in my new family thought twice of. Once I understood that I can’t control every guest’s action, I let that go. But I did come to a compromise with my husband and step-kids, so that on a daily basis I can feel like our home is being respected and any efforts at keeping it clean appreciated…and mind you, it took five years to convince the oldest teen to join in on the habit of removing his shoes at the door…after one too many rainy days ending up in dirty footprints on our floors, I lost my cool and left my dear husband to reconcile us.  We’re always a work in progress! 
  3. The hardest time to keep each other’s cultural and emotional needs in mind is when we’re stressed and overwhelmed. We tend to revert to our innate habits and appear non-compromising.  Develop an “emergency communication system” for those moments, to assure each other that the moment will pass, and with each other’s support and love you will get through it. When I start to slide into my Dr. Hyde alter ego, my husband (as long as he’s not equally stressed) will call me out on it, hold me tight in a reassuring embrace, and say we’ll discuss this after I get some rest.  And most times, the hug is all I need to get back to my normal state. 
  4. By choosing to devote your heart to a cross-cultural relationship, you choose to be willing to blend your traditions.  The more diverse your backgrounds are, the harder it will be to force your family’s traditions on your new relationship. If you go to your Aunt Agnes’ house for Thanksgiving each year for a feast of ten turkeys stuffed with chicken and your grandmother will never speak to you if you refuse to eat the bird, and your vegetarian partner spends a quiet evening at home feasting on a tofu bird, you will have to have a heart to heart talk with your partner AND your families about finding a compromise that will keep everyone civil, if not happy. 
  5. You are in a relationship with each other, your and your partner’s relationship needs need to come first so that you’re both on the same page when it comes to making life decisions and deciding how you want to live your life, which traditions you will follow together, separately, and what new traditions you’ll create together. 
  6. Blending your new traditions can present some challenges depending on which culture you grew up in, as it may mean greater or smaller involvement with your extended family.  You cannot control how your extended family will feel and react to any tradition changes, but you can’t completely shut them out either. You both need your family’s ongoing support and finding a way to involve all of them in learning more about the other culture can be very beneficial, especially for fostering a loving relationship between your children and their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Some families may be more resistant to this new setup, and may struggle with accepting your relationship. Continue to work with them through honest, open conversations and continue to make attempts at involving them in your new traditions.  If something doesn’t quite work out one year, try a different approach the next year. One thing I wouldn’t recommend doing, is pushing your family to accept your new traditions. Even though you may be ready for that change in your life, they may not, and that’s ok. Just continue reassuring them that they are still an important part of your life, and you still want to share it with them as much as possible. 
  7. Let’s do a seventh tip to keep in tradition with this article’s theme. My seventh wonder tip of cross-cultural relationships is to continue flirting and having fun with each other! Life is filled with many important decisions, from which house to buy to which night should be taco night (it’s an ongoing debate at our house, seriously), but sometimes it’s best to just forget it all and have some fun.  If you’re strapped for cash, wait till the kids are in bed and do a movie night with your hunny, pop some popcorn, make a hot chocolate or tea or whatever your fancy, cuddle on the couch and watch some mindless TV. And more importantly, tickle each other during the commercial breaks. QUICK BREAK FROM LIFE IDEAS: If your bank account allows it, go out to a dinner and movie then talk about why you would make a better hero than the actor you just watched.  Our quick go-to breaks from life’s chaos also include coffee dates at the local bookstore, sneaking out after the little ones are in bed for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s by the beach (the older ones get babysitting duty while you go “run an errand”), or even just taking a walk around the block and discussing the paint color choices of surrounding houses. 

Got other tips to keep your relationship from sinking into the abyss?  Share them in the comments or send me a message. I’d love to hear about them.

Photo by  rawpixel on Unsplash

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