This article has been written by
Christine Redpath

Health Writer

How to Flourish in a Cross-Cultural Relationship - Making Your Relationship Work

Cross-cultural relationships can be wonderful, but it should be acknowledged from the get-go just how important the culture of each partner is. One should never discount it as insignificant to the relationship. While it is noble to state – and you undoubtedly mean it – that you aren’t prejudiced against your partner’s culture, and love them despite (or perhaps because of) your national differences, you should also take into account the fact that your partner’s culture has formed them, shaped and nurtured their identity, and will affect their behaviour and attitudes in a manner about which you should not be blasé . Similarly, you may find your own preconceptions and manner of doing things challenged by a partner to whom these things are alien. Cross cultural relationships can be stimulating, deep, loving, and full of surprises – but only when differences are acknowledged rather than dismissed as unimportant, understood and accepted, or mitigated by loving compromise. When this fails to happen, it may be time to seek the aid of a counsellor who will be able to help you work through your differences.

The Danger of Stereotyping
Cultural stereotypes can be insidious, and may have a profoundly negative effect upon relationships. Imagine that you are in France because you have fallen in love with a French person, but now you find yourself concerned about their fidelity. You know deep down in your heart that your fears are unfounded, but you nonetheless just can't shake the notion that they're playing away. You have fallen foul of a deeply ingrained cultural stereotype - and you would not be the first. The French have a reputation for romance which may work in their favour at the very beginning of a cross-cultural relationship, but often has precisely the opposite effect when things start getting more serious. Latent suspicion regarding the faithfulness of a partner from a culture widely considered incorrigibly flirtatious and sex-mad can be brought to bear at the most minor and unjustified of provocations.

Cultural Clashes
Genuine cultural differences can also prove a more awkward barrier than many expect. Something which may be considered a perfectly platonic norm for a French person – greeting an acquaintance with a kiss, for example – might be viewed as shockingly flirtatious by someone from a less demonstrative culture. On the other hand, personal displays of affection in public are thought inconsiderate by cultures such as that of the British – an attitude which a French person may erroneously take to indicate standoffishness, coldness, or even a sense of shame in the relationship. On a more subtle level, different cultures frequently apply different value systems to things like love, commitment, friends, freedom, money and so on which can cause conflicts if the value systems clash. Having been brought up saturated in a particular culture, it is easy to start throwing around words like ‘wrong’ when faced with an attitude which completely contradicts what you were always taught. This is understandable, but damaging. One cannot ‘correct’ another’s culture, and one should not try. In most cases, a little simple communication and compromise could help - but sometimes the differing values are too drastic to simply ignore. For example, safe sex and STD testing are of the utmost import to those from most Western cultures yet, as Kwikmed point out, many other nations abhor the idea of wearing condoms due to 'macho culture' or even religion. Issues like this are sensitive, and must be resolved in a sensitive manner. Compromise and communication are clearly key, here, but often this does not occur until emotional barriers have gone up and the relationship is past the point where a bit of simple cultural exposition could help.

Culture, Identity, and Personal Differences
Of course, all relationships have a cross-cultural element, in that each individual is coming at the relationship from their own angle, with their own perspectives and ways of doing things. The simple fact is that people have differences, and sometimes these differences can be hard for others to understand. This is not to say that they cannot be worked through and resolved – sometimes two people just need to accept and make their peace with certain aspects of their partner’s character. Other times, one partner may need to understand that their behaviour is hurtful and damaging to the other, and adjust accordingly. In all cases, communication is crucial – but this cannot happen effectively unless both parties are willing to abandon their ‘cultural’ identity momentarily and attempt to see things from either the point of view of the other partner, or at least from a neutral position.

Seeing Things From a New Perspective
It is very, very hard to step out of your cultural conditioning and attempt to see things from the point of view of another. It is even harder to step out of your own personal identity and attempt to study the world through the eyes of a partner. However, doing so will reap enormous benefits for your relationship. Sometimes in these cases what is needed is a neutral mediator who can help to ease both of you out of your personal comfort zones and get you to look with fresh eyes at the behaviours and attitudes you are displaying. This can be a difficult emotional process, but once you and your partner understand the emotional affect you are having upon one another, you can begin to explain in a helpful manner your cultural or personal motivations for your actions and attitudes. Then you can move forward in your relationship with enhanced comprehension and appreciation of the other, and perhaps with a few helpful compromises worked out for good measure.

