Focus on the Family

Marriage in the Melting Pot

by Dr. Harold L. Arnold, Jr.

The United States is a land of immigrants. Although political pundits continue to question American immigration policy, there is no question that what we call "American" culture is actually an amalgam of immigrant cultures. And, since Israel Zangwill's 1908 play, "The Melting Pot," the term "melting pot" has been used to describe America's cultural fusion. Now, one hundred years later, American culture will soon reach the point where historical ethnic minorities represent the majority of the U.S. population.

This cultural diversity brings with it a wealth of ideas, attitudes, beliefs and values that are sometimes complementary and, at other times, conflicting. These changing demographics are dramatically shifting our conventional understanding of the American workplace, church and home. It is the American home – more specifically the institution of marriage – to which we give our focus.

What is marriage like in the melting pot? The increased interaction of individuals from different ethnic backgrounds has inevitably led to an increase in inter-ethnic marriages – particularly in the urban centers. Couples are increasingly challenging the historical social stigmas regarding inter-ethnic dating and marriage in the pursuit of authentic, colorblind love. The "melting pot" holds tremendous potential for marriage as it makes possible an integration of the best aspects of each partner's background. But, this synergy only develops as couples negotiate gender roles, develop effective communication and conflict resolution strategies, and attend to the daily decisions that make marriage enriching.

In a real sense, "marriage in the melting pot" is a relational philosophy espousing mutuality – where the perspective, personality and gifts of each partner are valued simply because each person is created in God's image. When mutuality is absent, inter-ethnic marriages cannot achieve God's potential.

Inter-ethnic marriage is not a 21st-century phenomenon. A quick search through Scripture highlights a number of inter-ethnic marriages among our biblical heroes and heroines. For example, much to the chagrin of his family (Numbers 12:1), Moses (a Hebrew) marries Zipporah (an Ethiopian). In another example, Rahab, the Canaanite harlot responsible for hiding the Jewish spies looking to overthrow Jericho, converts to Judaism and marries Salmon (a Hebrew). In these instances and others, God shows His approval of the relationship because He remained the object of their worship. Other inter-ethnic marriages, however, led to disastrous consequences because the focus on God was lost. The best example is that of Solomon who allowed his wives from foreign lands, including the queen of Sheba, to divert his attention from the God of his ancestors.

As globalization continues to bring individuals from different cultures into meaningful contact, inter-ethnic marriages will continue to increase. This trend holds tremendous promise for marriages that can transform differences into assets rather than succumb to them as liabilities. The articles in this series recognize the challenges that inter-ethnic couples face – both those that are unique and those that are common to same-race couples. More importantly, however, these articles provide practical handles for marriages in the melting pot to achieve marital satisfaction and to become a beacon for Christ by extending graceful acts towards one another.

A Measure of GRACE

Inter-ethnic marriages are often plagued by communication lapses, typically because self-interests are prioritized over partnership. Effective communication requires grace-filled attitudes and behaviors.

by Dr. Harold L. Arnold, Jr.

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate," from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, was a line not directed to inter-ethnic couples. But, it could have been. 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 inter-ethnic 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.

A Measure of Grace

Grace, modeled by Christ's death on the cross, must be the bridge for the inter-ethnic 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.

A Framework for GRACE

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

  1. G: Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt. Inter-ethnic 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. Inter-ethnic couples can avoid or short-circuit this cycle by following three steps:
    1. Maintain emotional calm.
    2. Consider alternative explanations for your spouse's behavior.
    3. Ask your spouse about his or her motives.

  2. R: Risk being honest. Inter-ethnic 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 inter-ethnic 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.

  3. A: Accept your spouse's feelings at face value. Negotiating communication issues in inter-ethnic 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.

  4. C: Complain 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.

  5. E: Embrace your differences. Christ's grace is poignantly displayed when an inter-ethnic 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 inter-ethnic 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 inter-ethnic 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.

Overcoming Role Confusion and Boundary Threats

By following a three-step process, couples from differing ethnic backgrounds can overcome the marital stressors resulting from the conflicting cultural assumptions they bring to the marriage.

by Dr. Harold L. Arnold, Jr.

