Culture Matters, Even For Couples Of The “Same Culture”
In my couples therapy practice, I often say to couples that we are all in and of a culture. How you see the world and how decisions are made about issues like monogamy, raising children, sharing a home, etc. are all cultural matters. Which is to say, they are influenced not only by where you come from geographically and ethnically, but also spiritually and theologically.
Typically when talking about cultural differences in couples therapy, people assume this primarily relates to interracial, inter-faith, transnational or multicultural couples. But, different households, even those from the “same culture,” also have different values. Whether being part of a sports team in college, having lived on a kibbutz, having a mother who obsessively cleaned or a family where everyone always ate dinner in front of the TV, these are also cultural issues. All couples can find value in understanding the differences in the cultures their partners come from in order to see themselves as creators of the living, breathing culture they are making with their partners in real time.
Couples Create Their Own Culture
As a couple, you get to create the culture you want. You can make decisions about how you want your relationship and family to be. For example, you can decide to have an open relationship. While open relationships may not be the norm in the broader culture, you and your partner don’t have to just follow the rules. It isn’t in our DNA or the universe that adult humans be monogamous. You can choose what works for you and your partner.
The Culture Of Your Relationship Isn’t Separate From The Broader Culture
While your individual relationship with your partner is a culture, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is also a part of the broader culture–how your family, neighbors, teachers, children, etc. see and understand the relationship. Even though you can create the culture you want in your relationship, you are still not immune to society at large.
If you, for instance, choose to have an open relationship, others will see you in a particular way that will influence the shape of your relationship. How much you allow it to affect the dynamic of your relationship, however, is your decision.
A Relationship Is In And Of Many Cultures, Including Partners’ Families
We are not only in and of a culture, but many. I like to make a distinction in my couples therapy practice between “Culture” and “culture”–“Culture” delineating larger social influences and “culture” meaning more private, individual family dynamics. By making a distinction between Culture and culture, I’m getting at the idea that there are set things we tend to think of as remnants of culture like class and geography, and things we don’t that are nonetheless of value to see that way. This includes family size, style of discipline and how conflict is handled.
It should be said that culture and Culture are not distinct entities. Contemporary social work is organized around what is called the ecosystems perspective, often represented visually with a series of concentric circles i.e. the person exists within a family, which exists within a community, and so on. The idea is great, but the model is limited inasmuch as it implies these rings are discrete. We would have to put the chart in a blender to more accurately represent the influence of these different cultures on one couple.
Empathy Becomes Easier When Seeing Relationship Differences As Expressions of Culture
Why is this important in couples therapy? Understanding our various cultural influences helps us find empathy for our partner when they express ways of being that are inconsistent with how we see the world. It loosens the right/wrong thinking about certain differences in a relationship. Instead, couples can open up a conversation about what is and should be valued in the culture of the family both partners are creating together.
There are a lot of instances where there isn’t necessarily a better way of doing things in a household or a couple. Toilet paper is the go-to example: does it hang rolling under or over. People have some seriously strong ideas about this and yet, it couldn’t possibly matter. When I bring this up to couples in couples therapy, they often laugh because, of course, it’s a silly example. But questions like whether or not to keep the nanny after the kids are at school full-time or if it’s a good idea to travel internationally with a young child aren’t that different. It would be hard to call these questions trivial, and yet, if we’re honest, we can imagine two intelligent, thoughtful people having different views. If the conversation is organized just around what is right or best, that can keep things stuck.
If we understand that sensible people differ not as a matter of good or bad sense, but as a matter of culture, we can have a conversation about what is valued in the culture of the relationship and family that both partners are building. It’s grappling with the same tough questions, but much more is possible on the other side of that reconceptualization.