Making a marriage across racial and cultural backgrounds work

Next week the UK goes batshit crazy with wedding fever and, like your mildly racist nan who thinks she’s “a lovely coloured girl”, Meghan’s ethnicity will be regularly commented upon by the media. We’ve also succumbed to the backward angle of commenting on race, mainly because we’re not at the stage where this isn’t an issue in society. We wish we were. At least we’re talking about how to make a marriage across different ethnicities work rather than banging on about wedding dresses and embarrassing dads.

Relationships can be fraught, what with deciding what colour to paint the kitchen, which programmes to watch in the evening and whose parents to go to at Christmas. But imagine how much worse it must be if you and your partner are of different ethnic backgrounds? You have to understand a completely new culture, which may be radically different to your own. And then there’s the prickly issue of children: do you teach them both your languages and cultures? What about religion? What happens when the two cultures contradict each other? Resentment can ensue if one person feels the relationship is being dominated by the culture or religious beliefs of the other.

Mum’s speaking foreign
Gita and her husband John have never had a problem with their differing racial backgrounds – mainly because Gita has pretty much adopted white English culture as her own. “I thought it would be too confusing for our kids to learn two different languages so I never taught them Hindi. Now, when they hear me speaking to my mum on the phone, they say ‘Mum’s speaking foreign again’ and make silly noises. They’re only young and I know it’s my own laziness that’s caused the situation but it’s beginning to irritate me that they don’t know anything about my background or culture. They are half Indian after all!”

Denise Knowles, Relate therapist (www.relate.org.uk), says, “When couples decide to get together or get married, one of the things they need to discuss is what will happen when they have children, what will be the religious, cultural upbringing of the children. It’s too late once you have children to start saying ‘they have to be raised by my beliefs rather than yours’.”

Losing identity
There are of course couples that are happy for one culture to dominate. Teresa adopted and accepted Greek culture when she married Nick. She is now fluent in Greek and is considered more or less Greek by her husband’s family. She says, “I found that I ‘lost’ a lot of my own identity as I became more and more Greek. I followed their traditions and stopped some of my own. Even my own family find me very Greek in my ways now. My niece Fiona was shocked when I explained that I really was English and not Greek.”

On anecdotal evidence alone, it seems that women are more likely to adapt themselves to their partner’s cultural background than men are. There is also the pressure to conform to the culture prevalent in the society in which you live. However, the minefield of religious and cultural beliefs and values can be safely crossed. “It sounds terribly boring but it’s through discussion that you can resolve these problems,” explains Denise Knowles. She believes that in mixed race relationships, differing cultures can enhance and enrich the relationship rather than necessarily being a cause of conflict. However, there must be respect for each other’s backgrounds in the relationship.

London love
Ritesh and Leanne (Indian Hindu and African Christian respectively) seem to have entirely ignored the differences in their backgrounds and are forging a third way. “Neither of us have very religious families,’ explains Leanne. “It’s also helped that we both live in London while our parents don’t. This means that our friends are much more our community and our ‘culture’ is more to do with what’s going on in London.’

Ritesh adds, ‘I expect if we were married or had children together, there would be more of a need to discuss our backgrounds as religion and race only seems to come into it for big ceremonies like marriages, births and deaths. At the moment, we’re happy just being ourselves without needing to be labelled Indian or black or African or whatever.”

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