Case Study

The Unexplored Issues

Working with Cross-Cultural Couples

Magazine Issue
May/June 2017
A heart split down the middle, made of two flags

All couples are cross-cultural in some respects. After all, every person comes to a marriage with a set of unique influences from his or her family of origin, socioeconomic status, rural or urban environment, neighborhood, and religion, to give just a few examples. However, there are many couples whose cross-cultural nature is more immediately apparent than others—meaning the partners differ in language, citizenship, ethnicity, race, or other demographic characteristics. In fact, in 2012, the Pew Research Center reported that more than 1 in 6 new US marriages were interracial or interethnic. In my practice, I see many couples in which one partner is white, born in the US, and speaks English as a first language, and the other one is nonwhite, born in another country, and doesn’t speak English as a first language.

Given how likely it is that as a therapist you’ll have cross-cultural couples come to you for support with their relationship, it’s important to know how best to help them navigate not only the usual communication and intimacy issues, but also the unique challenges that many cross-cultural couples face that aren’t always addressed in therapy. These can include conflicts resulting from differences in language fluency and misunderstandings, citizenship status, and experiences around micro- (and sometimes macro-) aggressions that the nonwhite, nonnative-born members of the couple often face.

I come by my interest in cross-cultural counseling naturally: my ethnic background is a mixture of Dutch, Ukrainian, French, and Native American. I was born in Delft, the Netherlands, spent much of my childhood in Rangoon, Burma, and lived for some periods of my adolescence in Paris and Rome. Because I do clinical work in English, French, and Spanish, cross-cultural couples work has turned into something of a specialty area for me. Still, I don’t always end up being helpful or knowing exactly what to do in any given moment, as was the case with Angie and Hernandez (known as Nando), who came to my office one cool fall afternoon.

Communication or Confusion?

Angie, born and raised in a northern Minnesota town, was an outwardly cheerful woman with a nervous laugh, while her husband, Nando, originally from Colombia, seemed quiet and somewhat somber. They’d met in Colombia while she was working as a nurse and he as an engineer in a large international humanitarian organization, and had been married for five years. Angie had told me on the phone that they were having “serious communication issues,” but I immediately noted how loving they seemed with each other, even sitting so closely together on the couch that their legs were touching. As I always do, I began by asking them to tell me what had brought them in.

“Well,” Angie started, “things have gotten to the point where we seem to be fighting all the time. Like last week, we were driving to dinner with some friends, and when I suggested to Nando that he take Route 94, he got really mad and started driving faster, and he told me to quit telling him what to do. Then when we got home, we didn’t speak for the rest of the weekend. That never used to happen with us. And I don’t want to start having kids if this is going to be how things are with us.”

I turned to Nando. “And how is it for you?” I asked.

“We used to be very good together,” he said. “In Bogotá, we were always happy and never fighting. Now we are here, and she always wants to tell me what to do, and we are fighting all the time. It gets so bad that I tell her I’ll just leave if I don’t make her happy. I don’t want her to be sad.”

“Right,” said Angie. “He threatens to leave—and then when I call him on it, he says he didn’t mean it.”At this point, I had a thought based on the kinds of mistakes I’ve made in Spanish, missing particular nuances in the language. And so I asked them, “Do you speak English all the time at home?”

“Mostly,” said Angie. “My Spanish is good, but Nando’s English is better, and also we’re living here, so we both thought it would be better to use English.”

“Nando,” I said, turning to him. “When you say you’re going to leave, quería decir quiero ir o quiero salir?” (I was asking him whether he’d been intending to say leave as in “go away” or leave as in “leave the room,” which are two different words in Spanish but are often translated into the one word leave in English. And there’s a big difference between the two.)

Quería decir salgo,” he said. (He wanted to say leave the room.)

Angie sighed, “Well, why don’t you say so? It always feels like a huge threat to me when you say that.” She shook her head and her shoulders slumped. “This just makes me even more worried about our ability to communicate with each other.”

