Welcome back to the Therapy Spot, everyone! Recently, I met with a journalist on Swedish Radio to discuss bicultural relationships. (You can listen to my radio debut here!) During this experience, I reflected on the fourteen years I have spent working with bicultural couples. When individuals from two separate cultures form a relationship, the journey can be difficult, yes — but it is ultimately rewarding.
Over the years, I have sat with many courageous couples who struggled to connect. While they knew they felt deep love for one another, their differences loomed large in their minds. By focusing on their differences, they felt the distance between them grow larger.
When we concentrate on our differences, our deep and loving connection with our partner gets disrupted. Of course, this can happen even if you and your partner grew up in the same small town! For bicultural (or inter-ethnic) couples, however, repairing a disrupted connection can be more labor intensive. Why does this happen? How can you move past it? And, perhaps most importantly, how does this impact other areas of your life?
What does it mean to fall in love with someone from another country? Someone whose native language, customs, habits, and beliefs might be drastically different from your own? When this happens, you are saying yes. “Yes, I love you, and I want to co-create this life together.” But that’s just the tip of the bicultural relationship iceberg!
Below the surface, you’re saying yes to so much more. “Yes, I want to learn a new perspective. Yes, I will try to identify with both my culture and yours.” Holding multiple perspectives in mind while communicating your wants and needs is a lot like juggling! Just like juggling, it takes practice, practice, and more practice.
In this case, however, the payoff is much more rewarding than a party trick. When we learn to simultaneously identify with two cultures, we expand our ability to view things from many perspectives.
Out of Conflict, Into Connection
So how can people in bicultural relationships step out of conflict and into connection? Start with these three steps:
- Therapy. Think of your therapist as a guide to help you both navigate this difficult time in your relationship. Therapy for couples in bicultural relationships offers the place for couples to have difficult conversations in a loving way. When you can do that, you choose connection over conflict.
- Apply RICE. Just like we care for an injury with rest, ice, compression, and elevation, we need to care for inflammation or injury in our relationships as well. In this case, RICE stands for Rest, Interest, Compassion, and Engagement. (You can read more about the RICE method for conflict resolution here)
- Create a middle ground. When your relationship is in conflict, your differences feel so much bigger than what you have in common. The space between you and your partner starts to feel like hostile territory. When you slow down, notice, and listen horizontally to your partner, the anger and emotionality clear away. In the middle ground, you stand together and see the possibility to create something new and shared.
This is hard work, yes, but the benefits extend far beyond the two of you.
Bicultural Benefits Beyond the Borders
A successful bicultural relationship requires:
When you grow those skills, you don’t just improve your relationship. You also develop a skill which researchers have named integrative complexity. That’s a fancy way of saying that when we take on multiple perspectives deeply and open-heartedly, we open up our ability to create new possibilities, direction or ideas.
Researchers found a trend among those who identified with both their host culture and their home culture. These individuals consistently demonstrated more fluency, flexibility, novelty and innovation in themselves and in their lives. Integrative complexity shows up in greater creativity in life as well as professional success. Pretty exciting stuff for your relationship and for your own personal growth!
References cited in this podcast
Carmit T. Tadmor, Adam D. Galinsky, William W. Maddux. “Getting the most out of living abroad: Biculturalism and integrative complexity as key drivers of creative and professional success.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2012; 103 (3): 520 DOI: 10.1037/a0029360
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