One of the benefits of being a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People is that you’re given the opportunity to request topics. One of our patrons asked us to address cross-cultural or inter-racial marriages. It’s an interesting area, with research showing that there are some common difficulties inter-racial couples face, as well as some real strengths they can draw from their different backgrounds and perspectives.
We should acknowledge at the start that we do address this issue from a place of white privilege — even though we have a bizarre last name, we are both white and so a set of privileges was defaulted to us at birth.
However, we have been studying this issue and want to bring some wisdom to those of you who are inter-racial couples. We’d also love to hear your feedback in the comments section below.
Interracial couples face challenges in their marriages that often find their source in issues that aren’t marital.
For example. A study in 2006[i] looked at survey data for interracial couples and found a higher risk of severe distress compared to intra-racial couples (same race). What is interesting is that they noted that issues to do with socioeconomic status accounted for half of the variance.
So they concluded that one of the largest challenges in interracial marriages was to do with money and socioeconomic status. It’s an unpleasant fact about the western society that racial minority families are, on average, less well off than white families. So an interracial couple may be coming from very different economic backgrounds, which can create tension.
Another study along these lines[ii] pointed out that interracial couples have fewer resources available to them in terms of being able to share finances, possessions, and workloads due to this disparity in socioeconomic status. Tied to this was the observation that these couples may be less able to get support from their extended family due to the possibility of the family disapproving of the marriage, which could also add to marital strains.
I think the point here is that we all know financial issues put strain on marriage: but for interracial couples, the likelihood of experiencing this stressor is higher. Yet, in this, I also want to offer hope. Financial stress does impact your marriage: however, financial stress does not mean there’s something wrong with your marriage. To me, the question then becomes: how can we acknowledge this reality but have it become something we face together rather than something between us?
For those readers not from interracial marriages, that’s actually something you can use for your marriage too! If you want a bit of extra help we have a whole series of posts on marriages finances, with some useful info on topics like how to build a budget and how to reduce debt.
There has been a stigma about cross-cultural marriage in society — probably forever. It was even illegal in many US states and in many countries — perhaps still is, in some. I don’t know.
This stigma and disapproval of cross-cultural marriage is an issue: in ways that those of us with intra-racial marriages may not even consider. For example, stigma may make it harder for interracial couples to show affection in public[iii] due to that fear of being judged.
Stigma can also affect you outside of public settings: think about families. More conservative families may dislike the idea of you marrying someone from a different race or culture. Older research suggests this stigma issue may even have a “Romeo and Juliet Effect” where parental or family disapproval actually works to increase feelings of love[iv]. However, most modern research shows the exact opposite: disapproval from your social network often leads to lower relationship quality[v].
So there’s this sense of isolation and disapproval from your family and from society in general. It’s possible that this could bring you closer together as a couple in a “you and me against the world” kind of way but even so the strain this puts on your marriage should not be underestimated.
The stigma around cross-cultural marriages and the long history of inequality and discrimination between races may lead to an inherent mistrust and even anger inside your marriage.
This may come out in conflict situations[vi]. The long and difficult history of race relations can lead to things being misinterpreted or generalizations being made and other unhelpful communication issues.
Again, now you have something that is between you but finds its source outside your marriage. We’ll unpack this a little more but we have the same principle as with socioeconomic issues: can you have a discussion that acknowledges this reality (if it actually is real for you), and then agree that you’re both going to help each other to acknowledge it as something to face together, rather than have between you?
So that might look like a white husband saying, “Look, I know you’re angry and you see my perspective as being racist — but I want you to know that at the very least I don’t want to or intend to be racist. If there’s some way I’m unconsciously using my white privilege or being racist, please help me understand.” But if there’s nothing there you can identify that your spouse is being racist about, could it be that you are just experiencing a trigger from other traumatic racial situations — and this is not actually a problem occurring in the present?
It could go either way, right? He could be doing something racist or insensitive and need to be educated and given an opportunity to apologize and make amends. Or, he could just be doing something without any intent to be racist and certainly with the desire to never treat you differently because of the race — but this is how you are experiencing it due to other things you have experienced. Possibly it could be a little of both.
Either way, helping him to learn about himself and learning about yourself — these are all valuable discussions to have so that you can work through and understand how this plays into your dance as a couple.
But this requires you to trust each other — not despite racial differences — but with awareness of those differences.
Trust helps with communication, decision making, conflict resolution, and commitment.
One of the ways you can build this trust is by creating your own shared worldview as a couple. All of us have a worldview. And it is shaped by culture and race and experiences of race. Understanding each other’s worldview and building a shared set of beliefs is vital for a trusting relationship[vii].
You don’t necessarily need the same beliefs but having compatible beliefs will make communication easier and increase your happiness in your marriage.
At the very least you need to be aware of what each other’s beliefs are as you could be coming at this relationship with very different perspectives on how it is going to look. Assuming those beliefs are the same is just going to add to the strain of marriage. Talk about gender roles, religion, parenting — as early on as you can in your relationship.
