Add To Cart

Section 18
An Introduction to Counseling Intercultural Couples

Question 18 | Test | Table of Contents

Intercultural Marriages
Ho's (1990) generic term "intercultural marriages" refers to marriage between partners from different racial, ethnic, national or religious backgrounds. The academic and professional literature, as well as the popular media, has tended to maintain this focus on race, ethnicity and religion in the discussion of intercultural unions. We suggest that the individual human experience of culture is considerably more complex, and highly significant in the construction of personal psychological organizations. We propose that the role of culture in human development is such that individuals of all cultures will tend to presume that their cultural values are representative of truth and/or the way things ought to be. Intercultural unions will necessarily bring cultural differences into an intimate confrontation.

The number of intercultural marriages has increased exponentially since the middle of the last century. In 1967 the Supreme Court declared all state laws prohibiting interracial marriages unconstitutional. As a consequence, there has been "an erosion of the taboo" against interracial marriage in the last sixty years (Romano, 2003, p. 3).

In 1960, when the United States Census bureau first tracked the number of interracial couples, it found only 157,000 marriages (.4 percent of the total) that involved a white, black, Native American, or Asian American wed to a spouse of a different race. By 2000, there were over one million such marriages, representing nearly 2 percent of the total (Romano, p. 3).

The majority of intercultural marriages in the U.S. are ones in which one partner is non-Hispanic white and the other partner is of Hispanic descent (Berg, 1995). The number of such intercultural marriages in this country has doubled to more than a million since 1970 (Crohn, 1998). Intercultural marriages are more susceptible to stress due to frequent social and familial disapproval of these unions (Chan & Smith, 1995; Ibrahim & Schhroder, 1990; Negy & Snyder, 2000; Solsberry, 1994). It is not surprising that intercultural marriages have a higher frequency of divorce (Gaines & Ickes, 1997; Rosenblatt, Karis & Powell, 1995).

Despite the significant surge in the number of Latino and Asian interracial marriages with individuals of European descent, social science and psychological literature have focused on issues concerning black-white marriages. Married couples from similar racial or ethnic backgrounds still may constitute an intercultural union because of differences in levels of acculturation, social class, and emigration from an urban or rural area to a dissimilar area. Two case studies will illustrate this point.

Culture and Self-Experience
Bruner (1990) states that "the human condition itself is incomprehensible without reference to the 'cultural surround' that gives it form--as Clifford Geertz (1973) and other interpretive anthropologists have been trying to tell us for going on a half century" (p. 12). Culture constitutes "a relatively stable system of shared meanings, a repository of meaningful symbols, which provide structure to experience" (Kashima, 2000, p. 21). According to Kondo (1990), "Culture … is no reified thing or system, but a meaningful way of being in the world, inseparable from the 'deepest' aspects of one's 'self--the trope or depth and interior space itself a product of our own cultural conventions" (p. 300-301). Contemporary perspectives from numerous psychological and anthropological authors support the premise that the cultural surround provides the primary schemas or templates, which give structure to our way of thinking feeling and behaving often outside of our awareness. (Bruner, J., 1990; D' Andrade, R. 1984; Frankenberg, R., 1993; Hardy, K. V. & Laszloffy, T. A., 1995; Neimeyer. R.A. & Mahoney, M.J., 1995; Pérez Foster, R. M., 1998; Sapriel, L & Palumbo, D. 2001; Shaddock,D., Geertz (1973) defines culture and interpretive anthropology in the following way: "Believing … that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning" (p.5). Culture, therefore, consists of socially established structures of meaning, and anthropology is an interpretive science. According to Geertz, "undirected by cultural patterns--organized systems of significant symbols--man's behavior would be virtually ungovernable, a mere chaos of pointless acts and exploding emotions, his experience virtually shapeless" (our emphasis, p. 46).

