Five Tips to Help Intercultural Couples Avoid Divorce, Find Common Ground

Though more ubiquitous today, intercultural marriages present a number of unique challenges. Clearly, each partner brings different daily habits, viewpoints, and values to the relationship.

Harriet Cannon, a licensed marriage and family therapist and mental health counselor says, “one of the biggest problems intercultural relationships face is that they often don’t confront their differences during the early stages of love and courtship. Couples tend to minimize the differences they’re sure to encounter throughout their lifetime,” says Cannon.

“They may be getting along now, but when they have a child, things get complicated,” she adds. “Once children start walking and talking, your parents will start to influence you, so you need to pick one or two things that would make them happy.”

Dr. Ron Thurlow, a licensed marriage and family therapist, feels the most common problem in intercultural marriages is religion.

“If their different faiths have particular demands in terms of raising kids, then it can be a challenge,” says Thurlow. “It depends on how involved with the culture couples are. If they’re fundamentalist, orthodox, conservative, or strictly ethnocentric, then they’ll need to reach some common ground in terms of the higher principles that these religions support like unconditional love, justice, and tolerance. This lets them put their differences in the context of a larger whole.”

Licensed psychologist and internationally recognized author of “Finding Forgiveness,” Dr. Eileen R. Borris teaches Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Post-Conflict Environments at the School of International Service at American University. She notes that, “American culture is strongly focused on ‘self’ and personal independence,” adding, “Other cultures, like Asian, for example, are more focused on the group, more concerned about ‘saving face.'”

She points out some stark differences in conflict resolution. “We [Americans] tend to deal with conflicts more directly, explicitly, ‘shooting from the hip.’ We express ourselves through low contact and very direct and precise communications. Middle Eastern societies, for example, use more words and body language; they’re more implicit than explicit.”

So how should a couple survive the intercultural gap, in particular, extended family issues? “First be aware of what’s going on,” advises Borris. In many cultures, the extended family is highly valued. “So take the time to listen and talk about what other’s needs are, then try to address as many of these needs as you can.”


1. Learn about each other’s cultures.

This includes learning the language of your foreign-born spouse, even if it’s just a few phrases. Tune in to how different cultures listen to each other; how loudly and quickly they speak, how they argue, tease and pay attention. In Italy or Brazil, people frequently interject comments over minuscule points. Diving into the fray over ancillary issues is considered simply a sign of involvement. Conversely, Scandinavians or Japanese consider the mere act arguing as a verbal assault.

2. Accept each other’s cultural roots, then find common ground.

Decide which customs, traditions, habits are most important to you and do some compromising on the rest. In many foreign cultures, one marries the family,” so when a spouse celebrates a holiday, birthday or other special occasion, one is expected to invite the entire extended family.

3. Decide which traditions you want to impart on your children.

Your parents will undoubtedly have a voice here; be flexible and involve your parents and elders in children’s birthdays and other events. Couples are often surprised when they become parents and argue over how their kids should act. Cultural differences come into sharp relief over discipline, expectations of appropriate gender behavior and general manners. Compromise as much as you can.

4. Openly discuss finances, sexual expectations.

The earlier you do this in the relationship, the better. Create a sliding scale of most important and least important and be willing to give up ground on the least important.

5. Be ready to compromise on chores, rules, and duties of each partner.

Work together on this. Compromise on the least important as long as the work gets done.

About the author: Alex A. Kecskes is a national award-winning writer with more than 20 years experience in advertising, PR, and promotions. He is founder of ak creativeworks (, a creative services company and writes regularly for web and print.