In intercultural & in interracial relationships as well, you don’t always know what you’re getting yourself into. Often, it takes several years, several challenges, a lot of conflict within couples to really figure out what it is that seems to be the issue or why it even is an issue… Both individuals can maintain their cultural identities through negotiation, & also own their awareness of what their own cultural identities mean to them.


In intercultural & in interracial relationships as well, you don’t always know what you’re getting yourself into. Often, it takes several years, several challenges, a lot of conflict within couples to really figure out what it is that seems to be the issue or why it even is an issue…

Rhoda: Welcome to my new episode on intercultural relationships. When I was doing research for this episode, I was surprised to learn that in the 2010 PEW research based on the census, 15% of all new marriages are interracial & I’m certain that number is larger today. We’ve sure had a major cultural shift! I just watched a Sinatra documentary & learned that JFK & Jackie told Frank to disinvite Sammy Davis Junior to their inaugural ball because he was married to May Britt who was white & that was 1961. That was only 59 years ago & we all think of JFK as being enlightened. I believe intercultural relationships are an important aspect of relationships that everyone can relate to because navigating the differences with respect makes every partnership work.

Today I invited Rana Khan who has a MSc in Couples & Family Therapy from the University of Guelph in Canada, he is a Registered Marriage & Family Therapist. One area of expertise is cross-cultural relationship conflict. For him, everything is about relationships. Your relationship with yourself, your relationship with your partner, your relationship with your community, the world, or even your relationship with a substance.

I’m very excited to have you with me today because I’ve been searching for a guest on this topic for 1 1/2 years. My experience of our culture at large simplifying everything made me want to explore the complexity of intercultural relationships. In my imagination, some couples might even ignore their differences the way adoptive families can ignore the differences of transracial adoption because in the US we can act as if we are “color blind”. This is recognized as unconscious racism. So since that is only my imagination, my first question is: How authentic are couples about their differences with each other or does being “color blind” leak into their relationships too?

Rana: That’s a great question. Thank you for having me on. I think with any relationship, & this is definitely true for interracial relationships as well, you don’t always know what you’re getting yourself into. Often, it takes several years, several challenges, a lot of conflict within couples to really figure out what it is that seems to be the issue or why is it an issue? As a couples therapists, I always say that relationship development is similar to human development in some way. So your relationship is a year old, well, it’s still a baby, two years old, still a baby, three years old, still a baby, right? It takes time for a relationship to mature & for like an understanding to develop, where most people might call quits at that time. So I think you the idea that, couples, how authentic are they with each other & their differences? It’s a complex, challenging question. But I think for the most part, they probably aren’t aware or aren’t as aware & then, over the years, they develop an understanding as with age. 

Rhoda: Sure, that make sense. My theory would be that the more authentic partners could be with each other about being married to a person of a different race, that they would be better off…is there any truth to that?

Rana: Absolutely. I think that the more self-aware an individual is about their own, I really liked the word woundedness. So how aware they are as to how they relate to the world & their place in the world, whether that’s as a result of their gender, class, sexual orientation, race, religion, all those things. If they’re aware of how those things impact them, they can really be better partners, because they can obviously communicate that, communicate those challenges to their partner, & then if they’re able to be understood by them, that—I’m a big believer that to be understood is to be loved.

Rhoda: I like that. I think that many times people hide out in “I don’t want to hurt their feelings’”, & not understanding that that’s short-term thinking versus long-term thinking to help the relationship, making yourself understood is incredibly important. 

Rana: Definitely.

Rhoda: How does the role of gender play into or add to the complexity of navigating life married to a person of a different color/ethnicity?

Rana: That’s also a good question. I think they certainly plays a large role in how couples navigate power in a relationship. Most of the time, power is dictated by gender. So that can play a role, but it’s not always the case, saying sometimes there’s anomalies to that, you can have power imbalances that are opposite of gender norms, as well. Also, same sex relationships, where the gender is the same, then power differences still emerge. So I guess that tells us something that, what role does the one partner who is maybe more outspoken, may have more of a voice in the relationship, maybe a bit louder, in some cases, would hold some way more power. I guess, depending on their race & depending on if they’re a minority when it comes to their racial status, all of those things add into that complexity that you’re referring to. So it definitely does play a role & adds to the complexity of it.

Rhoda: Microaggressions refer to everyday non-verbal snubs or derogatory actions directed towards people of marginalized groups. The article in Rewire (5/28/21) that I found you in for the interview today described a situation where the writer told the man she was dating that she was overlooked & ignored while white customers would be served & she goes on to define this as micro-invalidation which undermine a person of color’s racial realities. I thought this was really important, could you share your perspective on this with my audience?

Rana: Yeah, microaggressions to me, they often refer to… I like the word like nonverbal snugs or derogatory actions. I think that’s a good way of describing it. But really, I think it’s when you don’t feel seen by others around you. You kind of feel a bit of a stain as to: why don’t the person see me? How you navigate microaggressions, I think that really differs from person to person. I have my own thoughts on that. But I think really, it’s about recognizing that there was a moment where I didn’t feel seen, or I wasn’t recognized for my own complexities. I guess different people have various degrees of which they want to uphold that value. Some may believe that they’re entitled to be seen by others at all times & that’s kind of a right that they have. Some might be like, “Oh, yeah, you know what, I wasn’t seeing & heard, maybe I need to do something different about that to make myself more seen.” So really, it differs, how you feel others should perceive you & what role you think that plays.

