Creating Successful Interracial, Interethnic, and Interfaith Relationships
Joel Crohn, Ph.D.
Mixed matches are often very romantic relationships. The novelty of being with someone not like the boy or girl next door adds an element of excitement. Novelty is one of the spices of life, and its power can distract people from focusing on the ordinary problems that are part of every relationship.
When a relationship includes an element of forbidden love, the attraction can become even more powerful. Choosing a partner over the opposition of family, friends, or religious traditions can lead to an idealization of the relationship, at least initially. Each partner silently reflects that “If I have chosen her (or him) in spite of these obstacles, I must really be in love.”
While lack of family acceptance can de-stabilize a cross-cultural relationship, it can also have the opposite effect. Cut off from the usual sources of support, the couple that feels exiled is figuratively pushed into one another’s arms. Resenting the judgments of others, they focus their anger on their families and may fail to experience normal ambivalence about their new relationship. Like a nation threatened by enemies from without, they close ranks and temporarily forget their own differences.
Few couples want to disrupt the delicious experience of new love with disturbing thoughts of possible future problems. And who can blame them? Falling in love is one of the most sought after experiences in life, a magical emotional and sexual state of being. Frequently, part of falling in love includes the belief that we have found our true and unique soul mate. And if our beloved is from a background unlike our own, it may even reinforce the feeling of specialness, of having found our missing half. After all, how else can we explain these intense feelings?
There is only one problem with being head-over-heels in love. No matter how high up we start, we always come down. Time is the gravity of love. The intoxicating and delusional state of new love–that sense of finding the perfect other–never lasts.
The real test of a relationship comes when the bubble bursts. Whether it’s over dealing with family rejection, planning a wedding, coping with a child’s birth, making religious choices, or deciding who is supposed to wash the dishes, differences eventually emerge. New love ends, and couples are able to begin forging deep and solid relationships by acknowledging and dealing with their differences. Don’t be so attached to your fantasy relationship that you miss the opportunity to build a real one that will last.
Clarify Your Different Cultural Codes
Culture shapes every aspect of how we view the world and what we consider “normal” and “abnormal.” It molds our attitudes towards time, family, sex and monogamy. Cultural rules govern how we expect anger and affection to be expressed, the ways that children are supposed to be disciplined and rewarded, how we greet strangers and friends, and the roles of men and women. Behavior that I consider neighborly, you may define as seductive; what you intend to be friendly disagreement, I may be just as sure is a threat; when you say you visit your parents “often,” you may mean twice a year, but for me “seldom” might mean twice a week. If we are not able to identify the existence and the nature of these differences in each other’s cultural codes, we will have problems dealing with stressful situations.
Partners in a mixed match raised in different countries can have very different cultural definitions of “normal.” Just imagine the potential value conflicts in an intermarriage between a Japanese man from a culture where men average 11 minutes of housework a day to an American woman where men average 108 minutes. Their expectations of what is “normal” are not likely to easily mesh.
Even when both partners in a mixed match are born in the same country, speak the same language, and are from the same class background, they may find themselves tripping over cultural differences in the meanings of words, behaviors, and values. Regional, ethnic, racial, and religious differences may lead two native-born partners from different sub-cultures to interpret the same action in very different ways. Differences in accents between one part of a country and another are usually obvious; contrasts in cultural codes often are not.
Consider, for example, a recent dispute between Adam, a Norwegian American man, and Serena, an Argentinean American woman. Both of them were the grandchildren of immigrants to the United States. Both were well educated. They had met in graduate school and shared many common interests. They cared deeply about each other, and it never occurred to them during the first year of their relationship that their different cultural conditioning might lead them to react very differently in stressful moments.
A seemingly minor incident revealed the different cultural lenses through which they each viewed the world. They were cooking dinner together one night at Adam’s apartment. Serena’s hands were wet and slippery, and she accidentally broke one of Adam’s favorite bowls that had been handed down to him by his grandparents. Serena apologized profusely, and Adam told her not to worry about it. But in the hours that followed, he retreated into a silence Serena found unbearable.
Finally she blew up. “I know you’re upset, but you just don’t say anything. I feel guilty enough about breaking the bowl, but your silence is really driving me crazy.” Adam responded to her outburst with more silence to which Serena responded with even more anger. The incident sparked the first major fight they ever had, highlighting differences that they had only been subliminally aware of.
When they finally began to discuss what had happened, they began to see the contrast in the ways their families had dealt with conflict. Adam said that he felt being quiet was the way to keep the peace. He had never seen any direct expression of anger between his parents. For him silence was the normal way to communicate feeling upset.
In Serena’s much more expressive family, one of the ways that people demonstrated their sense of connection was through direct, and sometimes loud and angry, outbursts. If you were angry and didn’t show it, it meant you didn’t care. And since people cared about one another deeply in her family, recurrent anger was a normal and expected part of family life. She sensed Adam’s irritation about the broken bowl, but to her his silence meant that he must not really care about their relationship. Her way of trying to reconnect was to demonstrate even more intense emotion to show how much she really cared about Adam.
