Working with Cross-Cultural Couples

...And Why It's Not Necessarily Wrong to Take Sides

Kirsten Lind Seal

All couples are cross-cultural in some respects. After all, every person comes to a marriage with a set of unique influences from his or her family of origin, socioeconomic status, rural or urban environment, neighborhood, and religion, to give just a few examples. However, there are many couples whose cross-cultural nature is more immediately apparent than others—meaning the partners differ in language, citizenship, ethnicity, race, or other demographic characteristics. In fact, in 2012, the Pew Research Center reported that more than 1 in 6 new US marriages were interracial or interethnic. In my practice, I see many couples in which one partner is white, born in the US, and speaks English as a first language, and the other one is nonwhite, born in another country, and doesn’t speak English as a first language.

Given how likely it is that as a therapist you’ll have cross-cultural couples come to you for support with their relationship, it’s important to know how best to help them navigate not only the usual communication and intimacy issues, but also the unique challenges that many cross-cultural couples face that aren’t always addressed in therapy.

Communication or Confusion?

Angie, born and raised in a northern Minnesota town, was an outwardly cheerful woman with a nervous laugh, while her husband, Nando, originally from Colombia, seemed quiet and somewhat somber. They’d met in Colombia while she was working as a nurse and he as an engineer in a large international humanitarian organization, and had been married for five years. Angie had told me on the phone that they were having “serious communication issues,” but I immediately noted how loving they seemed with each other, even sitting so closely together on the couch that their legs were touching. As I always do, I began by asking them to tell me what had brought them in.

“Well,” Angie started, “things have gotten to the point where we seem to be fighting all the time. Like last week, we were driving to dinner with some friends, and when I suggested to Nando that he take Route 94, he got really mad and started driving faster, and he told me to quit telling him what to do. Then when we got home, we didn’t speak for the rest of the weekend. That never used to happen with us. And I don’t want to start having kids if this is going to be how things are with us.”

I turned to Nando. “And how is it for you?” I asked.

“We used to be very good together,” he said. “In Bogotá, we were always happy and never fighting. Now we are here, and she always wants to tell me what to do, and we are fighting all the time. It gets so bad that I tell her I’ll just leave if I don’t make her happy. I don’t want her to be sad.”

“Right,” said Angie. “He threatens to leave—and then when I call him on it, he says he didn’t mean it.” At this point, I had a thought based on the kinds of mistakes I’ve made in Spanish, missing particular nuances in the language. And so I asked them, “Do you speak English all the time at home?”

“Mostly,” said Angie. “My Spanish is good, but Nando’s English is better, and also we’re living here, so we both thought it would be better to use English.”

“Nando,” I said, turning to him. “When you say you’re going to leave, quería decir quiero ir o quiero salir?” (I was asking him whether he’d been intending to say leave as in “go away” or leave as in “leave the room,” which are two different words in Spanish but are often translated into the one word leave in English. And there’s a big difference between the two.)

“Quería decir salgo,” he said. (He wanted to say leave the room.)

Angie sighed, “Well, why don’t you say so? It always feels like a huge threat to me when you say that.” She shook her head and her shoulders slumped. “This just makes me even more worried about our ability to communicate with each other.”

“Why don’t you speak more Spanish?” I asked her. “Just because you’re both living here doesn’t necessarily mean you have to always speak English.” As soon as I said this, Nando let out a big breath and closed his eyes momentarily. “It’s possible,” I told them, “that prioritizing English in your relationship is affecting the dynamic between you in subtle ways, maybe adding to some of the underlying tension.”

With his eyes still closed, Nando nodded his head. Angie noticed this with surprise and placed her hand over Nando’s. “Nando, this seems to resonate with you. Can you share what’s going on for you right now?” I asked.

“I’m sorry,” he responded, pausing for a moment and withdrawing his hand from beneath Angie’s. “There are just so many times when I feel so outside, even at home. I understand enough, but sometimes I just feel so . . . We have to speak English when we have dinner with her family, when we go to the store, at work. Sometimes at home, I just want to speak Spanish, but I’ve never asked for that.”

“Maybe,” I said to them, “you can work out an agreement in which you try to speak more Spanish at home or when you go out together. You can see how that feels.”

Nando looked pleased and turned to Angie. “Me gustaría mucho hablar en español,” he said. “¿Quieres hablarlo más conmigo?” (I’d really like to speak more Spanish. Do you want to speak it more with me?)

“Okay,” she said. “Podemos tratar, si te lo gusta.” (We can try, if you like.)

Nando reached for her hand, and they smiled at each other. Although language prioritization may seem like a small thing—and not every couple will be able to communicate in both languages—I’ve found over the years that it’s important to raise the issue, bringing to awareness how it can create conflicts and subtle power imbalances that often live deep below the surface of other issues.