Rhoda: That’s true. 20 years ago, I went to a lecture by Carolyn Heilbrunn & she talked about how women over 50 should become cat burglars because they’re invisible. And on the lunch break, I went to a place in Pittsburgh called the Original Hotdog Stand, & I was at the front of the counter holding my money, over 50, & everybody around me got waited on. It was just an amazing experience right after that lecture, & I just observed it because I thought: “My goodness, there’s really truth to this.” I think being seen is one of the things that’s important. I like your balance, that sometimes people have a “demand that they be seen” also that can kind of overdo it. So it’s a very interesting complex thing. I know from my research that Black families are more open & that White families will more often disown or serve out a pile of micro-aggressions. What other struggles do interracial/intercultural relationships encounter? 

Rana: I think how I want to phrase, I guess, the challenges or struggles that intercultural relationships face is—I use this kind of metaphor of every relationship & everything in some way has a price. There’s always a degree of sacrifice that’s necessary for anything that you want. So anything that you do would have a price & relationships, definitely, they all have a price. You’re foregoing a lot of individuality, a lot of freedom by being in a relationship, in a committed relationship at that. 

I say that in an intercultural relationship, that price goes up a lot. That price, you have to pay a lot more to be in an intercultural relationship. What is that price? Well, there’s the family component, there’s perception, there’s a lot more negotiation that needs to happen, you really need to advocate for yourself & strike a balance between how much you’re giving & how much you’re taking. If you choose to have children, then what information are you going to transmit to the children? What information are you going to hold? How are you going to deal with the grief that comes with your kids not having that part of their identity & their experiences? How’s your partner going to react with their children having different experiences than them & different realities than them? So all those things, I kind of categorize as the price to pay for an intercultural relationship. Oftentimes, that idea is helpful. Now, the intention isn’t to deter people to say, “Well, the price too [inaudible 13:13] so the price is too high, so I’m never going to go for an intercultural relationship,” because sometimes the price can be really worth it.

Rhoda: I would totally agree. I liked what you said, there’s more negotiation, I think that that is really true, much more details need to be ironed out & discussed, & they do as your first point that you made today, it changes over time. So as you experience more & more with each other. Your thoughts on how both individuals can maintain their own cultural identities within the relationship?

Rana: I think that word ‘negotiation’ is really, really important in relationships. I think that you constantly relationships require a degree of negotiation. I think how both individuals can maintain their cultural identities is largely through negotiation, & also an own awareness of what their own cultural identities are. Why is it important for them? What is it about their cultural identities that’s important for them? I mean, for some people, their cultural identities are a reflection of thousands & thousands of years. For some people, that could be really, really meaningful. Whereas for other people, their cultural identities could be a result of a specific moment, a specific memory that they’ve had, & they really want to hold on to that & they find meaning in that. Then, well, that’s what you’re bringing to the negotiation table, & I guess seeing with your partner, & trying to strike a balance between that. I think that’s how you probably navigate that.

Rhoda: I would agree. I am always telling couples that respect for the differences is crucial. In this day & age, there is still resistance to accepting all kinds of differences. What advice do you have to improve embracing the differences?

Rana: That’s a great question. I think if you want to embrace differences, then you have to establish the degree of similarity. Often times, when we get boggled into the differences, then we lose sight of how similar the other person is from me as well. So often, when I work with intercultural couples, I say, “Yeah, differences are great & I’m sure that’s why you’re here in therapy to kind of figure out those differences. But what about each other do you see as being similar?” And often that area of similarity is with the emotions? Because, as humans, we all experience the same emotions. I’m here in Toronto, you’re in Pittsburgh, we have different cultures, different races, different ages, everything. I can say fear, & you probably understand what I’m talking about. You can say grief, & I’ll probably say, “Yeah, no, I knew that as well.” So there is a unifying principle called emotions, which we can really leverage as a way to start conversations on differences.

Rhoda:  I like that, again, balancing the polarity of the differences with the emotions & similarities. That’s absolutely true. I like that a lot. I’m also wondering if you have suggestions on how cross-cultural couples need to deal with their families or their own children to improve the environment for recognizing both cultures as valuable.

Rana: Yeah, I think when I hear that question, I really think about boundaries. Boundaries is an idea that really differs from cultures. I come from a South Asian culture so boundaries are very flexible, very loose, in a lot of ways. Other cultures may have, say, like, stereotypical North American culture, may have bit more rigid boundaries; you’re going to meet on a specific time at a specific date, for a specific length of time. Not my experience, necessarily. So I think having a conversation around boundaries, & what boundaries seem reasonable & seem acceptable, & really have a in depth conversation on boundaries, might be a real good way to learn how to deal with families & their own children. Because sometimes not having good boundaries, or having too loose boundaries, can really make it seem like you’re being taken advantage of, in some ways. That’s an important thing to add into the mix of this complexity.

Rhoda: I totally agree. I’m going to recommend the book boundaries by Anne Katherine. It’s we little, & I think the subtitle is Where You Stop, & I Begin, but it’s just a little helpful to understand boundaries. So, I’ll toss that in. Any final words of wisdom you would offer to intercultural relationships based on your own experiences that would be helpful for their relationships to last?

Rana: Yeah, I think it maybe helpful to try to figure out these differences early on. I think this podcast is great way to kind of highlight some of the things that an intercultural couple should do. Then of course, thinking about the price & your negotiation, all of those things really can help you identify any gaps that you may have in your relationship. I think you should seek a couples therapist that may be able to help you sort through any of those challenges. I do offer some resources on my own website, which is I think there’s some resources on out there as well that could be helpful to intercultural couples.

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