• Zainab Naqvi

Cross-Cultural Relationships: Let’s Figure out How to Figure it Out

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

Relationships are hard, let’s get that out of the way. No matter who you are, where you come from, or what your zodiac sign is, relationships can be difficult. So you can only imagine how hard it can get when the two of you come from an entirely different cultural background - sorry babe, your stars might be aligned in your Co-Star app, but the cultural roadblocks in your relationship map are something you’ll have to learn to navigate through if you want to make this relationship last.

For those of you who don’t already know this, I’m an American. However, I’m also Pakistani. Which means I’m culturally confused af. I grew up with immigrant parents, so I very much had firsthand Pakistani culture in my home. However, most of the external experiences I had were American. There are so many people like me here in the states, which makes it almost inevitable to avoid these cross-cultural relationships (Can’t help who you fall for, right? Well, you can, but that’s a blog post for another day.)

At the end of the day, though we go to the same schools, work the same jobs, and have the same hobbies, the cultures that raised each and every one of us plays a role in our fundamental values, ideals, conflict resolution strategies, and many other areas of life. And what are relationships? Two people choosing to combine their lives, which means you need to figure out how to figure it out. 

Lucky for you, I’m here to help you. I’ve listed three of the most important factors that go into a healthy, intercultural relationship, and why they are so important. 

Have an open dialogue about your background and experiences

In order to understand where your partner is coming from on certain issues, you have to understand where your partner comes from in general. Both of you should openly talk about the cultures you experienced in your household or elsewhere that shaped who you are. This can be done even just by sharing stories of your childhood, similarities and differences that you experienced in high school, and even your religious and political beliefs. Many people think It’s a faux pa to discuss things like that, especially in a new relationship, but I think that’s BS.

We’ve all wasted time developing attachments to people we’ve barely scratched the surface with. Don’t be afraid to dive deep as long as you remind yourself that you aren’t debating, you’re just sharing your experiences and views with the person you love (or like, or tolerate). Why does this help? It starts the conversation.

Many of our experiences are shaped by our cultures, and many of our beliefs are shaped by our experiences. When you start talking about these things, you start asking the real question, “why?” When you uncover the reasons behind why your partner thinks a certain way, you can finally understand them. You still may not agree, but an agreement isn’t what makes a relationship last. Understanding does. 

Take the time to learn

Familiarize yourself with your partner’s culture. Read about it. Can’t figure out why your Asian girlfriend won’t introduce you to her family? Look it up. You’ll find tons of helpful articles, and probably even some hilarious memes to go with it. Want to know what your Brazilian boyfriend's comfort food is? Google it. Want to know what to expect as a plus one to your first Indian wedding? Ask Siri.

We live in a world in which knowledge is at our fingertips. Utilize it and even earn brownie points for taking the effort to learn! I’ll never forget the day google helped me better understand my issue - for the longest time, I thought I just couldn’t figure out white boys. I looked it up and what I found out was that my frustrations were entirely misplaced. It wasn’t white boys that I couldn’t figure out, it was just boys. Enlightenment at its finest.

Manage each other’s expectations early on

This one is a huge one, and though it's an important factor in any relationship, the cultural difference makes this even more critical. Be honest with your partner about what your deal breakers are, what your limitations are, and what your expectations for the future are. When you’re young, it’s easy to think that love conquers all. If I were you, I would take this ideology, fold it up into a paper plane, and throw it straight into the trash can. Love is important, but a relationship solely built on love is less sustainable than the titanic.

As you begin to merge lives with your partner, you realize that you need to be on the same page about things that are important to the two of you. If you absolutely must raise your future children Jewish, and it’s important to your partner that your kids be raised Christian, what’s the solution? In many cultures, your spouse’s parents might live with you when they’re older. Is this something you’re okay with? Some cultures aren’t very “dating friendly”, so your significant other might not be able to introduce you to the family until you’ve decided to put a ring on it. Is that something you can deal with?

By discussing your future ideals and deal breakers, you’re managing your partner's current expectations of where the relationship will go. When you’ve both laid out what’s important to you, you have taken control of the narrative. If you aren’t transparent, you’re in theory eliminating the element of choice. You don’t have the choice to part ways due to differences on key issues, because you don’t even know that you have issues. Once everything is out on the table, both partners have the choice to work through certain things, or to part ways. 

If there is one point I want you to take from this article, it’s to communicate. Asking questions can be intimidating, but that’s how you learn. Like I said earlier, people are complicated as is. So when you’re dealing with cultural differences, you have a whole new learning curve ahead of you. Embrace it. Even if you don’t end up with this person, you’ll have enriched your life by opening yourself up to an entirely new culture and experience. 

I’ve made a list of potential discussion points for different situations you might encounter - I hope this helps, and good luck! We would love to hear your feedback on Instagram at @thisisuproar.

Discussion topics/talking points to get to know your partner's background and experience:

  • What was it like visiting your home country (or parents’ home country)? 

  • Was it hard learning another language? 

  • What are your grandparents like?

  • Do you think your cultural background has influenced your political beliefs?

  • What were your friends like growing up?

  • Were you involved in your religious organization when you were younger?

  • Describe your culture to me in five words.

  • What are your parents like?

  • What are the similarities/differences between our cultures? 

  • What was your favorite thing to eat growing up?

  • How was your high school experience? College?

  • What is your relationship with your parents like?

Discussion topics for understanding conflict:

  • Do you think there could be a cultural barrier right now preventing me from understanding why you might be upset right now?

  • Can you please explain to me why this matters to you, so I can better understand it?

  • Here is my stance on this issue and why. Do you think this is something we will be able to overcome? 

  • How did your family typically resolve conflict growing up?

  • Does it frustrate you when I can’t understand your background? Does it frustrate you when you can’t understand mine?

Discussion topics for managing each other’s expectations:

  • How big of a role do you see religion playing in your family life when you settle down?

  • Are your parents/family okay with you being with someone outside of your culture?

  • When do you typically introduce your boyfriends/girlfriends to your family?

  • How do you want to raise your children?

  • What should I expect when I meet your family?

  • Do you see yourself settling down with someone who comes from a different background?

  • How do you think our relationship will be viewed by your community? Are you ready for that?

  • Do you think you’ll ever move back to your home country?

  • What are your views on gender roles?

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