Are you in a cross-cultural relationship?

How do we define “cross-cultural”?  

Does that mean we come from different cultures?

Or could it be our families came from different countries?

What is a culture?  

I would define a culture, as would many family therapists, as the environment in which we grew up.  Each family has its own culture developed from many sources and influences.  These may be, but are not limited to; religion, country of ancestry, education, socioeconomic status, place of residence, generation of naturalization, etc.  

I like to tell couples, that all relationships are formed by partners from different cultures.  Even if we grew up as next door neighbors, our cultures could be different; have different values, rules and rituals.

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.,  a Licensed Marriage and Family therapist describes it like this:

“I believe that ALL couples are in cross-cultural relationships. You and your partner may be deceived if you share the same apparent demographic background: ethnic, racial, nationality, religious, economic class, education, and so forth. That belies the diversity within each ethnicity, race, etc.

In the case of ANY two persons forming a relationship, they form not just a two culture group, but a group (system) that by hook or crook... with or with intentionality... with or without awareness, insight, or compassion and understanding... becomes a THIRD culture. And, are simultaneously affected by other cultural influences: community standards, evolving economic issues, media influences, and much more.”

When we are confronted by the “right” way and “wrong” way to do things in our relationships, what we may be encountering is a cross-cultural difference.

I remember a story told to me by a couple married for 20 something years.  

Early in their relationship they often got into a conflict around the dinner table.  It began when the wife asked the husband to pass something on the table:  “Please pass the potatoes.”  He would do so and she would thank him.  And the conflict would begin.

Husband:  “Why are you thanking me?  Didn’t you think I’d do it?”

Wife:  “Of course I thought you would.”

Husband:  grumbling to himself....

After many years they figured out what was causing the conflict.

The wife, raised in Great Britain, had been taught that it is polite for one to thank someone for their kind gesture.

The husband, coming from Norwegian stock, and raised in the U.S., learned that one is helpful to those one cares about.  “Thank you” is reserved for those you do NOT expect to be helpful.

SO, each time his wife thanked him for his helpfulness, from his point of view, she was insulting him!!  The message was, “I didn’t think you’d be helpful.”

From the wife’s point of view, her “thank you” was the expected gratitude!

So it is easy to see how a simple interaction can create misunderstanding!


Exploring the genesis of conflict in relationships, the “right and wrong” ways that we behave, view the world, express feelings, can help us to understand more about the “culture” that we, and our partners, were raised in.  And to appreciate our diversity, as just that:  diversity.

September 4, 2014

by, Glori Zeltzer, MA, MFT

Relationship Quandaries


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