Just as in a same-culture marriage, there are several phases of adjustment that couples commonly experience after marriage. Intercultural couples face unique challenges in each of the adjustment periods which can seem confusing and can even cause serious issues in the relationship if not fully understood and dealt with appropriately. These phases of adjustment are very similar to the phases common to culture shock – so imagine if you are going through the phases of marriage AND the phases of culture shock at the same time (which is probably common for many intercultural couples)!
Phase 1: Honeymoon
The first phase of adjustment is termed the honeymoon phase. All couples go through this, although those who dated extensively beforehand may have completed this phase prior to marriage. Couples in this stage are blinded by their attraction for one another, hormones and chemicals abound in the brain (see Helen Fisher’s work on YouTube for info about ‘the brain in love’), and as a result, often fixate on all the positive aspects of the other person, and ignore or downplay the negatives. Differences are fascinating, thrilling, novel, and romantic. Research shows that couples typically stay in this phase anywhere from a few months to 2 years.
Phase 2: Settling In
After the initial excitement starts to wear off (as is necessary for normal life functioning, and helps the couple to spend their energy on raising children instead of solely on each other), the next phase begins – the Settling In phase. The couple begins to relax and be themselves and show more of their true colors. True habits and differing ideas about manners begin to show up, and characteristics (both personal and cultural) may start to be more of a concern than they were before. An Arab husband’s penchance for protectiveness may seem a bit controlling to a Western wife, and a Western spouse’s individualistic outlook may start to seem a bit selfish from Asian (collectivistic) standpoints. This is the stage when arguments may start to creep in, and the rosy glow of a picture-perfect, fairytale romance begins to fade. Reality hits, and the couple begins to see how similar or different they really are, and their own, deepset, often unchallenged or even unnoticed beliefs and views are now being challenged and questioned. Ideas about husband/wife roles, how to raise the kids, appropriate relationships with family members and in-laws, food, table manners, religion, and on and on will be brought to the forefront. If a couple finds themselves having many cultural differences as well as individual and personality differences, the relationship may be so ridden with problems that it does not last. Others, however, are able to work through their differences and make it to the next phase.
Phase 3: Life Patterns
This is the point where the path of the relationship can take a drastically different course. Some couples end up separating due to the differences being too great and not being able to compromise and work through them.
Others may give up dealing with ever-recurring problems and ignore them and sweep everything under the table (i.e. the head-in-the-sand method). Tension, anger, and unresolved conflict still exists, but neither partner is willing to find a workable compromise. These relationships tend to result in separate, loosely connected lives, and the relationship is experienced superficially.
Still others choose to focus instead on all the positives of their partner and the relationship, helping put the problems into perspective. The problems may still exist, and some of them may be ignored, but at least the couple is determined to see the glass as “half-full.”
The last path a couple can take is to willingly accept the fact that in order to have a fulfilling and successful relationship, they should constantly communicate and negotiate with one another, realizing that although there will always be new issues to solve, finding a workable solution involves exploration, creativity and flexibility. Differences can instead be viewed as an exciting, welcome challenge as opposed to a stressful, anger-filled, emotional nightmare. Such couples also become less rigid in their thinking, and begin seeing many issues as less life-shattering and more minor.
Although a couple may fall into one particular pattern of coping with differences, this pattern does not have to remain static; it can change and fluctuate. A couple may move forward to a more healthy way of functioning, and then suddenly regress backward, due to an unexpected or stressful event (which often sends us back into our comfortable, familiar and cultural ways of coping and dealing with life). If you find yourself stuck in a pattern that isn’t working, try to figure out what exactly that pattern is, and begin to introduce healthier ways of coping with conflict (i.e. communication, honesty, respect, and flexibility). Certainly, you can’t change your partner, but you can change yourself and how you react to your partner. When you change your part of the interaction, your partner will have no choice but to readjust along with you in some way or another.
After all, if you married someone from a different culture, the differences are what you drew you to them in the first place, right? If you desire a relationship free from differences, a. first of all, such a relationship doesn’t exist, and b. you definitely should not be married to someone from a different culture!
If you are in an interculteral marriage/relationship, what phase are you in? What difficulties have you faced, and how were you able to overcome them?
*Concepts taken from “Intercultural Marriage” by Dugan Romano*