Anthropologically speaking, every culture has unwritten rules about marriage. These social assumptions guide every facet of interpersonal interaction and decision-making regarding housekeeping, sexuality, parenting and other domestic issues. Within a culture, these social rules establish a range of what are considered "normal" attitudes and behaviors about marriage. Some of these "normal" attitudes become what we consider stereotypical. For example, a young Mediterranean couple might both expect heated arguments and a high level of sexual engagement, whereas a middle-aged Asian couple might expect restricted emotional expression and more moderate sexual engagement.

However, even for those who fall within these norms, spouses can feel constrained and frustrated by the proscribed cultural roles, and many attempt to shift the unwritten rules to accommodate more updated ideas or personal preferences. Such shifts create confusion for many marriages because they require deviation from long-held expectations. For marriages in which one partner is comfortable with the norm and the other is chafing against it, this crossroad can be quite painful.

Nowhere is this confusion more evident than in inter-ethnic marriages, in which the husband and wife hail from different cultural backgrounds. The following summary of my visit with Stephen and Hope Johnson-Anders shows just how complicated these dueling assumptions can become.

Inter-Ethnic Marriage: A Case Study

Stephen, a White American male of Scandinavian descent, and Hope, an African-American woman, married four years ago after completing grad school and beginning careers in investment banking. Despite stressful jobs, they reported their marriage as "successful" for the first three years.

According to Hope, the problems began with the birth of their son Tim one year ago. Hope became accusatory as she described Stephen's insistence that she stay home with Tim despite her expectation and strong desire to return to work. Hope grieved the loss of her job, freedom and self-esteem. Stephen voiced his frustration with "Hope's selfishness" and snuck in sharp rebukes of her domestic skills, her complaining and their diminished sex life. Hope and Stephen's quandary is not unique to inter-ethnic marriages, but understanding their marriage as such is helpful to getting them out of it.

Three Steps to Negotiating Roles and Boundaries

  1. Clearly communicate expectations. In inter-ethnic marriages, the margin for communication lapses is narrow because spouses frequently have radically different and emotionally charged assumptions about important issues. Hope, whose single mom worked outside the home while raising five children, always intended to return to work after her maternity leave. Stephen, however, expected Hope to stay home with Tim for at least the first few years, as his mother had done with him.

    In time, through active listening, Stephen began to understand both Hope's emotional turmoil about forfeiting the gains that she had made as the company's first African-American female and her financial fears, having witnessed her mother's and sisters' financial ruin at the hands of African-American men. Hope understood Stephen's request for her to stay home as a desired parenting value rather than as a demand and attempt to control her.
  2. Define clear roles. Now that Stephen and Hope are listening to one another, it is important to clarify their expectations. Stephen had very clear but unconscious expectations about how their house should be kept – and about who did the keeping. Hope very consciously expected Stephen to share the household duties whether she was home or not. Having clarified their expectations, their task is to learn how to negotiate their roles rather than rely on their personal cultural assumptions.

  3. Be flexible. Ultimately, inter-ethnic marriage demands more flexibility than other marriages. Inter-ethnic couples must remain particularly attuned to their partner's perspectives and actively avoid rigid maintenance of assumptions. Many of Stephen and Hope's difficulties could have been avoided if they had anticipated and talked about the major shifts required by Tim's birth.

    In the short term, Stephen must become more physically and emotionally available to Hope – a significant challenge for a man of Scandinavian heritage. Hope, whose culture taught her that men walk away from their responsibilities, needs to trust in her husband's love for her and their son even amidst his hectic work schedule. Over the long term, their ongoing marital health will require perpetual, constant adjustments of their assumptions as they face new challenges.

Grace-filled communication, while important to all marriages, is the foundation of the inter-ethnic marriage. Achieving your potential as an inter-ethnic couple requires that expectations be owned, spoken and negotiated. Ultimately, this process demonstrates love because it prioritizes your co-created couple identity over your respective individual cultures – promoting a balanced marriage in which each spouse's needs and desires are equally validated (Ephesians 5). Emotional intimacy and enhanced satisfaction are the natural consequences of this mutual validation.

