1. Mismatch Cross-Cult Challenges - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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1. Mismatch Cross-Cult Challenges

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > All Relationships MultiCult

All Relationships and Therapy are Multi-Cultural- Family and Cross-Cultural Complications
by Ronald Mah

A cross-cultural challenge in therapy may be a mismatch

between therapist's culture and the individual client, the couple, or family's common shared culture;

between the cultures of the two members of the couple;

among the culture of one member of the couple or family and the culture of the other member and the therapist (in other words, the therapist and one member of the couple or family share a common culture);

among all the cultures of the therapist and each of the members of the couple or family (in other words, a three-way mismatch);

between one or both members of the couple's original culture and an emergent culture of their present community;

between one or both members of the couple's original culture and an emergent culture of their present partnership;

between one or both members of the couple's original culture and an emergent culture of a child or teenager;

between or among some or all of the above!

Diversity in relationships creates frequent cross-cultural and multi-cultural issues in therapy.  Each member of the relationship brings in experiences from a multitude of cultural contexts that may prove challenging.  Joanides, et al (page 379, 2002) conducted research that suggest that intermarried couples' differences, depending on the mix of religious and ethnic differences negatively challenge and impact individual, marital, and family stability.  "Participants with high levels of ethnic and/or religious attachments seemed to encounter the most challenges and vice versa."  The therapist needs to be aware that strong attachment to cultural contexts is not limited to the contexts of ethnicity, race, religion, and nationality.  Other contexts include economics, educational, and particularly family-of-origin experiences that allow cross-cultural principles to be applied to all relationships.  In other times and other societies, many if not most relationships such as couples were usually culturally matched individuals drawn from homogeneous communities with generations (perhaps, centuries of generations) of stable cultural patterns.  As a result, each member of the relationship brought in relatively similar experiences, rather than from a multitude of cultural contexts as is more the case in modern times.  Eaton's commentary about Jewish-non-Jewish (exogamous) marriage versus Jewish-Jewish (homogenous) marriage reflects how many bi-cultural marriages of all types are prone to be more instable.  "Jewish-non-Jewish (exogamous) marriage tends to be less stable then Jewish-Jewish (homogenous) marriage.  The current rate of divorce for Jews married to non-Jews is 32%, whereas the rate for Jews married to Jews, is 17%. Furthermore, exogamous marriage is increasing for Jews: 37% of Jewish men under the age of 40 and 24% of Jewish women under the age of 40 intermarried in the 1980s… The potential for instability in these marriages and their increasing number ensures that mental health counselors need to develop an understanding and treatment approach for these couples.  The assimilated cultural background of these partners may tend to make both the couple and the counselor forget that one major underlying contribution to their problems is their religious and accompanying cultural difference.  These issues undoubtedly apply to gay and lesbian couples as well as to heterosexuals, and may be even more likely to be overlooked in working with the former" (1994).

Cultural contexts in modern relationships often have additional contexts that were largely irrelevant when a villager inevitably married another villager.  Societal prescriptions of who could marry whom were often rigid.  Romeo and Juliet violated family alliances, while the farmer and the princess broke class or caste rules.  Once married, the functioning and patterns of the relationship were also largely prescribed by tradition and culture.  Greater freedom of choice in modern society leads to greater diversity within all kinds of relationships (beyond intimate or marital pairings, diverse individuals coalesce at work, teams, politics, etc. largely unprecedented in more traditional societies).  From separate family of origins, from different places in the family constellation or hierarchy, from specific social, economic, and/or political class experiences, from different community circumstances, and from diverse family functionality or dysfunctionality, each member of a relationship works from an experiential survival reality, as the relationship itself also works through its own contextual challenges.  The results form functional (or dysfunctional) operational relationship culture in new families and modern society.  Individuals and the relationship create additional nuances from changing social principles that variably emphasize, mute, enrich, and/or aggravate classic relationship issues: gender role expectations, communication style, family structure, implicit and explicit values, couples and family functions, individuation vs. family orientation, sex, and so forth.  Biever, et al (1998) offer warnings for intercultural couples that readily apply to all couples, if one sees all couples as cross-cultural.  "Stresses involved in setting up a household may bring cultural differences to the forefront. Potential conflict areas such as sex-role expectations, attitudes towards work and leisure, holiday traditions, expression of affection and problem-solving strategies are frequently culturally based. Disagreement about these issues may take the form of the partners' blaming each other for not understanding or being unreasonable rather than attributing the difficulties to differing cultural traditions. Similarly, parenting styles may reveal cultural differences between partners and affect interactions with extended family members and other social systems."

Differences may be more readily identifiable with an immigrant or migrant who has connected with an American partner.  "Differences between husbands and wives in cultural attitudes and behaviours may constitute a source of chronic stress, pervading the couples' lives.  Migrants may show different levels of acculturation in private and public settings, and are more assertive in displaying their cultural or ethnic identity in the home than in public or work settings.  Marital conflict is a potent source of distress and health risk.  Husbands and wives from different cultural backgrounds may be particularly vulnerable to these effects" (page 174, Baltas, et al, 2000).  Misunderstandings, frustration, and eventually destructive accusations may ensue.  Considering intimate relationships between any two people to be inherently cross-cultural extends Eaton's commentary on interfaith couples potentially to all couples and all relationships.  "The major challenge to interfaith marriage lies in the fact that the partners tend to lack an understanding both of the cultural context and meaning of each other's behavior and of the underlying family process issues, and therefore tend to assign blame in an exaggerated and polarized fashion, either exclusively to cultural difference or exclusively to personal pathology… These couples have been unable to create a blended culture--relatedness, routines, and rituals--that fosters both the expression of their individuality and the resolution of conflicts… Gender roles, parenting issues, religious expression, communication, problem solving, closeness and distance to friends and relatives, indeed an understanding of the purpose and meaning of marriage itself, may all be heavily influenced by religious-cultural difference and may all contribute to conflict… At the same time, family process problems are intertwined with and frequently underlie complaints about cultural difference…" (1994).

When there is not an obvious identifiable cultural difference, individuals such as Hannah and Petey may fail to recognize the cross-cultural contributions to conflict.  Modern relationships reflect a more diverse American society and often hold more diversity in many forms, expressing semi- or unconsciously different cultural backgrounds that complicate their relationships.  Many diverse relationships do not function well cross-culturally, nor are successfully multi-cultural while others handle the differences readily or do not make them major conflicts.  There can be a multitude of reasons for the variation in responses.  The intensity of ethnic identity may vary and influence adaptability.  Baltas, et al postulated that recent Turkish migrants in Great Britain are often more assertive in their ethnic identity than their partners.  Another possibility is that people living within their own cultures compare their marriages to those around them on a day-to-day basis, so that cultural difficulties with their spouses seem more compelling (page 178).  This principle could be relevant to non-migrant couples where one member finds that he or she does not fit into the community around them: a New Yorker in California or someone from an urban working class background living in a middle-class suburb.  A "house husband" in a female-dominant economic family dynamic may question his relationship as he experiences being denigrated by his male peers who hold stereotypical gender roles in their relationships.  

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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