Confronting the “Isms”

Over the next two months, as Angie and Nando focused on equalizing their communication, they found they were resolving their disagreements more easily. One day, however, Angie marched into my office fuming, trailed by Nando, who looked pensive and somewhat irritated.

“My husband thinks I’m a racist,” she stated when I asked her to check in. “And I don’t know what to think about that.”

“I didn’t say that you were a racist,” he interjected. “Just that you don’t see when your precious Minnesota people are looking at me different because of my brown skin and my accent.”

He glared at Angie, who muttered and shook her head angrily but stayed silent. “Yesterday, we were in a grocery store that we don’t usually go to. When it came time to pay—it was just me there since Angie had gone next door to the drugstore—they wouldn’t let me use my debit card without showing them two forms of ID! The woman in front of me didn’t have to show any form of ID. Now tell me that was not racist!”

“Well, they didn’t know you, did they, Nando?” fumed Angie.

“Sure, but would they have done that to you? No, they do that to the guy who looks Mexican. Even though I am from Colombia, to them we all look the same!” Nando was clearly hurt and embarrassed by this incident, but more than that, he was deeply wounded by Angie’s inability to see the racism of this interaction, and by her almost automatic defense of the white cashier.

“Well,” I said. “Whether or not they were ‘trying to do their job,’ it sounds like a racist interaction to me.”

“Por supuesto,” said Nando, turning to Angie. “She gets it.”

Many therapists would admonish me for clearly taking one partner’s side over the other; however, if you’re a white therapist, as I am, and you ignore, dismiss, or invalidate what nonwhite partners are telling you about their experience with racism, you’re mirroring the lack of understanding and empathy that they’re experiencing in much of society, where they’re told to “stop being so sensitive.”

As Angie furrowed her brow and crossed her arms over her chest, I decided a bit of psychoeducation was in order. “It’s called a microaggression,” I told her. “This kind of thing can happen in a split second, and it can be really hurtful. It seems pretty clear to me that this really hurt Nando and made him feel disrespected by this person, who was making assumptions about him based on how he looks.”

Angie looked stony. “I know what a microaggression is,” she scoffed.

Trying to move her off of her conviction that the type of microaggression Nando had experienced with the cashier should be explained away as inconsequential, I said, “I know you love Nando, and I know it can be really hard to see or acknowledge that this kind of thing happens. And yet it’s really important for Nando to feel heard by you and for you to believe him when he shares his perceptions of this kind of interaction.”

She nodded slowly and asked, “So do you think what happened to him was racist?”

“Yes, I do. It certainly seems like it,” I replied. “And I think that we try to deny it because we’re so hurt by the idea of it that we’d rather just pretend it doesn’t happen. But ignoring it is a function of white privilege, and when we do that, we’re dismissing Nando’s reality and experience, and hurting him further.”

I could see her pondering this and her face softening. “I never thought of it that way,” she said slowly.

I turned to Nando to bring him in. “And what would it be like for you if Angie were to say that she understands this?” Nando turned his whole body to face Angie directly. “That would be so great,” he said to her. “It would feel like I’m not so alone.”

Tears appeared in Angie’s eyes when he said this. “I’m so sorry that it feels like I’ve been so ciega de todo eso (blind to all this),” she told him.

Nando said, “¡Me gusta mucho cuando hablas español! (I really like when you speak Spanish!). Now I feel like we are juntos (together)—like what you say in baseball.”

Angie said, “A team?”

Nando smiled and put his arm around her.

I watched as Angie leaned into him and closed her eyes. He rested his head on hers, and they sat like that, together, for a few moments. The air in the room grew calmer as they breathed together.

In the year and a half we worked together, Angie and Nando came a long way. They were ultimately able to see that some conflicts that seemed to come up out of nowhere were often connected to their underlying feelings of not belonging—not only to each other, but to the same country. And although our discussion in this session wasn’t a magic balm to heal them in the face of all the racism and nationalism they’d face in the future, it helped them cultivate the empathy essential to creating the firm sense of togetherness that enabled them to tackle other issues in their marriage.


This blog is excerpted from "The Unexplored Issues," by Kirsten Lind Seal. The full version is available in the May/June 2017 issue, What Now? Five Therapists Face the Limits of What They Know.

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Illustration © Sally Wern Comport

Topic: Cultural, Social & Racial Issues

Tags: 2017 | couples | Couples & Family | couples conflict | couples counseling | couples therapists | Couples Therapy | Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | culture | foreign | love | love and relationships | micro | race | race in therapy | race relations | racial issues

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