Five Ways to Thrive in a Cross-cultural marriage

Cross-cultural marriages are at risk for misunderstanding; however, they thrive where grace abounds.

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, was a line not directed to cross-cultural couples. But, it could have been. For more than 26 years, I’ve been in a cross-cultural marriage to an amazing Latina who is of Panamanian heritage. As an African-American male from the South I was ill-prepared for the impact that cultural assumptions would play in our marriage, especially in the early years. Part of the problem was that my wife’s ethnic identity was a mix of African-American and Hispanic. But, our ignorance in sensitively handling our different marital assumptions, caused a lot of problems in our marriage. We definitely had a failure to communicate.


Professional counselors agree that communication failures are among the most common reasons couples seek help.

All couples struggle to integrate their personality differences, competing interests, varying emotional needs and divergent conflict resolution styles into one healthy marriage. For couples who layer distinct cultural backgrounds onto this mix, effective communication is even more critical.

Our ethnic cultures constitute part of the package that socializes us into what is “acceptable communication” in marriage. Understanding in the cross-cultural marriage in particular requires grasping cultural nuances in both the content (what is said) and structure (how it is said) of communication. Communication content and structure are guided by cultural assumptions about power sharing, gender roles and acceptable conflict resolution styles.

GRACE: The Secret Sauce

Grace, modeled by Christ’s death on the cross, must be the bridge for the cross-cultural couple. Couples often miss each other in their efforts to cross the chasms of their differences. Graceful acts redeem their interaction – giving it purpose beyond their personal and cultural expectations.

I would like to offer G-R-A-C-E as a practical acrostic to help the cross-cultural couple surmount communication challenges. This five-step process emphasizes a mutual pursuit of grace in the form of God-inspired human action:

GGive your spouse the benefit of the doubt.

Cross-cultural marriages are at heightened risk for conflict as spouses are more likely to misinterpret cues that couples of the same ethnic background handle more easily. Over time, these conflicted couples begin to assume the worst of one another – believing that their spouse is trying, intentionally, to get the upper hand; this distrust makes it difficult for couples to free themselves from the negative cycle. Cross-cultural couples can avoid or short-circuit this cycle by following three steps:

  • Maintain emotional calm.

  • Consider alternative explanations for your spouse’s behavior.

  • Ask your spouse about his or her motives.

RRisk being honest

Cross-cultural marriages frequently have trust deficits from ongoing misunderstandings. Without trust, spouses protect themselves by not sharing vulnerable feelings. Trust, however, is the glue that binds healthy marriages.

Moving toward trust nearly always requires each spouse to take a risk in being honest with oneself and with each other. For the cross-cultural couple, this means first looking within to understand the source, often culturally-driven, of your needs and desires. Then, risk sharing your needs and desires with one another. Highly conflicted couples may require the help of a trained counselor to take this risk.

AAccept your spouse’s feelings at face value

Negotiating communication issues in cross-cultural marriages requires spouses to accept what they do not intuitively understand. Your spouse will risk being honest only when he believes that you will accept his feelings, needs and wants without challenge. However, these feelings, needs or wants may be difficult for you to comprehend if they are based on cultural assumptions that are foreign to you. Resist the temptation to tell your spouse that his perspective “doesn’t make any sense.” Appreciate your spouse’s honesty without becoming defensive, and repeat back what you heard him say in your own words.

CComplain without criticizing.

Individuals often excuse or justify their critical and judgmental treatment of their spouses as “just being honest.” However, while proper, direct honesty can be painful. The use of belittling words is never productive, as it causes defensive positions from which neither is listening. Marital trust accrues only as each spouse focuses inwardly – voicing their own respective frustrations (“I get frustrated when you…”) in an effort to emotionally connect with one another.

EEmbrace your differences.

Christ’s grace is poignantly displayed when a cross-cultural couple can blend their different views and preferences into a unified pursuit of God’s purpose. While this pursuit can be fraught with discomfort and misunderstandings, successful couples are distinguished by their commitment to honor God’s unique investment in each of them. They embrace their differences because it enriches their perspective, shapes their character and models the mutuality advocated in Scripture. In the end, mature cross-cultural couples understand that it is their differences more than their similarities that foster growth by challenging them to extend grace towards each other.

God calls your cross-cultural marriage to something transcendent – a purpose that extends beyond personal satisfaction and cultural assumptions. Rather than accepting communication failures and conflicted impasses as inevitable, couples from differing cultural backgrounds have an opportunity to gain a unique glimpse into God’s character. It is God’s grace to them that in turn enables them to navigate their own communication and conflict challenges with a spirit of grace.

What has been hardest for you in your cross-cultural marriage? Leave me a comment

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