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We're From Different Cultures...Can It Work?

I have had a most thrilling and indecipherable relationship with a girl (I am 26 years old, she is 24): she is pretty, very stylish-looking, and has a divine figure, it seems. I have fancied that I love her with my whole soul. That is a strange thing. From the time that one likes a woman one truly believes that he could not get along without her for the remaining of his life. I know that in order to spend my existence side by side with another there must be not a brusque, physical passion that soon dies out, but a concordance of soul, temperament and temper. She is endowed with this elegant silliness. She chatters, babbles, says nonsense remarks that seem spiritual by how funny they are uttered. When she raises her arms, when she bents, when she gets into a car, when she shake hands, her gestures are perfect for correctness and appropriateness.

She wants to marry me, but I think such a relationship is doomed to failure. She is very poor , from a third-world country, quit school at age 17, often hysterical (unstable)  and is of doubtful reputation. The only thing that prevents me from stopping contact with her is that I know she loves me and wants to build a common project for the future. According to her standards, I am rich, overeducated, and from the aristocracy; we are exactly the opposite. Our families wouldn't get along with each other, our values & principles are different. Our conversations only consist of trivialities and are very limited. I can't discuss with her about politics, culture, travelling, history...She is somehow materialistic, though surprisingly sincere in her emotions towards myself. Despite all of this, I can't get her out of my mind (I wish I could), and vice-versa.

My question is: if 2 people are attracted by each other, love each other (or at least believe to) and have the sincere intention to build (or at least try to) a strong relationship that would last, can they achieve their objective even if they are extremely different (both intrinsically and in what life has offered to them since their encounter)?

Dear A.,

If two people are attracted to each other and in love, can they build a lasting relationship in spite of very different cultural and economic situations?

Unfortunately, the answer is “it depends.”

A huge factor in the success of a relationship is good communication.1 If you and your love interest have similar communication styles, such as both being willing to talk openly about points of conflict rather than one of you withdrawing, and you can openly communicate despite whatever language or cultural barriers exist, that’s a point in favor of your relationship. From the way you describe your communication with her, though, it sounds like you do not relate to her on that level (e.g., she “chatters, babbles, and makes nonsense remarks”).

Another factor that could influence your relationship success pertains to cultural differences. For instance, individualistic people (such as Europeans and Americans), value personal independence, whereas collectivists (Asians, many African cultures) value duty to a group, specifically to one’s family.2 How do you relate to your family and close others compared to her approach? If you have similar approaches in the ways in which you relate to families and communities, that is another point towards relationship success. But if she is going to want to spend all of her time with her family and perhaps invite her parents, siblings, or distant cousins to move in with the two of you, and if this is not something you are used to (or in favor of), it may become an issue.

A third factor to consider is the beliefs each of you holds for what makes a relationship happy. In other words, what is expected in a long-term romantic relationship in your culture versus hers? Each culture socializes men and women to know and accept a particular script, sort of like a movie script, for what happens in relationships. For instance, in Indian culture, parents are highly involved in the spouse selection process, sometimes to the point where a marriage is completely arranged by the parents. In Tanzanian culture, it is common practice (and generally accepted) for men to have sexual relationships with women other than their wife.

Is your script for your future relationship the same as hers? Does her culture heavily emphasize a mate’s earning capacity and ambition? Does your cultural emphasize good looks and attractiveness? Research shows that women from countries where females have the least ability to gain power on their own through jobs and education are more likely to seek out a mate with material resources.3 This might be the source of some of the “materialistic” vibe you are getting from her, and it sounds like this is something that bothers you. You may want to explore these expectations very carefully together to make sure you are on the same page regarding each other’s hopes for your future.

Overall, it sounds like if you think your “relationship is doomed to failure,” then you may be headed for a self-fulfilling prophecy. And you are right—relationships are hard enough without differences in values, principles, interests, and family backgrounds. While the affection you feel towards each other may be sincere, I suspect that once the infatuation stage fades, there will be a lot of barriers that will have to be overcome. While overcoming these hurdles will not likely to be easy, success is certainly possible with strong communication and the recognition that it’s going to be a bumpy road. I guess the real question comes down to how much are you willing to work at your relationship to sustain it? I think if you go back and read the question you posed to us, and the words you use to describe your love and your relationship together, but view it with the eyes of an outside observer, you may just find your answer.

Good luck!

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1Bray, J. H., & Jouriles, E. (1995). Treatment of marital conflict and prevention of divorce. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 21, 461-473.

2Oyserman, D., Coon, H. M., & Kemmelmeier, M. (2002). Rethinking individualism and collectivism: Evaluation of theoretical assumptions and meta-analyses. Psychological Bulletin, 128(1), 3-72. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.128.1.3

3Eagly, A. H., & Wood, W. (1999). The origins of sex differences in human behavior: Evolved dispositions versus social roles. American Psychologist, 54, 408-423.

Dr. Michelle Kaufman - Science of Relationships articles
Michelle conducts research on sexual health and how power in heterosexual relationships influences sexual risk and family planning. She has conducted research in South Africa, Nepal, Tanzania, and Indonesia, and teaches a course on Qualitative Research Methods at Jimma University in Ethiopia.

image source: glamor.com

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