How to navigate cross cultural family dynamics?
December 14, 2012 9:58 AM   Subscribe

I'm having difficulty navigating very different cross-cultural (U.S./El Salvador) family dynamics. Can you please offer me books, links or your own best practices on keeping an international marriage strong?

Two of the areas I struggle with are what I've seen called see article "colectivismo" ("emphasizes the needs of the group rather than the individual. Family needs go before personal needs") and "simpatía" ("emphasizes achieving harmony in interpersonal relationships by avoiding conflict, emphasizing positive behaviors, and downplaying negative behaviors"). Note: These things are descriptive of my own experience, and YMMV; I can't speak for others.

First, I grew up in a family that tended toward looser bonds and much, more more individualism than did my husband, and I sometimes have a tough time when it seems like he chooses to put his family's needs ahead of my needs.

What is the best advice you have heard or practiced to help you cool down and be understanding of this value? How can this be integrated into a marriage that's taking place thousands of miles away from most of the family? And, at the same time, when the rest of the family lives a mile away?

Second, my husband believes strongly in preserving harmony, and avoids confrontation or any criticism of his family or of his/our relationship to them. Comments invite a fight. I've been taught to express myself, use my words, preserve my boundaries, identify behavior that bothers me...and all of these coping skills are useless in this particular context. Is compromise possible? What has worked for you?

I am trying to be less bothered by these differences. How can I let it bother me less when his cultural background seems to leave no room for mine? For example: I like to be punctual, and he is much, much less so, and this bothers me because I'm plan- and schedule-oriented. Synchronous, asynchronous: where's the (sanity-preserving) middle ground?

Finally, what books or websites have you found helpful in learning to be more understanding of family dynamics that are fundamentally different from those you grew up believing were standard and normal?
posted by Coffee Bean to Human Relations (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
In a marriage, there must be accommodation of the differences each partner brings. Your husband needs to see that you and he are the family that needs fist consideration. Good luck with that; you are up against centuries of a life style that is antithetical to Yankee values. Could you chip away at this by pointing out how selfish non-punctuality is? Maybe he has never looked at it from the point of view of the people left waiting.
posted by Cranberry at 11:04 AM on December 14, 2012

As someone who is less than punctual who's married to someone like the poster, being told that my perception of time is "selfish" drives me nuts.
posted by Oktober at 11:19 AM on December 14, 2012

Is your husband making a similar effort to understand and accommodate YOUR background and culture? A marriage takes an effort and a reservoir of goodwill on both your parts. You can't do all the accommodating and heavy lifting and say "I am wrong and he is right" without eventually damaging your marriage and your health.

I would suggest a marriage counselor who has a background in cross-cultural relationships for both of you.

I am not married so I might do this differently if it were my husband, but my solution to habitual late-birds is to not accommodate them. I never wait more than 20 minutes unless the person I'm waiting for calls or texts to say they are late, or I know traffic is really bad that morning, or some other really good excuse. But otherwise I go see the show or exhibit, or order my dinner without them. Setting boundaries can work wonders (and sometimes people who are "asynchronous" are just inconsiderate of YOU or think YOU are a lesser being who must accommodate them).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:54 AM on December 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

(And sometimes they have undiagnosed ADD or anxiety problems.)
posted by TheRedArmy at 12:15 PM on December 14, 2012

I really feel for you. I recently was in a similar situation, though only dating and not married, and in Mexico, not El Salvador. I'm a foreigner without family in his country. His family's needs were more important to him than mine, his loose sense of time messed with my plans, and maintaining surface harmony was more important than clear communication, though in my case my partner did seem to value direct discussion more than his peers.

I ended the relationship for many reasons, but when I was trying to keep it together, the following helped me:

- Reading blogs by US women living in Mexico, married to Mexicans (unfortunately I don't have the links). It helped to know others were facing the same issues and I wasn't imagining them.

- Delivering requests for change in private and in a way that emphasized the advantages to everyone. If I wanted something to make my life easier, I would phrase it in a way that showed how everyone benefited.