For our patrons: we created a conversation guide for this.
Understanding Your Different Worldviews
Whether it’s for your marriage or you’re helping other marriages, using this guide you’ll get to talk through vital issues, like how you see human nature, relationships, orientation towards time (history) and activity, and how you express yourself. Talking through this is going to lead to a much deeper understanding of each other and will result in a deeper connection. If you’re not a patron yet, you can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Now let’s look at how interracial couples can work on communication. Cross-cultural communication is interesting, especially in light of the pursue-withdraw cycle that we talk about on our show from time to time. A study from 2006[viii] interviewed 363 participants from different countries (Brazil, Italy, Taiwan and the USA) about communication style and satisfaction. Findings were the same across cultures:
- Constructive communication style linked to higher satisfaction
- Demand/withdraw patterns were found in all cultures with men in the withdrawing role being significantly more common in all cultures
- Demand/withdraw communication associated with lower satisfaction across all cultures.
So styles of communication and conflict resolution are often the same across cultures. I don’t know enough to speak to this fully but of course in this type of marriage work you are looking at primary emotions like anger, joy, fear etc. And those primary emotions are common to all humankind.
The takeaway here is that your communication doesn’t have to fail or be a problem because you are from different cultural or racial backgrounds. And it also means that there are a lot of therapists out there like myself who can help you create a marriage you’ll love today and treasure for a lifetime.
Let’s end on a positive note here.
A study by Leslie & Letiecq[ix] interviewed 76 interracial couples. They found that taking pride in your own racial identity while also being accepting of other cultures was the highest predictor of marital quality for these couples.
What I took from this is what we need to do in any marriage: acknowledge our reality, and learn to be accepting and committed. Don’t thrust these issues under the table or pretend they aren’t there. Because they are there.
Another study from 2009[x] also identified the need for supportive communication. They also talked about self-disclosure as a predictor of marital satisfaction in interracial families. That’s sharing your internal world and experience with your spouse. And they also talked about identity accommodation, similar to the previous work we just referred to. Identity accommodation is about having positive attitudes towards both your own and your spouse’s culture and heritage.
So when these positive ingredients are mixed together, it increases your sense of family identity. Who you are as a couple. What’s beautiful now is that we’re talking about “us” and “we” rather than “you” and “I”.
And that’s the key to a successful cross-cultural marriage: in the face of all these issues like disapproving families and economic strain, and in spite of years of distrust and inequality in society, you have chosen to come together and make your two worlds one. Choosing to understand each other and celebrate your separate beliefs while working towards creating your own shared outlook on life will allow your marriage to thrive in spite of anything life throws at you.
[i] Jenifer L. Bratter and Karl Eschbach, ‘“What about the Couple?” Interracial Marriage and Psychological Distress’, Social Science Research, 35.4 (2006), 1025–47 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2005.09.001>.
[ii] Yan-Liang Jerry Yu, ‘Rethinking Marriage and Health: What Role Does Interracial Marriage Play?’, Department of Sociology, Michigan State University, 2013.
[iii] Elizabeth Vaquera and Grace Kao, ‘Private and Public Displays of Affection Among Interracial and Intra-Racial Adolescent Couples’, Social Science Quarterly, 86.2 (2005), 484–508.
[iv] Richard Driscoll, Keith E. Davis, and Milton E. Lipetz, ‘Parental Interference and Romantic Love: The Romeo and Juliet Effect.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24.1 (1972), 1–10 <https://doi.org/10.1037/h0033373>.
[v] H. Colleen Sinclair, Kristina B. Hood, and Brittany L. Wright, ‘Revisiting the Romeo and Juliet Effect (Driscoll, Davis, & Lipetz, 1972): Reexamining the Links Between Social Network Opinions and Romantic Relationship Outcomes’, Social Psychology, 45.3 (2014), 170–78 <https://doi.org/10.1027/1864-9335/a000181>.
[vi] Farah A. Ibrahim and David G. Schroeder, ‘Cross-Cultural Couples Counseling: A Developmental, Psychoeducational Intervention’, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 21.2 (1990), 193–205.
[vii] Ibrahim and Schroeder.
[viii] Andrew Christensen and others, ‘Cross-Cultural Consistency of the Demand/Withdraw Interaction Pattern in Couples’, Journal of Marriage and Family, 68.4 (2006), 1029–44.
[ix] Leigh A. Leslie and Bethany L. Letiecq, ‘Marital Quality of African American and White Partners in Interracial Couples’, Personal Relationships, 11.4 (2004), 559–74 <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2004.00098.x>.
[x] Jordan Soliz, Allison Thorson, and Christine Rittenour, ‘Communicative Correlates of Satisfaction, Family Identity, and Group Salience in Multiracial/Ethnic Families’, Papers in Communication Studies, 2009 <http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/commstudiespapers/7>.