It wasn’t just that they had grown up in different families that led Serena and Adam to very different conclusions about what constituted normal and expected behavior; it was the differences in the entire social worlds they had experienced as children. Adam had grown up in a predominately Scandinavian/Lutheran neighborhood in Minneapolis. Serena had grown up in a neighborhood in a Miami suburb populated primarily by families from all over Latin America. The values and behavior inside the home were echoed and reinforced by their friends and in other social exchanges they experienced and observed. Until they went to college, each of them had had little opportunity or need to question their families’ definition of normalcy.
Unfortunately, the contrasts in the cultural rules we bring to our relationships are usually invisible until they have been violated. We internalize the norms of our subculture as children and grow up taking them for granted. Therefore, when I get angry with your behavior, my first assumption is that you as an individual are behaving in an offensive manner, not that we are operating by two different sets of cultural rules. One of the most important tasks for partners in mixed matches is to learn to understand and deal with the differences in the cultural codes they bring to their relationship.
Sort Out Confusion About Your Identity
Whether we admit it or not, most of us carry around a mixed bag of contradictory feelings about our cultural, racial, or religious identities. In a rapidly changing, culturally diverse society, it’s hard for anyone to maintain a clear and consistent sense of group identity. Our desire to melt into the melting pot is always at war with our wish to be a member of a distinct group. It’s hard to have it both ways. Most of us at some time find ourselves struggling with inner confusion about where we fit culturally.
People who have experienced racism or religious persecution often feel that their group identification is an unwelcome burden. Those who have not suffered directly from discrimination in their own lives, but know of the victimization of their parents or grandparents, may wear their cultural label with ambivalence and anxiety. They may try to minimize or even obliterate their identity as a member of their group.
Even people from groups that have no memory of oppression may be ambivalent about their cultural identity. Their discomfort derives not from real or perceived external danger, but from an internal sense of incompatibility with their group. They may feel that their identity is “boring,” or they may feel that their group’s primary values do not fit well with their own.
But humans are profoundly social animals. We need to feel connected to a group. The group defines who is friend and who is enemy and provides a system of social support. Its norms help sort out priorities in a complex world.
So it should come as little surprise that so many people are strongly ambivalent about their connection to the identity inherited from their ancestors. The fact that membership in the group, be it African American, Jewish American, Asian American, Mexican American, or even New England Yankee, can be a source of support and emotional nurturance or can target us for the hostility of others means that we can experience group identity as a mixed blessing. And when either partner in a mixed match has conflicted feelings about his or her own racial, religious, or cultural identity, it can create confusion, conflict, and pain in a relationship.
Historically, identity as a member of a group was a matter of destiny, not decision. But as barriers have fallen, especially in the last twenty-five years, group identification has increasingly become a choice. We now face the complicated task of creating our own sense of identity. Like painters standing before a palate of colors, we can choose the shades and shapes of our identities. This can be both an exhilarating and a confusing task. By sorting out the complex feelings about your own group identity, you will be better able to compromise with your partner and find creative ways to synthesize your pasts.
It’s not just the census bureau that likes to divide everything into as few neat and clean little boxes as possible. We are all tempted to reduce the complexity of life into the simplicity of either/or categories. At a certain primal level, we are comforted when we can clearly and unambiguously define people and situations as either one way or the other. He is either black or white, she is either right or wrong, they are either with us or against us. For at least a moment, we create order out of the chaos and uncertainty of life.
The passion for creating categories is built into us. During the first year of life, babies spend increasing amounts of energy learning about the world by creating categories, the most basic of which are that of the familiar and of the unfamiliar. This normal and necessary developmental achievement, though, leads to the infant’s expulsion from the primal garden of innocence.
The two-month-old is a universalist, and seems only to care about how she is held. All people are potentially good as long as they are gentle and soothing. But by eight months, she has become more concerned about who is holding her than by how she is being held. She has already begun to create prototypes of my people and of not my people, of us and of them. The world has been divided into tribes and is never again as simple and pure as it once was, just a few short weeks ago.
It is our capacity–and compulsion–to create categories that makes us human. Our skill in building systems of classification makes us the most powerful of creatures. But this power has no inherent ethics. The benefits of the most important scientific discoveries as well as the pure evil of Hitler’s attempts to create racial purity derive from our ability and desire to separate this from that.
The problem isn’t that we create categories. We have to. There is no way to deal with the overwhelming amount of information that bombards us every second without having ways of sorting it into a manageable number of cubbyholes. Our troubles begin when our categories become too rigid, and we begin to reject information that does not fit into them. That is when we begin to stereotype and distort the complexity of life in destructive ways.
Whether we are talking about racism, anti-Semitism, the hatred of one nation for the next, or a battle between lovers, we are inevitably dealing with the problem of inflexible and oversimplified categories. The great majority of human situations, especially those involving conflict, are more complicated than we would like to believe. The racist is usually no more receptive to information that contradicts his deeply held prejudices than the bitter husband is to reassurances about his wife’s redeeming qualities. Most attempts at building bridges and resolving conflict have to deal with the problem of challenging stereotypes and overgeneralizations.
Married life sometimes seems, by its very design, to encourage spouses to reduce one another into two-dimensional stereotypes. Repetition, boredom, and, especially, the stress of raising children, have a way of turning the exciting contrasts that were initially sources of attraction in a relationship into the focus of conflict. The words, “you always” and “you never” are the danger signs that warn of rigid categories and of hardening hearts. But when people are able to relax their views of themselves and of their partners, to take risks, and to work to renew their bonds, they can create deep connections possible only in committed relationships.