“Why don’t you speak more Spanish?” I asked her. “Just because you’re both living here doesn’t necessarily mean you have to always speak English.” As soon as I said this, Nando let out a big breath and closed his eyes momentarily. “It’s possible,” I told them, “that prioritizing English in your relationship is affecting the dynamic between you in subtle ways, maybe adding to some of the underlying tension.”

With his eyes still closed, Nando nodded his head. Angie noticed this with surprise and placed her hand over Nando’s. “Nando, this seems to resonate with you. Can you share what’s going on for you right now?” I asked.

“I’m sorry,” he responded, pausing for a moment and withdrawing his hand from beneath Angie’s. “There are just so many times when I feel so outside, even at home. I understand enough, but sometimes I just feel so . . . We have to speak English when we have dinner with her family, when we go to the store, at work. Sometimes at home, I just want to speak Spanish, but I’ve never asked for that.”

“Maybe,” I said to them, “you can work out an agreement in which you try to speak more Spanish at home or when you go out together. You can see how that feels.”

Nando looked pleased and turned to Angie. “Me gustaría mucho hablar en español,” he said. “¿Quieres hablarlo más conmigo?” (I’d really like to speak more Spanish. Do you want to speak it more with me?)

“Okay,” she said. “Podemos tratar, si te lo gusta.” (We can try, if you like.)

Nando reached for her hand, and they smiled at each other. Although language prioritization may seem like a small thing—and not every couple will be able to communicate in both languages—I’ve found over the years that it’s important to raise the issue, bringing to awareness how it can create conflicts and subtle power imbalances that often live deep below the surface of other issues.

Confronting the “Isms”

Over the next two months, as Angie and Nando focused on equalizing their communication, they found they were resolving their disagreements more easily. In fact, Nando said he rarely wanted to “leave the room” during fights and was more committed to repairing things in the moment, and they both took their time to make sure they each really understood what the other was actually saying. One day, however, Angie marched into my office fuming, trailed by Nando, who looked pensive and somewhat irritated.

“My husband thinks I’m a racist,” she stated when I asked her to check in. “And I don’t know what to think about that.”

“I didn’t say that you were a racist,” he interjected. “Just that you don’t see when your precious Minnesota people are looking at me different because of my brown skin and my accent.”

“They didn’t mean it like that,” she shouted. “They were just trying to do their job.”

“That was not part of their job!” he scoffed. “That was being racist.”

“Okay,” I said, aiming for a soothing tone. This had all the earmarks of a conflict that could set them back months. “Why don’t you both tell me what happened and then we can process it? Nando, you go first.”

He glared at Angie, who muttered and shook her head angrily but stayed silent. “Yesterday, we were in a grocery store that we don’t usually go to. When it came time to pay—it was just me there since Angie had gone next door to the drugstore—they wouldn’t let me use my debit card without showing them two forms of ID! The woman in front of me didn’t have to show any form of ID. Now tell me that was not racist!”

“Well, they didn’t know you, did they, Nando?” fumed Angie.

“Sure, but would they have done that to you? No, they do that to the guy who looks Mexican. Even though I am from Colombia, to them we all look the same!” Nando was clearly hurt and embarrassed by this incident, but more than that, he was deeply wounded by Angie’s inability to see the racism of this interaction, and by her almost automatic defense of the white cashier.

“Well,” I said. “Whether or not they were ‘trying to do their job,’ it sounds like a racist interaction to me.”

Por supuesto,” said Nando, turning to Angie. “She gets it.”

Many therapists would admonish me for clearly taking one partner’s side over the other; however, if you’re a white therapist, as I am, and you ignore, dismiss, or invalidate what nonwhite partners are telling you about their experience with racism, you’re mirroring the lack of understanding and empathy that they’re experiencing in much of society, where they’re told to “stop being so sensitive.”

As Angie furrowed her brow and crossed her arms over her chest, I decided a bit of psychoeducation was in order. “It’s called a microaggression,” I told her. “This kind of thing can happen in a split second, and it can be really hurtful. It seems pretty clear to me that this really hurt Nando and made him feel disrespected by this person, who was making assumptions about him based on how he looks.”

