Two Worlds Under One Roof

Interview with Dugan Romano

Dugan Romano is author of Intercultural Marriage: Promises and Pitfalls (Intercultural Press, 1997).

SGIQ: What are some of the major difficulties that intercultural couples experience?

Romano: Perhaps one of the major difficulties involves conflicting assumptions (things which are not stated because they are taken for granted) regarding mundane aspects of daily life. We were all raised with certain ways of being and doing, which became as natural and obvious to us as breathing. We are convinced, at one level or another, that ours is the best or only way.

When people come from the same culture, while there may still be differences regarding such basic things as planning meals, budgeting, relating to in-laws, friends, etc., in an intercultural relationship these differences are magnified.

Couples from different cultures have assumptions regarding not only day-to-day activities, but ways of being and doing, i.e., what it means to be a husband or wife; what is the right way to discipline their children, express love and affection, etc.

They have to learn to reexamine their assumptions, rethink what is behind them. They need to judge them according to their actual intrinsic rather than mere comfort value.

SGIQ: What characterizes successful couples?

[Vanessa Noublanche]

Romano: Perhaps the most important factor is the ability of both people to be not only aware of and sensitive to, but tolerant of the needs of the other. The successful couples know how to read one another. They are empathetic to the other's needs, even if they don't share or agree with them, and they attempt to meet these needs accordingly, without suggesting that they are unworthy of attention. They learn to accept that there are certain things about their partner that they will never fully understand or even like, but to accept them as part of the individuality of the person they love.

On the other hand, less successful couples often believe that in order to live together, they have to blend their cultures and become more alike. Instead of accepting that their partner just is a certain way, they seem to be full of "shoulds."

SGIQ: What are the specific challenges to good communication and dialogue in an intercultural marriage?

Romano: Communication is the essential link between partners, whether this be verbal or nonverbal. It is the way they express who and what they are, and reach out to understand the other. In a same-culture couple, the language is often the same and the nonverbal expressions often fall into a certain understandable pattern. Even so, misunderstandings occur. How much more fraught with danger is communication between couples from different cultures, when not only the choice of words but the tone of voice, gesture or physical stance can mean different things to the person sending and the one receiving the message.

Time Out

Intercultural couples need to constantly probe, delve, restate what they understood, to be sure it is what was meant. This is not easy to do in the heat of an argument or when under stress, and that is when it is important to take a break and come back to the discussion later, when the emotion has quieted down.

When people first fall in love, they often are attracted by the exotic differences of the love object. As the relationship develops, they get used to many of the obvious cultural quirks of the other and begin to assume that underneath it all they are fundamentally the same and can be caught off-guard when misunderstandings occur. Demonization of the relationship can develop as they begin to blame the person rather than the cultural differences for the problem.

Couples should never stop learning about the other's culture, and they can only do this if they go into the relationship realizing that there are differences which they need to work at understanding. Instead of burdening themselves with demands and expectations for an integration they cannot accomplish, they need to learn to accept the richness that can come from lives that run parallel but are caring and respectful.