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Does your Intercultural Marriage stress you out during the Holidays?
Cheryl Crippen

Cheryl Crippen

Columnist/Consultant, Cross-Cultural Relations at the Parent Voice, Magazine
Cheryl is an educator and consultant who specializes in cross-cultural relations. Her professional experiences in both international relations and counseling psychology have informed her current research on the processes of cultural adaptation among intercultural couples, and the patterns of social-emotional adjustment in multiple-heritage young children.
Read more under 'Contributors'.
Cheryl Crippen

Read about how intercultural, mixed ethnicity couples negotiate cultural loses and gains during the holidays.

 The holiday season has snuck up again. Few of us are prepared for either the holiday hustle or the emotional tax that occurs during a season of ritual, reflection, and renewal. This tax can be particularly high for intercultural couples who bridge cultural divides by linking extended families together, families who function as microcosms of international relations among countries.

Intercultural couples face an higher emotional tax during the holidays having to bridge cultural divides by linking extended families. Click To Tweet

For intercultural couples, shared holiday rituals and nostalgic traditions that provide continuity and connection across generations are a source of paradox. Click To Tweet

In the United States, the holiday zone of November through January is replete with contradictions. Many have additional time off from work, yet this “time off” gets filled with holiday-related responsibilities that divert focus from reflection and renewal. The “reason for the season” of gratitude and connection to family is undermined by pervasive images and messages to accumulate material over memories. Even the shared holiday rituals and nostalgic traditions that provide continuity and connection across generations are a source of paradox. Often, families in contact are families in conflict and the reality of the season rarely reflects the anticipation or expectations that are amplified by holiday programming and social media.

 

The “reason for the season” of gratitude and connection to family is undermined by pervasive images and messages to accumulate material over memories.

For intercultural couples, the holiday season is also a time of cultural accommodation to negotiate how to blend meaningful traditions and rituals within a new multicultural family system. Many couples have shared how this season brings a duality of conflict and opportunity, stress and excitement, cultural losses and gains. 

Cultural Losses

One of the most apparent losses for intercultural couples is the inability to spend the holiday season with family due to logistical or legal constraints. There are numerous examples of this barrier for intercultural couples, such as:

~ An American woman who is married to an Iranian man, and has fears about traveling to Iran with their young children to visit their only living grandparents because of fluctuating immigration policies between the two countries.

~ The Eritrean brother who can't spend the holidays with his siblings in the United States (who are married to American citizens) because his application for a tourist visa is continually denied due to "insufficient ties to his home country" despite the fact that he has no intention of ever immigrating to the United States.

~ The Mexican husband who is part of the DACA program, married to an American citizen and father to American children. He realizes his marriage confers neither automatic nor immediate citizenship benefits, thus travel to visit his large family in Mexico could jeopardize his immigration status or prevent him from returning with his American family. 

The holidays can bring a duality of conflict and opportunity, stress and excitement, cultural losses and gains. Click To Tweet

The experience of individuals in intercultural relationships is distinct from the experience of immigrant families with a shared sense of cultural loss. Intercultural couples have at least two “cultural homes,” which means that only one partner experiences a sense of cultural loss from residing outside of their home culture at any given time (should the couple reside in one of their native countries).

Intercultural couples have at least two cultural homes. Click To Tweet

Another cultural loss is the inability to experience familiar holiday traditions within their community of residence. Even when religion is shared, such as Christianity, the expression of the traditions and rituals of Christmas differs significantly. For example,

~ "In the United States, Christmas is very “present-heavy” and materialistic. In Nigeria, this is the time when people who have migrated out come back to the home village and spend time with the family. You celebrate with everybody in the village, the kids run around unsupervised and play among the trees and pick berries, and it was very exciting. I would have liked my kids to have experienced that, but that just can’t happen here in the States.”
(US-Nigerian couple)

~ "I miss the Spanish hospitality of going from house to house and everyone shares food and has conversation that keeps going and going for hours. In the United States, everyone wants to be DOING something. There doesn’t seem to be the same art of conversation with all the constant activity." (Spanish-US couple)

The holiday season is associated with traditional foods, meal preparation, or dining rituals that connects families across generations. Intercultural couples rarely have a common perception of what this includes.

~ We don’t have the same spices here, so even when I try to make Indian food for the holidays (which takes all day, but if I lived in India there would be plenty of help), it doesn’t taste the same. Even the rice tastes different.

 

~ My [Nigerian] parents decided that it would be easiest to take my husband’s [Jewish American] parents out for dinner over the holidays since we didn’t have a shared religion or anything in common really. My parents hate Italian food because they think it is so bland and pointless, but they knew that Solomon’s family preferred Italian. They chose the Olive Garden, because, well it is Italian, but Solomon’s father is a real foodie and HATES chain restaurants. Needless to say, no one enjoyed the meal but everyone thought they were sacrificing for the other. Now when there is a cultural misunderstanding, my husband and I say we have an “Olive Garden situation” and it cracks us up.

When there is a cultural misunderstanding, my husband and I say we have an “Olive Garden situation”. Find out why. Click To Tweet

Cultural Gains

Intercultural couples also have opportunities for cultural gain during the holiday season. There is a flexibility that accompanies the acknowledgement of anticipated cultural losses and the expectation that there will be a need for compromise.

~ We are our own family now and we aren’t constrained by having to do things a certain way, in the way that either of us would have been expected to if we had married someone from the same cultural background. It is almost as though we have a free pass to do things differently because bringing two families together from two continents and raising children in a new culture definitely means there will have to be compromise and change--great for establishing new traditions.

Marrying someone of a different cultural background almost gives me a free pass to do things differently. Click To Tweet

Other intercultural couples have reflected on the enhanced freedom to redefine roles:

~ I think my Indian family backs off because my husband is white. If I had an Indian husband, they would be even more involved than they are, especially during the holidays. Two Indian families would be too much for me; I can handle my own family but having Indian in-laws would probably feel intrusive. I have more freedom because I am not expected to be a traditional Indian mother since my children are also white.I have more freedom because I am not expected to be a traditional Indian mother since my children are also white. Click To Tweet

Finally, there is an expanded worldview that is shared by many multicultural families.

~ Through my marriage, I am part of another culture and I can see that there are other valid ways of seeing things. As a result, we have less focus on trying to change each other and more focus on trying to understand.

Through my marriage, I am part of another culture and I can see that there are other valid ways of seeing things. Click To Tweet

~ I can connect with other people on so many different levels; I have greater access because I have so many diverse connections within my extended families, and I think this benefits my children as well because they fit in everywhere.

Ultimately, intercultural couples utilize a variety of strategies of cultural accommodation (e.g. low, asymmetrical, convergent, high) at different times in their relationships, for different reasons, and to negotiate different conflicts--stay tuned for upcoming columns that will describe these diverse strategies. One common technique that is inherent in their successful navigation of conflicts is the use of cultural dialogues to promote cultural attunement to each other.

Successful intercultural couples use cultural dialogues to promote cultural attunement. Click To Tweet

Coming up in the next column, How to Talk Culture in a Mixed-Marriage. 

 

the author

Cheryl is an educator and consultant who specializes in cross-cultural relations. Her professional experiences in both international relations and counseling psychology have informed her current research on the processes of cultural adaptation among intercultural couples, and the patterns of social-emotional adjustment in multiple-heritage young children. Read more under 'Contributors'.

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