Which Marriage Differences are Most Challenging?

Mixed Marriages with Culture Clashes

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DR. MARGARET JAMAL WRITES…

  • WHEREFORE ART THOU?

If you took English Literature courses in America, you were probably somehow engaged with the story of Romeo and Juliet.  Apart from the awkwardness of reading the dialogue in the Queen’s English of Elizabethan, I really connected with that poor couple’s struggle.  I related even more with the musical rendition of this timeless romance called Westside Story.   After all, I was a Chicago west side girl, attending Catholic school, who wanted to date a south side boy in public school.

  • WESTSIDE MEETS SOUTHSIDE

Then later as an adult, I found that dating men of various ethnic backgrounds presented additional challenges after I began seeking to become a Mrs. somebody.  There were differences in opinions about child rearing, family, housekeeping and more.  For me, the differences were so vast that I forced myself to eliminate the potential of marrying someone who was not African American.  At the same time, I must admit that I later found that the ethnic differences did not appear to be as much of an issue as was the geographic or family influences.  Yet it appeared easier to navigate the differences within my own ethnic environment.

I ultimately married twice with my second (and last)husband being a native south side Chicagoan who at times caused me to long for a translator.    There had been discussions with my husband where I was happy and relieved to have my younger sister around.  Having spent more time around the Windy City than me, my sister spoke very fluent south-sider.   After listening for several long minutes to my native south side spouse, my sister would respond to my distressed look beginning with “in other words, etc. …”  However, I feel that the culture clashes between my husband and me were not nearly as intense as what I have witnessed with some other couples.

  • CONFRONTING THE “ IN” WORD

I know of couples whose cultural clashes clearly impact the family peace.  Much like Romeo and Juliet, it is not so much the couple that creates the instability as it is the in-laws.  (I hope that no one is bothered by my usage of that in word.)  Imagine an East Indian geek married to a Nubian actress – in a relationship on steroids.  This is a bi-polar couple where the North Pole husband appears to have no weather variations at all while the South Pole wife experiences every season imaginable.  However the seasonal atmospheric conflicts are primarily orchestrated by the ever present influences of the in-laws.

The husband’s mother wants to tell his wife the correct methods for raising an East Indian child.  However the wife considers her children to be Indian – African American children.   Who knows what the husband really feels?  He tries to stay neutral in order to keep the peace.   Unfortunately, this non-committal response by the husband irritates both the wife and his mother.   Still, without the in-law interlopers, the climate conditions between this couple is generally loving and compatible.

I suspect that parents whose offspring are marrying into foreign cultures remain fearful that their own legacy will be lost in an ethnic stew that totally disregards time-honored traditions.   Perhaps they fear that the resulting family flavors will develop cultural taste buds that ultimately find the parents not so palatable as well.

  • MIXIN’ COUSINS

On the other hand, one of my relatives has found a way to have a lasting relationship with a white woman.  Unlike some of the mixed couples that I have sometimes experienced, our Caucasian cousin is not almost black or even trying to act black.  Likewise, my blood cousin has not tried to assimilate a white male as many mixed marriage black men have been accused of doing.  Cousin Henry is still Cuz Henry and his wife Carrie is just Carrie.  These are not their real names, but family and friends will know who they are.

I have watched Cuz Henry and Carrie for years and have experienced some of their development as they raised well mannered and loving interracial children.  Although there may have been challenges related to the fact that they are an interracially mixed couple, this never appeared to be an issue at family gatherings.

We actually have a number of mixed marriage scenarios in our family.  There is a niece who married outside of our ethnicity as well as a nephew with a new wife who speaks less English than our 12 month old grandson.   These are fairly new unions that line up with the growing trend of mixed marriages in America.

Actually my concern is more for the children and how they will ultimately impact (and be impacted by) the marital relationships.  America can be quite difficult for children of cultural roots that make them appear different from the other kids.  Besides the obvious physical distinctions, from dress to holiday celebrations, children of different cultural backgrounds are often ridiculed because of their uniqueness.  Some of the mixed marriages may be further complicated with religious differences such as Hindu ideology versus Christian doctrine, etc.

  • SUGGESTED SOLUTION(S):

I believe that couples should surround themselves with friends and family who were clearly supportive of their relationship even before they decided to marry.  Family and friends of newly married couples often want to hold on to the old ways of doing things as well as old relationships.  However the relationship dynamics need to change according to the new requirements of a new marriage.  This appears to be a major adjustment with regards to mixed marriages.  Friends and family of the bride also need to be open to becoming friends and family of the groom, so that both sides can be good friends and family in support of the marriage.

DR. AARON JAMAL WRITES…

  • WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY….IT SHOWS

An African American woman listener of Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s radio talk show called in identifying herself as a spouse of a racially mixed marriage. She began expressing her discomfort regarding her husband’s friend’s use of the “N” word and racist comments without regard of the fact that she was African American.

This defining moment of Dr. Laura’s long radio career provoked a series of comments that many interpreted as racist and insensitive. The fact that the caller was asking for help to deal with this clashing of cultures took a back seat to the fact that Dr. Laura was now using the offensive language repeatedly as though it was no big deal. In fact, she went on to call the caller “hypersensitive” about the term the caller described as offensive. Dr. Schlessinger was fired from her talk show of many years and later repented of her offensive statements. Her comments also sparked much discussion about life within mixed marriages and cultural clashes that seem inevitable.

  • RACIST TERMS MAKE POOR PILLOW TALK

Many of us have grown up with biases that frame our levels of tolerances. Varying degrees of tolerance for sexual preferences, types of social networks, music genres and even profanity are rarely defined in courting stages. Much of that behavior has been tempered as we commit to being on our best behavior at least in the beginning. Overlooking that smack on your rear-end as sensually playful is quite different than a threatening fist. Profanity laced rants that surface in the car when someone cuts him off is suddenly a little frightening.

