When East marries West: A revealing glimpse at intercultural relationships

Why not being able to understand your mother-in-law's language could be a blessing in disguise

Emily Jardine
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Although our hearts want to believe that love is all we need, research, stats and experience makes it quite clear that love is often not enough. With over 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce in the US, anyone considering a relationship needs to go into it with eyes wide open, fully aware that successful relationships require not only understanding but work.

This becomes even more critical when you’re looking at relationships that cross cultural borders. Especially as individuals who live globally, the chance of meeting and then partnering with someone who has cultural differences is increased.


Dubai-based therapist, psychotherapist and certified life coach Evelyne L. Thomas, who runs emotional focused therapy for couples and relationships, explains the realities of intercultural relationships. “Every couples has to learn to navigate the differences of their family of origin but when two cultures come together, the challenges are more obvious as not only values might differ but also education, religion, traditions and often languages.”

It’s critical that individuals who are from different cultures, which can encompass language, religion, and culture, even though they may be head-over-heels in love, take the time to truly get to know their partner and his or her culture. “Take time to get to know your partner's family's customs and values, preferably before you get married, so that you have time and opportunities to discuss your thoughts. Being patient and flexible will help you gain a different perspective on life and will enrich your own views,” explains Thomas.

A person who knows about intercultural marriage well is Abu Dhabi resident Beth Ullari. Her husband, Shiji Ulleri, a photographer, is from Kerala and she’s from the States. “Growing up in the countryside which for me was the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, and for him was a small village and rice paddy farms of northern Kerala, India was what shaped us both and instilled many of the same values at a young age, despite the difference in religion, nationality, food, customs, and environment,” says Ulleri.

With a difference of over 14,000km between their points of origin, the miracle is not the differences but that they traversed them. And this is the crux for all intercultural relationships - communication. As Thomas explains, “Learning to listen to each other's needs for fulfillment is not only a challenge in mixed cultural marriages, it is the challenge of most couples. When my couple clients are arguing about which religion to teach their children, they are not really fighting about religion. What they are really saying is: ‘Am I important to you? Do you love me for who I am? Do my values matter to you?’”

And culture difference can expand beyond the basics to the more complex ways that the individual interacts with the world around them. Says Ulleri, “I had read before about Eastern cultures, and I think it’s pretty common in communal societies where the opinions of a large group matter a lot to the individual. When I am upset or depressed over sad news and it makes me cry, my husband is highly embarrassed and wants me to do it in privacy at home. Maybe it's just me, but as Americans, I think we are pretty open about our feelings even in public places, in general, and do not always have to be behind closed doors to express them. Also, if I disagree with my hubby or I am upset, I cannot openly raise my voice or gesture with my hands in public and need to be quiet, polite, very discreet when trying to correct my husband in some way. Or I need to wait and take it behind closed doors.”

But the key is to talk through these kinds of issues. “Regardless of their ethnicity, culture or traditions, all human beings have the same needs: to be loved, cherished, valued and to feel safe in their relationship, so that they can be the best of themselves and raise children in a loving and nurturing environment which will help them grow into mature and healthy adults,” explains Thomas.

And all of these differences have a flip side as well: the richness of a multicultural life. “What’s been amazing is that chance for international travel to see both sides of the family and exploring new places together, the opportunity to experience a culture that's worlds away from my own with striking similarities and profound differences, and our two beautiful children together who get a taste of the eastern and western culture,” says Ulleri. ‘And of course, there are advantages to not being able to understand your mother-in-law's language when she says something bad about you. I would never know a thing,” laughs Ulleri, showing the silver-lining.

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