My husband and I are considered a “bi-cultural relationship” since I am American and he is German. In the first few years of our relationship, we were somewhat blind to the fact that our arguments were largely due to cultural differences. It wasn’t until a discussion about ketchup that we realized being in a bi-cultural couple wasn’t going to be as easy as we had thought. We didn’t take the time at first to understand how cultural differences in a relationship can actually impact it.

My Bi-Cultural Relationship

Growing up American, ketchup was a common condiment for particular meals. However, for my German husband, it was not: he was appalled by me even setting it out on the table! We fought about things like ketchup…constantly. Soon we realized the problem was not actually about petty things like ketchup. We needed to understand what was really causing us to argue.

After some long nights of getting no where, it finally hit us: some of the fighting was due to cultural differences and some of it was a consequence of family norms. We realized that during arguments like these we needed to stop and acknowledge whether our arguing was because of what we believed and expected to be true from our culture or was it related to a personal issue. For example: “Why can’t you just put your socks in the dirty clothes hamper???” is more a personal issue. “Why should we pierce our daughter’s ears when she is a baby?” probably is a cultural difference.

Many couples living in international cities are familiar with bi-cultural relationships. I wanted to take some time to learn more about the topic and how to help us see the positives after the sexy accent has lost its charm. I interviewed Dr. David Wilchfort, a couples’ therapist in Munich, who has over 40 years’ experience working with this kind of issue. While working with him on his research of what helps couples keep their connection alive, we had several discussions about the impact of cultural differences in a relationship.

Cultural Differences in a Relationship Explained

So, Dr. Wilchfort, how do you define bi-cultural relationships and what makes them so challenging?

“Everyone in a bi-cultural relationship is quite aware of the feeling that it is a challenge but sometimes find it harder to discover its opportunities. ‘Bi-cultural,’ as it is commonly called, refers to couples that have a well-defined different culture (e.g. German versus American, Catholic versus Protestant, etc.). I believe every couple is a mixture of two cultures, except if you are a Pharaoh that marries his sister!

We all have more or less different upbringings… The challenge in the relationship can either be the different ways Christmas is celebrated or if one visits a different place every summer or spends it always in the same location. Therefore if you marry ‘the boy next door’ (i.e. someone with a similar view of social norms), it will be easier to decide what your new family will consider normal. But for a bi-cultural couple, ‘business as usual’ is not an option. You have to learn new things.”

Adjusting to Something New

Let’s break this down even further. If you have only used an iPhone since the first time you had a phone, it is going to be a challenge to later own an Android or Windows phone. The turn on/off button, the volume, the app design & placement, how to take a picture… it will all be different. You won’t be able to do things out of habit, and you may find yourself often thinking ‘I don’t like how this new phone works. It makes no sense!’.

But if you buy a new phone and say, ‘I’m going to learn how this phone works and not expect it to be like my previous phone,’ you will be more open to the new challenge and actually learn faster. You won’t be creating negative messages which tell you something is ‘wrong’ or make you feel your iPhone is ‘superior’ to all other phones. I know…I know…if you are an iPhone user this may be hard to believe!

Your Four Options

Many couples move back to one of the partner’s homeland. This can leadto the one who moved away from their home country to struggle. What suggestions do you have to help these individuals think more positively about this transition and to harbor less blame or resentment?

“If you go on a hike and come to a two-way crossing with no trail sign, you have not two but four options. Let’s say you take the left path and realize after a while that you took the longer route to the top. You then have the choice to either continue your way angry at your spouse or yourself because you took the ‘wrong path’, or you can enjoy the possibility to have more great photo opportunities than if you had taken the shortcut.

If you decide to take the other path which ended up being shorter but harder to hike, you could decide to swear at the ‘hardship’ of your spouse’s or your decision that forced that exertion upon you, or you could enjoy that you got to see the wonderful view from the summit earlier than expected.

It is obvious which of the four options make for a happier relationship. The more both partners try to discover & focus on the positive side of their new location, rather than what is missing, the more likely they will feel like they made the right decision.”

Change Your Mindset

You’re currently working on research to help couples see the positive in their relationship again. Tell us more about it and how it could help people in bi-cultural relationships.

“Evolution has made our brain an excellent ‘danger discover’ machine. This was extremely useful when we had to identify the safest and fastest path to a new food source for survival. Now, we live in an age where not everything is a potential danger. In particular, the partner that we have chosen is not a dangerous snake, even if we have moments of anger and disappointment when we entertain such fears. Since our brain is biologically developed into a perfect radar to recognize all the wrong doings of our partner, it needs a lot of training to be able to concentrate on the loving moments within a relationship.

I have discovered there is an uncomplicated way to develop an additional radar for the good things related to your partner. It only takes one minute a day to consciously turn your inner thoughts to a new, positive direction by asking yourself this question: ‘What was a nice moment in our relationship in the last 24 hours?’. My experience as a couple’s therapist and what my recent research has shown, is that if diligent partners do this regularly (even just one of them) after a short while they discover that they can see their partner in a more positive light, instead of their brains natural desire to focus on the negative.”

Embrace Your Differences

As you can see, there is no need for us to see our partner as a “dangerous snake” just because their cultural background is different from ours and vice versa! Look at ways you can embrace your differences to enjoy the new views and work on recognizing when your belief is because of what you are used to versus what is really important to you. Ketchup just isn’t worth fighting over!

Thank you, Dr. Wilchfort for helping us look at the challenges of a bi-cultural relationship in a different way!

Ready to start looking at how and what you are arguing about?

Check out my course Healthy Arguing to learn tools to improve how you communicate with your partner.

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