Faith, Family, Friends, Finances and Food

Inter-ethnic couples face key decisions early in the marriage that establish their foundation. By intentionally attending to these decisions, they leverage their differences as strengths.

by Dr. Harold L. Arnold, Jr.

Couples make decisions daily that may have long-term impact on their marriages. It is logical, then, that developing effective decision making processes during the early years of marriage can enhance marital satisfaction over time. Of course, newly married couples are the least experienced in this kind of sound decision making. These skills are particularly important to inter-ethnic couples, who must learn to work with the divergent, though ingrained, attitudes each partner brings to the marriage.

There are five key decisions that, while vital for all marriages, are particularly important to inter-ethnic marriages.

Five Decisions to Protect Your Inter-Ethnic Marriage

  1. Prioritize your faith in God's purpose for your marriage. God has a purpose for your marriage – one that is designed to draw people unto Him. Inter-ethnic marriage holds unique promise as you sacrifice what feels natural for what is righteous.

    My wife's ethnic identity as a Hispanic wife impacts my marriage considerably. This manifests in her respect and patience with me – a traditional element of a wife's role in her culture – even when my own actions are self-centered. Based on my own upbringing as an African-American man with an outspoken mother, however, I misinterpreted her culturally-congruent deference to me as weakness. As we have jointly sought God's purpose for our marriage, though, our expectations and attitudes have converged, allowing us to understand our respective backgrounds, gifts and weaknesses as complementary and incorporating our disparate perspectives into our decision making.

  2. Communicate to your spouse that his or her emotional well-being is the highest priority. It is crucial to all marriages to communicate to your spouse that he or she is the priority in your life, and then to carry that out. Many inter-ethnic couples struggle in balancing the needs and demands of parents and other family members with those of their partners.

    The problem is particularly evident in cultures (e.g. many Asian cultures) or families with strong parental influence. Individuals from these backgrounds must view their marriage relationship as a divinely-inspired process of becoming one – a process in which your identity as a couple is prioritized over your extended family (Genesis 2:24). As such, your spouse's physical and emotional needs must also be a priority.

  3. Choose friends with similar cultural backgrounds that are invested in the health of your marriage. Every marriage needs friends, particularly those who support your marital relationship. As Amos 3:3 asks, "Can two walk together except they be agreed?"

    Inter-ethnic couples must cultivate trusting relationships with others who share each of their cultural backgrounds, love for the Lord and commitment to their marriage. Your inter-ethnic marriage is blessed when others who understand the cultural nuances can stand in agreement with you through prayer, encouragement, mediation and education.

  4. Jointly develop a financial plan. Money management is one of the most conflict-laden aspects of marriage, and it can also be a symptom of deep-seated disharmony. A couple's money attitudes nearly always reflect their experiences with money in their respective families of origin.

    Effective financial stewardship demands open and honest communication about needs, wants, aspirations and expectations regarding residence, workload, academic pursuits, pregnancy planning, transportation, tithing, entertainment, hobbies and other lifestyle choices. For the inter-ethnic couple, the heightened cultural innuendo and divergent preferences can be painful. Designing flexible financial plans for short- (1 year), mid- (3 years), and long-term events (5 or more years), while inputing each partner's preferences with equal value, fosters an openness that minimizes this stress.

  5. Understand the significance of food and meal planning to your spouse. Food is one of the most distinct elements of a culture. I fondly remember my enthusiasm when my wife spent time in my grandmother's kitchen learning to prepare those Southern sweets (nearly all unfamiliar to her culture) that are such a strong symbol of my childhood.

    In addition to gender expectations around who prepares the meals, cultural expectations also impact whether meals are eaten together as a family, prepared at home or served as specific times. It does not occur to most individuals that this important aspect of their ethnic identity may be challenged when they marry.

    The old adage that "the quickest way to a man's heart is through his stomach" may have validity across cultures. But, food is just as important to women as well. Inter-ethnic couples will benefit from communicating expectations around food. Husbands and wives demonstrate their mutual love by being open-minded about preparing and/or tasting dishes that their spouses enjoy. Although food is rarely identified as a marital stressor, attending to your spouse's stomach may be a key to tying your hearts together.

