Families, Children & Marriage

Practicing patience in intercultural relationships

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In reflecting more deeply on some of the themes I introduced in the post A Longer View of Intercultural Marriage, I’ve been pondering the role of patience in an intercultural marriage.  While undeniable that patience is a virtue in all marriages, I want to spend some time unpacking what it looks like in an intercultural marriage.

In the familiarity of marriage, cultural differences quickly lose their fascinating qualities and grow exasperating.  Conflicts over gender roles, authority figures, or child-rearing require a lot of time and honesty to sort through.  To expect clear-cut understanding immediately when culture plays a role in your relationship usually results in frustration and conflict.  Some couples will fight it out.  Others might simply crumble under the pressure.

Enter: patience – the ability to step back, take a breath, and assess the situation before responding.  What actually is may not be what it seems.  Take some time to make sure you understand before jumping to conclusions.  I’ll be the first to admit I don’t always practice it, but when I do, things often go much differently than when I go with my knee jerk reaction.

Deep breaths are helpful, but they don’t really resolve anything if all they do is give you more oomph to scream at your partner.  Here are a few ways I’ve practiced patience over the years:

  • Read.  If I’m stuck, it always helps me to sort through fact and feeling.  Reading about culture, marriage, relationships, or any combo of the above helps me understand and process our own relationship in a more productive way.  It also lets me sit quietly and calm down if I’m angry. Here are some of my favorite books on intercultural marriage. I also like the Culture Shock series as a starting point for understanding culture from an American perspective.
  • Call a friend.  I don’t call friends to bitch and moan, but to process, to sort through what is my responsibility and how I can take care of my side of the street.  My friends in intercultural relationships can be more helpful at times because they have experienced being in a relationship similar to mine.
  • Write.  Being a writer, I gain a lot of clarity sorting things out on paper.  But anyone can benefit from this practice.  Writing forces me to think through what I want to say rather than just throwing it out there.  It also gives me some space to collect my thoughts in an understandable way, and to determine what’s helpful to say out loud and what isn’t.
  • Set a time to talk when emotion is less intense.  I know the old adage says to never go to sleep on your anger, but we’ve found that sometimes our best choice is to just go to sleep.  A rested mind can give me a whole new perspective on things.  It also helps me to bring up issues I don’t understand at a neutral time, rather than right in the midst of conflict.  While I lean toward conflict avoidance, this approach hasn’t been a useful tool to help us build a strong relationship.  Differences must be sorted out and understood or one of us starts to feel like we’re getting trampled on.
  • Identify the emotional load.  The deeper the cultural notion, the higher the emotional stress load.  The Iceberg Concept of Culture is a really helpful tool to identify where I’m feeling the stress and often provides a helpful starting point with my husband.
  • Ask for help.  One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to seek counseling when we hit problems we couldn’t resolve ourselves.  Counseling isn’t just for people with “big problems”, and friends can lack the depth of understanding they need to help in certain situations.  An objective viewpoint helps to sort through where the issues are and how to find middle ground in them.


Now…your turn!  When has your intercultural relationship required intense patience?  What actions help you practice patience?  

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2 thoughts on “Practicing patience in intercultural relationships”

  1. Yes, patience. My husband and I are both from morthern-European cultures so the differences are not much more than the differences you’d find in my own country between northeners and southerners. And yet sometimes I am suddenly surprised by some big difference. “Identify the emotional load” – this is what we have to keep doing, because there’s so much emotion attached to “the way we do it”, so to tread gently, choose words with understanding, show acceptance. This is important

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