During the initial stages of the relationship, racist terms or comments are carefully navigated around to avoid blowing up the relationship in a minefield of insensitive verbal abuse. On the other hand, as the infatuation fades, you begin to experience your partner questioning you about how frequently you speak with your family.  It feels rather controlling and unsettling. You stop to pick up food from the supermarket on the way home from work only to be grilled with why you are so late and why you always prepare the same type of meals. Now you realize that there are trust issues and issues of discontentment. You enroll for post-grad classes only to hear that you are not home enough and that you’re behaving selfish rather than tending to his/her needs. You ask what’s wrong with you striving towards your dreams only to find out that you are being talked about by relatives that don’t approve of your new ambitions. You thought that you were being embraced because of how unique and funny you were and now you are being criticized for not being more like someone else’s wife/husband. Finally, in a heated exchange, you are exposed to characterizations and assumptions that reveal the biases that were hidden deep below the surface of your partner’s ideology.

  • COMPATIBILITY ACCORDING TO BACKGROUND CHECKS

In this information age where blogs, pictures, movies and news are being shared at the speed of the internet, many people are a bit trigger happy in advancing through stages of relationships similar to speed-dating models that use to unfold over the slow process of courting, dating, feeling each other out, etc.  Now people are relying more on background checks, and financial profiles with little to no hesitation or consideration for the cultural clashes that will manifest in challenges over the course of a relationship.

S/he may not have a criminal background, and may have a decent credit score; however, those are hardly indicators for the volatile dynamics that usually accompany relationships with couples from diverse backgrounds.

  • SHADES OF BEAUTY

Today, the young man or young woman often sees beauty in blended shades, colored or weaved hair styles and shapes that have been surgically etched or enhanced to reflect the newest trends. Huge dance parties with elaborate productions are on the rise and targeted customers are not defined by race, religion or heritage. Social Networks are huge and prominent in profiling our likes, interests and risky episodes we dared to photograph or video tape. Music continues to amplify the passions of our young people and the lyrics of those songs often seed the dreams and aspirations of our young people. Fashion trends and the beats of the “DJ mix-ologist” frame a forum that is both sensual and radical. This is not a setting for conformity and the relationships that are introduced in these settings inspire them to jump into a social free fall without a parachute.

Anyone can look “hot” in these settings if you have been practicing the latest moves and grooves from the latest house mixes coupled with a few beverages that all but neutralize those childhood inhibitions. An animalistic, pulsating drive groans from somewhere deep in your loins and you can’t imagine life without her or him… and before reason has a chance to step in you say… “I sure do…”, and your partners says “me too.”

  • WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?

But what happens after the adrenaline returns to normal levels? What happens when you finally realize that you have knitted your life and the lives of your children to someone that has vastly different norms and extremes? What happens when your children ask the question, “Mom… Dad… why do they call me a Zebra?”  Confused about how to address a bias that was framed in a “black and white” world, you say “Because they have never seen someone that is as uniquely beautiful/handsome as you.”

Clever phrasing, however, that is only part of the challenge. You have grown to appreciate a more diverse blend of music as a family but now you host a house party or holiday celebration that threatens to re-introduce the norms of your past that you never really shared with your spouse. Here comes a blend of dishes, language, and behaviors that you never even imagined to be a part of your partner’s past.  You have forgotten the jokes that you used to laugh at that now seem to be offensive. You’ve missed the reckless squealing and seemingly harmless flirting of “friends” that
faded into the background as you re-defined new boundaries for this “blended relationship.”  However, now you can tell that your new partner is painfully uncomfortable with the comments and behaviors that just keep surfacing from your life-long friends. You begin to wonder if your marriage will survive life after this party.

  • RELATIONSHIP RAINBOW

Blending relationships is far different than mixing spices or drinks. You don’t just add a little more water to tone it down… and some things lead to a whole lot more than indigestion. In fact, some relationships clashes are quite toxic. I am not speaking of skin color differences, but clashes with cultural biases that color the lenses that we use to see life.

We live in the midst of vivid colors rather than black and white. I believe it is wise to acknowledge that every rainbow does not lead to a pot of gold but it usually follows a storm.  Do we know if we can handle the storms? If not, then the devastation may prove destructive even at the core of our identity. If we can endure the storms then we may in fact eat from that pot of gold that comes from extraordinary relationships that dare to embrace different. But this is a journey of hills and valleys that cannot be navigated through by ignoring differences. Harmony can be beautiful but each person must be valued and not diminished. Each has a colorful character that must be blended not neutralized. Dissonance must be acknowledged but not allowed to leverage control or
define the relationship.

  • IN CONCLUSION

I have found that beyond the romantic assertions of stretching the boundaries and discovering the secret and hidden passions of your blended relationship are the more practical staples of security and living “happily ever after” dynamics that require far more clarity about what to do with your future. Growing old together is not what new couples consider when courting or sweating while dancing through a 20 minute house mix.  But somewhere in the quiet of morning dew after a sleepless night you begin to wonder… “What did I get myself in to?” “Who am I becoming? Did I choose this or did it just happen to me?” “How can these be his friends if he is not like them?” “I’m not a bigot but I don’t like people like that.” “Am I getting scared or just more like my mother than I realized?”

Social Intelligence represents learned competencies that must be applied intentionally and seasoned with sacrificial love. “For better or worse” is more than hook for your wedding vows. It is a forecast of a probably outcome. Prepare wisely for change that will come. When “worse” has arrived it is not evidence of a failed relationship, but it does require deeper levels of communication to withstand the strong currents of emotions.

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