Cross-Cultural Marriage Mentoring

Cross-cultural marriage mentoring offers an attractive framework for racial and marital harmony by dispelling false assumptions and demonstrating how to constructively work through differences.

by Dr. Harold L. Arnold, Jr.

The Chois

In many ways, Jason and Julie Choi are a typical Christian couple. Happily married for thirteen years, they are exuberant when talking about their faith, their children and their church. But in one critical way – their inter-ethnic marriage – Jason and Julie are not typical. Jason, whose Korean name is Chung-Ho, emigrated from South Korea with his parents as a teenager. Julie left her native home of Australia in her late twenties to attend seminary in the United States (where she met Jason), eventually becoming a naturalized citizen. Now in their late forties, Jason and Julie are founders and pastors of a growing 400-member church called "The Bridge."

After meeting Jason and Julie at an alumni function for the seminary, I invited them to lunch to get to know them better and learn about both the apparent success of their inter-ethnic marriage and the phenomenal church growth they were experiencing.

Julie opened, summarizing highlights of how they met as well as the challenges posed by their different cultural backgrounds. Her demeanor shifted from carefree to thoughtful as she recounted their struggles when her direct and abrasive "down-under" communication style nearly drove Jason away during those early years. Jason agreed, noting its negative impact on their conflict resolution and decision-making process for years to come. Their greatest difficulty, however, was regulating the influence their families (especially Jason's) had on their relationship. For Jason, family honor and parental deference are culturally ingrained attitudes that are highly valued in South Korean culture. He is aware that his challenge has always been to maintain this ancient eastern respect while also protecting his very western marriage.

Nevertheless, Julie and Jason's marriage is working. They shared with me three keys to their marital health. First, they emphasized the importance of prayer – asking God's help to prioritize His will over their own cultural reactions. Second, they talked about graciousness – prioritizing mutual nurture over the need to be right. And third, they highlighted the role of marriage mentoring – serving as accountability partners with other couples. This, particularly, intrigued me, and I longed to hear more.

The Bridge

Jason and Julie described how their church, The Bridge, has indeed become a model for cross-cultural marriage mentoring. In the early days of the church, only a handful of couples attended.

"It didn't take Jason and me long to realize that most of these couples were having serious marital challenges similar to those we experienced," Julie said. "We decided to establish marriage mentoring as a church core value."

Jason said, "It was clear that being present with Christ's love to these couples, through their communication lapses, unhealthy boundaries, poor conflict resolution and selfish attitudes, was the most spiritual intervention that we could offer. And, these are all areas that God had given us tremendous growth through the culture clashes of our marriage."

Laughing, Julie added, "It reminded me of the biblical account when Mordecai told Esther that she had been 'prepared for such a time as this.' But, what I did not expect was the heightened intimacy that Jason and I would experience as a result of working with these couples. We started mentoring for others, but we keep mentoring for us."

Cross-Cultural Marriage Mentoring

Jason and Julie's experience confirmed some of my own perceptions regarding marriage mentoring. But, what impressed me most was their use of themselves and their own cultural differences to promote cross-cultural learning within their congregation and as an outreach to the surrounding community.

Through transparently sharing from their own history and modeling healthy conflict resolution, Jason and Julie unwittingly challenged cultural expectations, stereotypes and prejudices within and outside of marriage. In doing so, they built a remarkable framework for both healthy marriages and church culture – one that promotes the diversity of ideas and experiences as important to understanding Christ's kingdom. As a result, their church has become recognized as one of the most ethnically integrated and "marriage friendly" churches in their vicinity.

Jason and Julie summarized three valuable benefits of their mentoring program. First, it fosters humility, as each spouse realizes that right and wrong in marriage are often cultural artifacts rather than absolute standards. Second, it fosters the possibility of integrating the best elements of each culture, rather than experiencing differences as deficits. And third, it promotes communication around the important issues of marriage over being frustrated with unmet assumptions.

Interjecting a final point, Julie said, "Regardless of whether you are an inter-ethnic couple or even a Christian couple, these three benefits are marital growth principles. By espousing them in a nurturing environment, we believe couples see their mentoring relationships as a welcome bridge across the marital and social divide."

Next Steps and Related Information

Additional resources addressing challenges in marriage