Many contemporary authors in the fields of psychology and cultural anthropology suggest that the self is socially or culturally constructed (Yi, 1999; Roland, 1988). The definition of what constitutes personhood is itself a cultural construction. We concur with many theorists, that in psychotherapy, the notion of a constructed self is more useful than a reified or "essentialized notion of the self, which treats self as if it was a substance or unchangeable essence" (Yi, 1999, p. 18). Brothers (1997), notes that: "In having selves, individuals are subscribing to the collective notion of a person, which is particular to their culture" (p. 103). In addition, she asserts that "Self-experience comes about through our participation in a network of acts and stories derived from the local culture--in other words, selves are the sum of the acts and stories that depict that self" (p. 131).

We have previously stated that "the psychological self is culturally and linguistically constructed, and personal subjectivities are created and grounded in language and culture. It is impossible to separate the cultural from the personal"(Rubalcava & Waldman, 2005, p. 130). The individual is embedded in multiple worlds of culture and experience and simultaneously is involved personally and actively in constructing meaning. Markus, Mullally, and Kitayama (1997) note that, "all selves are culture-specific selves that emerge as people actively adjust to their cultural environments, and all experience is at once both individual and cultural" (p. 15). They expand on the apparent paradox between the personal and the cultural, and are worth quoting at length. Thus a focus on the sociocultural grounding of the self does not deny the individuality, idiosyncrasy, and uniqueness that can be observed in even the most tight-knit and coherent collectives. Every person participates in a variety of combinations of significant sociocultural contexts, which in American society could include, for example, specific groups like the family or the workforce, as well as context defined by ethnicity, religion, profession, social class, gender, birth cohort, and sexual orientation. At least some of the remarkable variation among people results because they are unlikely to participate in the identical configuration of group membership. Even those living within similar configurations of cultural contexts will obviously diverge in the specifics of their everyday experiences and, moreover, will differentially attend to, elaborate, reflect on, and contest some features of these experiences and not others (p. 20).

Psychoanalyst Richard Moore (1999) asserts that "… although we are guided in our constructions by the larger society and culture, to a significant degree we actively create everything we know. It is obvious that there is an infinite variety of collective and individual ways and styles of creating our subjective experience of reality" (p. 161).

Whereas an adult observer can see that there are a multiplicity of cultures that exist in this world and therefore multiple ways of organizing experience, for a child growing up in any specific culture, he/she will experience that culture as the way the world is, and the values of the culture as the way things should be. Stolorow, Atwood, and Orange (2002), point out our common "human propensity to see one's own perspective as the measure of truth and rather automatically to judge those with whom we disagree as unrealistic and misguided" (p. 106). Furthermore, most of us are prone to act and believe as if our cultural assumptions represent the truth of things rather than our personal psychological organization.

One of the inherent difficulties in working in multicultural contexts is that what may be perceived as a cultural bias from an external point of view will be seen as the way things really are, or should be, from within a particular cultural viewpoint. Therapists working in these environments must be especially sensitive to their own cultural biases and organizing principles, lest they unconsciously distort their understanding of the client's subjective experience.

- Waldman, K., & Rubalcava, L. (2005) Psychotherapy with Intercultural Couples: A Contemporary Psychodynamic Approach. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 59(3).
Reviewed 2023

Counseling Across Cultures: A Half-Century Assessment

Tanaka-Matsumi, J. (2022). Counseling Across Cultures: A Half-Century Assessment. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 53(7–8), 957–975.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Baker, L. R., Kane, M. J., & Russell, V. M. (2020). Romantic partners’ working memory capacity facilitates relationship problem resolution through recollection of problem-relevant information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149(3), 580–584.

Bruk, A., Scholl, S. G., & Bless, H. (Aug 2018). Beautiful mess effect: Self–other differences in evaluation of showing vulnerability. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(2), 192-205.

Korobov, N. (2020). A discursive psychological approach to deflection in romantic couples’ everyday arguments. Qualitative Psychology. Advance online publication.

Why are intercultural marriages more susceptible to stress and have a higher frequency of divorce? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 19
Table of Contents