Interracial marriage can be an incredibly rich experience, but it can equally be just as challenging. While you get the benefit of chowing down on another culture’s amazing home cooked food at your in-laws’ house that you likely would not find elsewhere, there is always a flip side.
In my own decade of being married interracially, I’ve observed that interracial couples face many of the same problems couples from the same race experience but with the intensity turned up several more notches. Conflict is inevitable in any relationship, but cultural differences can make typical marital issues that much more complex to navigate.
If you’re thinking about getting serious with someone from a different race or culture, I’ve got 5 questions for you to consider that every interracial couple inevitably asks themselves. Let’s begin!
How Should We Communicate?
Not only does every person have their own ways of communicating, entire cultures often have unspoken rules about communicating – and even more specifically within marriage. My parents were born in Hong Kong and immigrated to the United States before having me and my siblings. You’ll find my family’s culture is often much more indirect, so much so that my parents don’t really discuss points of conflict with each other openly at all. On the other hand, my American-born husband’s family is very direct, often sharing whatever’s on their minds, for better or worse.
At the beginning of our relationship, our communication pattern went something like this: I’d often say something that hinted at my displeasure about something to my husband, thinking he’d read in between the lines… and woosh! Over his head it went. And then he would say something not intended to be taken personally, but due to my parents’ ways of telling unrelated stories to express their displeasure, I might have thought he was trying to say something critical. And while this dynamic is often stereotyped in male and female interactions, our cultural backgrounds often made it that much harder for us to understand each other.
Our solution? We have absorbed a bit of each other’s culture and developed a hybrid way of expressing ourselves that is sensitive to both of our needs. For example, my husband will often begin sentences with a caveat to prematurely explain possible negative interpretations of why he’s directly sharing some specific thought not intended to be taken personally. Or I’ll begin a conversation by saying something like, “Luke, I need to tell you something important” so that his ears will perk up and actually receive the incoming message, even if I deliver it in a somewhat guised manner. While it takes a little more effort, these simple steps have helped us understand each other so much better in comparison to our earlier years when we often made conflicts worse due to simply not getting where the other person was coming from.
How Much Should Family Be Involved?
You probably couldn’t pick a bigger difference between our families than how much influence our parents attempt to have over our lives. As Luke went off to college, his mother sat him down and literally said, “I’m going to intentionally try not to give you unsolicited advice – please be patient with me as I work on this.” As for me, let’s just say my parents and I did not have that conversation.
While we have set healthy boundaries between both of our sets of parents and our own relationship, there are still certain ways that we interact with my family that are vastly different than how we interact with my husband’s family. For example, open disagreement is welcomed in Luke’s family and is even respected as a sign of independent thinking. My husband has no problem telling his parents to their faces, “I can see where you are coming from, but I definitely don’t feel the same way because of XYZ.” If Luke were to say that confidently to my parents, we’d probably have some work to do. Respecting your elders is such a fundamental part of my parents’ understanding of how families work, and we’ve all had to adapt a bit in order to smooth out interactions between all of us.
While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this difficult question, I will say that both parties need to be open to change if two interracial families are going to get along. I’d even go as far as to say that each partner needs to be prepared to possibly be very uncomfortable at times for the sake of preserving family relationships. While I don’t suggest that your relationship should remain in a long-term state of discomfort and uncertainty, there most likely will be a period of growing pains for your marriage and your families to all grow together. If you’re not at least open to this possibility, an interracial marriage may not be the best fit for you.
How Should We Spend Our Money?
Let’s turn to a much lighter topic – money! Money, or what you think is valuable, is different from person to person but can be used so differently across cultural lines – so much that the other culture may come off as being excessively wasteful or frugal to you if you don’t understand where they are coming from.
In my family, food is love. At all of our get-togethers, there is a copious amount of food, bordering on the ridiculous. And we all dive in and enjoy ourselves together because this is how we tell each other we love each other. If Luke showed up to my family’s house and didn’t eat the plate after plate of delicious noodles and dumplings put before him, judging it all as wasteful and excessive, I’m not going to lie – it probably would have been a dealbreaker for me. Thank God that man loves Chinese food.
On the other hand, Luke’s family does not eat as much and instead puts a greater emphasis on experiences together, like going out to see a show or to visit the botanical garden together. Naturally, this has influenced how we do date nights, with Luke thinking that I’d love to go see an artistic dance performance when I’d really just like to go out for breakfast together next morning in addition to dinner tonight. While these types of disagreements are small, financial disagreements can become much larger when considering things like saving for retirement, buying a house, or choosing to have kids. And as we’ve lived life together for the past 10 years, we’ve both made complete changes and compromises with what we see is valuable. Flexibility has been essential to make this area of our lives work, and we’ll probably never completely agree on everything. As long as we keep bringing home the bacon (pun intended), I think we’ll be fine.
How Should We Show Our Love For Each Other?
I think it was around 5 years into our relationship when my parents first saw my husband give me an unprovoked small kiss. It was on the top of the head as he stands a good foot above me when I don’t have my heels on. While it was nothing to Luke, my parents and aunties/uncles who were there all let out an expression of surprise and proceeded to chuckle and chat amongst themselves in Cantonese about what he just did. A kiss on the top of the head after being married for 5 years? A little risqué, I must say.
Public displays of affection are just different in Hong Kong than in western countries. Parents often don’t verbally and directly tell their children they love them; they show it in different ways, such as the plastering of every good report card over the walls of my home or cooking us our favorite meals every single weekend. And you could imagine that when my husband and I started dating, PDA was a somewhat contentious issue, especially around people we knew.
Luke is very verbal with words of affirmation, but he’s not the best gift giver or nurturer. I’m usually an ace at deciphering what he’ll want for his birthday or helping him feel better when he’s sick. While I really appreciate his words, our cultures are just on completely different ends of the spectrum when it comes to showing love to each other.
The most helpful advice I can give on this issue is to recognize love when you see it. Love is expressed in many different ways, but at the end of the day it’s different ways of saying the same thing – you matter. I like you. Let’s keep hanging out together. I want to work this out. Can we get pizza?
Over time, our expressions of love have blended together and we’ve gotten better at expressing love in ways that are more meaningful to the other person. I’ve intentionally given Luke more kisses in public. He’s surprised me by picking out some really cute clothes for me that I wouldn’t have bought for myself. If you are heading into marriage with someone from a different culture, prepare to love – but not always in the way you might have envisioned it.
Will We Like Our Interracial Marriage?
At the end of the day, this is the question of all the questions – will you like being in an interracial marriage? Yes, you’ve pronounced your love for your spouse time and time again and you’ve committed yourself to your partner, but do you like dealing with the challenges of crossing cultures? At the beginning of a relationship, cultural differences are cute and novel, but over time they can dominate the relationship. At the end of the day, you will be doing life with this other culture 7 days a week for the rest of your life, and possibly creating little human lives who are combinations of your two cultures together. If you aren’t attracted to the differences that another culture will bring to your life at a deep level, then it’s fair to say interracial marriage may not be for you. A thriving interracial marriage involves a true blending of two cultures, two ways of doing things – leaving your life and understanding of the world forever changed. The question for you – is it worth it? In my 10 years of sharing Dim Sum with this human, my answer is yes.
Kat Depner is a personal stylist based in Portland, Oregon and the owner of Seven Styling (www.sevenstyling.com). She produces monthly content on her style blog, Seconds To Impress (www.sevenstyling.com/blog). Kat’s superpower is finding you consigned clothing that requires you to pick your jaw up off of the floor! For style tips and giggles you can follow her on social media:
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