Overcoming Role Confusion and Boundary Threats

interracial couple smiling at camera
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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.

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 sneaked 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.

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