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The treatment of anxiety might benefit from a double-layered approach. Perhaps some form of relaxation may be useful in the initial one or two sessions: relaxation based body-therapy, hypnosis, (in France a technique called sophrologie is very popular) mindfulness, dialectical behaviour therapy, or visualisations. All these methods have their theoretical origin in oriental, Buddhist, techniques. In the East, there is meditation and the inevitable guru; in the West, there is the doctor, an authority figure in a white lab coat and a magic pen with which he prescribes evil pills, whose authority inspires awe and submission. Our profession, that of psychotherapist, in the popular imagery combines all the fears and miscomprehensions of both of these.

My office is situated above that of a GP in the town centre, and because I have developed a specialty in treating anxiety, I often get referrals from other counsellors for very severe cases. For example, a typical patient might say: “I ended up in the emergency ward last night. My wife had to drive me. I thought it was a heart attack, but was told it was just anxiety.” Or “I am on more Xanax than it would take to kill a horse. But it’s not working. You are my last hope.” At which point I say “Ok now, don’t worry. You’ve come to the right place. Would you like to try a technique which stems from hypnotherapy?” At this point the patient is seized by complete wide-eyed terror, but usually acquiesces with a mumbling “Well, I am pretty desperate so I guess there’s not much to lose.”
The setup is fairly simple: the patient, in a reclined position, closes her eyes and lets the therapist’s soothing voice and skilled manoeuvres transport her elsewhere, to a place that is anxiety-free. The neuroscientific reasoning behind this is straightforward- in order to drive anxious thoughts out of the brain, we must saturate the synapses by filling the brain with positive suggestions. Thus the patient can allow herself to calm down and get over the immediate crisis.

This part of therapy is very relaxing and fun; and the results are incredibly quick. In my own practice I have often been astounded by the speed at which anxiety is tamed in only one or two hypnotherapy or mindfulness sessions, as opposed to traditional talk-therapy.

The good therapist will not only administer these techniques (i.e. relaxation, mindfulness techniques and/or hypnosis) to the patient, but will teach her how to do these techniques on her own, at home, so she is independent and does not need the therapist, and can thus gain control over the anxiety attack if and when it may arise. In many cases, having a sword to slay the monster with, and knowing how to use the sword, metaphorically speaking, is enough to keep the monster at bay.
Once the immediate crisis is over, a more psychoanalytical, or psychodynamic approach takes place. In plain English this means= we just talk. In the safe setting of a therapist’s office that is perceived as a strong and trustworthy cocoon, we can gradually begin to explore the underlying roots of anxiety. How quickly this is done depends on the skill and experience of the therapist, but most importantly on the rapport between therapist and patient. There must be an intuitive feeling of safety, understanding and trust.

The underlying roots of anxiety may stem from an earlier traumatic experience, or from childhood. Yet this doesn’t mean that “it’s all the mother’s fault” or that we need to engage in some voodoo-like rebirth or chakra-rebalancing via past lives ritual. I firmly believe that in order to heal our deepest wounds, talk therapy is more than enough, and remains the best remedy to date. Yet, even though we may get an intellectual grasp of the causes of our anxiety in two or three sessions, getting to the point where we are truly anxiety-free emotionally and physiologically may take a little longer.
I often tell my patients: “Only children are scared. Adults don’t suffer from anxiety.” Adults assess a situation, and make choices. A child is painfully aware of the menacing world all around, and the future which is at best uncertain. An adult is tall and strong. Adults must learn to handle disappointments in life, and let go of unrealistic expectations, but an adult is in control. An adult knows that every action is a choice, and that every action has its consequence. An adult sleeps well, has a healthy appetite, and is full of lust for life, looking forward to every hour of every new day.
Yet, the journey from being a child to being fully an adult is a lifelong journey, and biological age is no indication of maturity. This is excellent news, because it means we can learn new skills at any age. Eliminating anxiety is extremely rewarding work because when the brain and body are no longer in “fight or flight” anxious mode, an incredible amount of energy is freed up, energy that can be used to laugh, play, create, work, love, and simply enjoy life.