Marital Culture Clash

When we first meet someone, we see the "tip of the iceberg":  What they look like, their gender, the language they speak, the clothes they wear and perhaps something about the kind of work they do. As we get to know them we dive a little below their surface values, beliefs and priorities: the kind work they do and why that matters, how they perceive themselves or others, and their general beliefs about religion or God. As the relationship develops, conversations may arise that have to do with deeper values: How working long hours has significance, the implications of family connection versus ultra independence, or how experiencing deeper connection causes anxiety.  Finally, in bits and pieces, we begin to learn the reasons behind those decisions and beliefs. This takes time, for often the individual may not even be aware of them. This is because they form part of the "implicitly learned, unconscious, difficult to change and subjective knowledge" part of the personal cultural iceberg.

Let's make this real and how it plays out in marriage.

One day William meets Kathleen. She moved frequently, her family traveling extensively, and she and her brother followed her parent's careers all over the world. Bob thinks Kathy's upbringing is exotic and is drawn to her close family unit and seemingly stable upbringing. However, Bob is unaware that Kathy has a hard time forming lasting relationships because she never really learned that skill as a global nomad. There simply wasn't time. What she longs for is connection and stability, to begin to build her own sense of home with her husband and children. What she doesn't realize is that by putting down roots, it also means that she has to learn a different relational dynamic.

Kathleen is drawn to William because his family provides what she believes is stability. He still lives in the home in which he grew up, he can show her the school he attended, the church he went to as a boy. She also sees that his family has financial stability and what she believes is a sense of community, for everyone seems to know William's family. 

After just a few months of getting to know each other, William and Kathleen get married. However, neither one learned how to identify nor communicate their underlying needs and beliefs about those needs. Soon they will experience what I call "marital culture clash". Bob had entered the marriage believing that working long hours was the most important thing to ensure a secure future; Kathy believed putting down roots and having stability was worth sacrifice of time together. 

What neither of them realized was that what they actually longed for was meaningful connection. They had never discussed his beliefs about money, their assumptions concerning intimacy, or her priorities of family. Because of their own childhood hurts, they both had a deep fear of not being fully accepted if they revealed those things to each other and became truly vulnerable. It seemed very risky. 

From another perspective, there is the underlying belief that identifying the top reasons for marital fights, one only needs to come to a compromise on those issues and this will resolve marital spats. I believe this helps, but only to a degree. It isn't until each partner understands how the other views those issues from their cultural background that a lasting shift happens: why those things matter, what makes them matter, how they impact their worldview, and when and how those views were formed. It is in this dialogue that couples find intimacy, belonging, and the ability to work out their differences. 

Finally, another useful way to look at marital problems and disagreements might be to consider the Johari Window. 

We have those "open areas" that we know and others know about ourselves such as our food preferences, our style, our religious beliefs.

The "hidden areas" are those parts of self we keep from others, at least for a while. Perhaps our family secrets, our emotional triggers.

The "blind areas" could be our anger outbursts that we justify but others see in a different light; our emotional manipulation that we put on a positive spin because we get our way without seeming to harm anyone. 

Finally the "unknown" are places we don't see and neither do others. Nevertheless they still make themselves evident in knee jerk reactions, inability to see another point of view, or snide remarks that do not seem to have connection with the present circumstances. 

All the above has the potential to raise the awareness of our need for deeper communication, for it is there we find connection and meaning. In that place we have the potential to smooth our rough edges, to become authentic, and learn the meaning of loving another person and to be loved, even though we are imperfect human beings.