- Stating my opinion in a roundabout way. In general, for any request or suggestion it helps to schmooze around the topic a bit before you get to your point, and to use questions rather than statements ("Do you think it's appropriate to give so much money to your cousin?" instead of "I don't think you should give so much money to your cousin"). It's not the Yankee way but we're not in Maine.

- Hiring a local woman who's ostensibly my Spanish tutor but who has helped me learn to make my point in culturally acceptable ways.

- Setting a personal decision time for whatever plan he was putting off. If I wanted to plan something and he kept putting off giving his opinion or making any decisions, I mentally set a cutoff time. If he didn't contribute by that time, I made the decision without him and he just had to live with it. Obviously, this is advisable only for minor things, like deciding that you're both going to a movie or going sightseeing for the afternoon. He actually seemed happy to have someone making plans and decisions.

- Reminding myself how the challenging aspects of the culture have their good sides. For example, I'm very, very happy that I don't feel constantly judged and preached at by people who think their opinions must be continuously broadcast. I enjoy spending lots of time in public and seeing basically zero irate customers or any other fusses. If I had a relationship with a man who had a functional family, I would look forward to receiving respect and care from them in my old age.

Good luck!
posted by ceiba at 12:17 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd say just be more careful about picking your battles for now. Do you absolutely need to be on time everywhere you go? If not, make sure you let him know when 'on time' really means 'on time'. And if he insists on being late to everything that you want to be there on time for, just started leaving without him and let him show up when he shows up.
posted by empath at 12:54 PM on December 14, 2012

I'm American and my wife is Peruvian and we've lived in both countries as a couple, so I can understand the issues here.

As for punctuality, you really need to just set and then enforce a time limit. If you're supposed to be meeting somewhere and you don't get a call or a text within 15 minutes, leave. Go wherever you're going by yourself or just go home. My wife and I talked and talked and talked about the issue but nothing worked like just walking out.

On the communication, I wasn't clear if the desire for harmony/not openly discussing is an issue only around the relationship with his family or if it's a broader one. If it's a broader issue, I'd say that you're probably going to need to do the heavy lifting on this one. Even the most indirect speaker still can and does make themselves clear--they just use more non-verbal cues, evasions, etc--the message is there, it's just not so obvious and you'll have to work on decoding it some. It's annoying and inefficient from our standpoint but I consider it just one of the adjustments to splitting your life with someone. I do my best to at least think before I speak and try to phrase things in a softer manner--I don't always succeed but I try. And my wife has to deal with that Keep in mind that from his perspective a lot of what you consider open honest communication is like someone punctuating every comment with obscenities--sure it makes your feelings clear, but there are more appropriate ways.

As for family, I know where you're coming from--we had similar issues with extended family and in-laws although to a lesser degree. In practical terms, I just didn't go with my wife to all the family stuff. I did some, she did more, and then we had clear time for just us. My wife did a great job of convincing her family it was nothing personal against them, just cultural and they were very understanding. I'd start with that. Just bow out gracefully of some--not all--of the in-law stuff.

Honestly, I've always found the latin american cultural focus on family to be awesome. Sure it can be a pain but I love the laughter, the sense of belonging, the sense of's great. And seeing our kids running around with 15 cousins in Peru is awesome. I don't mean to criticize your perspective, I just don't have any techniques beyond the above to deal with it since it never had a negative connotation for me.
posted by limagringo at 1:09 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

An additional thought: You mentioned that your comments to him result in fights. Are you both speaking the same language at roughly the same skill level? If one of you doesn't have advanced skills in the language, frustration and misunderstanding become very likely, quickly ramping up the emotional temperature.

In my case, we spoke Spanish, and I worked with my tutor to get to a point where I could speak with at least some of the culturally required subtlety. We also repeated things to each other to make sure we understood.

Another friend of mine is in a Spanish-Portuguese relationship, and they've chosen to use a third language (English) for their important discussions. It puts them on an even footing linguistically and carries less emotional charge than speaking a native language.
posted by ceiba at 1:11 PM on December 14, 2012

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