Conflicting Values in Intercultural Marriage

Everyone has values, regardless of how conservative or open-minded one might be.  From the stern, long-bearded Wahabi to the college student who hits up the clubs every weekend, we all have beliefs about how every action in life should be governed, which can cause a great deal of conflict when intimately dealing with someone who holds different beliefs.  Values tell us what we perceive to be good or bad, right or wrong, important or trivial. 

While all human beings share the same needs (food, shelter, companionship, etc.), the way we go about satisfying those needs differs from culture to culture, and even person to person.  People from the same cultural background may have different values in some areas.  The key to successfully navigating a relationship in which many values are vastly different is to being highly self-aware of your own values, being aware of the values of your partner, and realizing that values are merely different, and not inherently right or wrong. 

Romano cites researchers Edward Stewart and Milton Bennett as providing a model that divides values into four areas: form of activity, form of relations to others, perception of the world, and perception of the self.  

Form of Activity

Form of activity refers to the beliefs surrounding activities.  For example, mainstream Americans have an attitude of ‘doing’: activities are ‘done’, a person is responsible for their own actions and their own lives.  To succeed requires doing something.  A successful American person is measured by what they have done and activities they have accomplished.

Other cultures value ‘being’ with regard to activity.  A successful person is valued for who they are intrinsically – a good personality, kindness, sincerity, etc. 

Other cultures focus on self-growth, striving for constant personal change and reflection. 

Conflict could arise in the area of activity as an American may want to have their children involved in extra-curicular activities, whereas a non-American spouse may see that as a waste of time and ‘worthless’, and would want the children to perhaps spend time outdoors, communing with nature and becoming more in-tune with their inner spirit. 

Relation to Others

The second area of values is in relations to others.  Americans often see connections with others as easy to make and equally easy to break.  Relationships form quickly, but may often remain largely superficial or based on some external activity (study friends, drinking buddies, church friends, colleagues).  These friendships are frequently compartmentalized and often do not cross the boundary into another domain (for example, drinking buddies may not be interested in meeting you for lunch Wednesday.  Work friends may not want to help you move or put new tiles on your roof). 

In other cultures, friendships take time to initiate and develop, yet are long-lasting and deep.  These friends can be counted on to be at your side during both the good times and the bad.  Fights and disagreements may arise, but the bond of friendship is never shaken. 

The differing concept of friendship can cause problems not only within a romantic relationship, but also for anyone in a foreign society, attempting to make social contacts and fit in with the natives.  I have heard international students often complain that they ‘know’ many Americans but have a very hard time forming any real connection with them.  A foreign student may have no trouble finding something to do for fun on the weekend, but when it comes to more serious issues, these surface friends are nowhere to be found.  On the contrary, an American in another country may feel lonely and find it difficult to just have a conversation about the weather, and may not understand why people aren’t very ‘friendly’.  An intercultural couple may scoff at the other’s friends, and may not understand how important these types of relationships are to the other person’s sense of well-being. 

Perception of the World

The third realm of values lies in perception of the world – how the self and humanity as a whole is connected to nature.  Are humans separate or integral with nature?  Should we engage in respectful or exploitive treatment?  Do we fear nature or conquer it?

An American may see humanity as separate from the environment, having full mastery over it and the right to exploit it for our own needs.  A Native American, on the other hand, may see humanity as just one piece of the larger picture of life, and everything we do must be in balance with the natural rhythm of life. 

How a couple deals with even their trash could be a source of conflict (recycle or not? Throw trash in the trash can or out in the street?), or what kind of car to drive, what sort of products to buy, companies to support (or boycott), and so on.  Are the weeds in the yard a nuisance or a beautiful part of nature?  Is a yard or having anything green even necessary at all?     

Perception of the Self

The final area of values is perception of the self.  How do we see ourselves?  As separate entities (individualistic) or as part of a tightly knit group (collectivistic)?  This area of values in particular can cause a great deal of conflict, as the collective spouse may be seen as ‘spineless’ and the family too ‘controlling’, and the individualistic spouse as ‘selfish’ and the family ‘unloving’ and cold. 

The classic example of this is the collective partner breaking up with the individualistic partner because the family doesn’t approve.  The collective partner does what is best for the family unit, as they don’t perceive their own needs as separate from the family’s needs as a whole.  Yet, the individualistic partner is heartbroken by the perception that the other person must not ‘love’ them enough to stand up to the family and live their own life. 

Fortunately for me, I understand this concept and admire my (collectivistic) partner’s deep devotion and commitment to his family, and I actually deeply long to belong to such a close, devoted family.  I am relatively collectivistic due to my own unique background (conservative Christian, moved frequently, and was home schooled). 

As a result, I fully understand the dilemma my own collectivistic partner faces.  He is willing to take on the ridicule and ostracization from his community and society at large for his decision to be with me, but his more conservative, mostly uneducated family does not understand why he can’t just be with a girl from their city, and most certainly do not want to be constantly ridiculed, treated badly, and gossiped about because of a foreigner, that they don’t even approve of, entering the family.  As a result, they see his actions as selfish – and I fully understand.  His actions could cause their family unit harm.  It isn’t about the degree to which he loves me, on the contrary, it is about the fact that he is harming those who are an integral part of his concept of his own self.  His family is part of him.  To hurt them is to hurt himself.  The unavoidable fact remains that his family will be the ones dealing with the consequences of his decision for the rest of their lives.  

Many relationships have been destroyed and several hearts have been broken due to a lack of understanding on both sides about the very elemental value of what the self actually is, and who/what it includes. 

This is not to say that those who are collectivistic will never be able to have a relationship with someone who is individualistic – not in the least.  There are many variables involved: politics, education, religion, city/country of origin on both sides, and so on.

Closing Thoughts

Mostly, no one is ever aware of their values until these values have been challenged and stepped on.  Values can cause a great deal of conflict and anguish, as we usually automatically perceive our values as right, as the natural, most logical way of doing things, and don’t realize that in reality, values are just different ways of achieving the same goals.   As a result, it is imperative to take a step back and consider who you are as a cultural and value-laden person, and how that may differ from your partner.  Additionally, the next time you have an argument (and particularly the arguments that seem to come up constantly and are never resolved), don’t rush in blaming the other person for being ‘stupid’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘illogical’.  Instead, realize that the difference may lie in differing values.  When both parties respect the other’s values as valid and simply different, communication and compromise is much easier to achieve.

*Concepts taken  from “Intercultural Marriage” by Dugan Romano*

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2 thoughts on “Conflicting Values in Intercultural Marriage

  1. Hi Sakina,
    Good post!
    And that is just the tip of the iceburg!
    I have not read the book that you suggested, but if I can find it, it sounds like something that I would enjoy contemplating.

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