Most therapists understand—and if they identify with any community of color, they know personally—that microaggressions happen all the time to people of color. What’s integral to working successfully with cross-racial and cross-cultural couples is the ability to validate those experiences and to help them process them as a couple. It’s not unusual for a couple to have two completely different takes on any given situation; but this is especially true when white partners haven’t fully acknowledged their own social privilege. Angie needed to realize that while there’s no way to know what was in the cashier’s heart when she singled out Nando, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is understanding the impact it had on him. And the therapeutic task at hand for me was helping Angie see how her inability to empathize with Nando affected the trust between them.

Angie looked stony. “I know what a microaggression is,” she scoffed.

“Yes,” I said. “But I want you to hear what it’s like for Nando to be on the receiving end of that microaggression, no matter how small it may seem to you. Nando, how did it make you feel?”

“It felt so, so bad,” he said, seeming to shut down a bit and unable to look Angie in the eyes.

“And that’s maybe because those assumptions were so negative,” I posited. “They were acting like they thought you might be using a debit card that wasn’t really yours.”

Angie still didn’t seem to see what I was getting at. She turned to Nando and sniped, “But of course they’d want to make sure that you owned the card. Not everything is about you.”

Trying to move her off of her conviction that the type of microaggression Nando had experienced with the cashier should be explained away as inconsequential, I said, “I know you love Nando, and I know it can be really hard to see or acknowledge that this kind of thing happens. And yet it’s really important for Nando to feel heard by you and for you to believe him when he shares his perceptions of this kind of interaction.”

“But if the same cashier had asked me for an ID, no one would care!” she exclaimed. “So why is he so sensitive to this? People looked at me strangely when I lived in Columbia. We didn’t have to talk about it every time someone followed me down the street, assuming I was a tourist and they could ask me for money. It happens to everyone!”

At this point, I realized that I needed to find a different way to reach her. Of course, it’s always a risk to self-disclose, especially when it comes to such a potentially loaded topic, but we’d been working together for a while now, and it felt safe to try. “Angie,” I said gently, “I know it’s really hard to understand how, as white people, we walk through the world differently because of the color of our skin. It goes against everything we think we believe and stand for. Even though we read about all the horrific incidents of racial injustice that happen every day in this country, it’s hard to admit when it happens to those we love, maybe because it’s almost too painful, and because there’s no easy way to fix the pain it causes. Verdad? Nando, do you think this is true?”

Nando looked at me and nodded. “It took me a while to really understand this myself,” I continued. “And it only happened over the course of many difficult conversations with a very good friend who’s African American and helped me recognize the white privilege in my life. Like you, I’m a person who has a strong sense of social justice, so it was pretty embarrassing to admit that I’d been unaware of the all the microaggressions, and even the macro ones, that my friend experiences on a day-to-day basis. It’s painful to realize what’s been there in plain sight.” I stopped to see if Angie was following me or if I’d completely lost her.

She nodded slowly and asked, “So do you think what happened to him was racist?”

“Yes, I do. It certainly seems like it,” I replied. “And I think that we try to deny it because we’re so hurt by the idea of it that we’d rather just pretend it doesn’t happen. But ignoring it is a function of white privilege, and when we do that, we’re dismissing Nando’s reality and experience, and hurting him further.”

I could see her pondering this and her face softening. “I never thought of it that way,” she said slowly.

I turned to Nando to bring him in. “And what would it be like for you if Angie were to say that she understands this?”Nando turned his whole body to face Angie directly. “That would be so great,” he said to her. “It would feel like I’m not so alone.”

Tears appeared in Angie’s eyes when he said this. “I’m so sorry that it feels like I’ve been so ciega de todo eso (blind to all this),” she told him.

Nando said, “¡Me gusta mucho cuando hablas español! (I really like when you speak Spanish!). Now I feel like we are juntos (together)—like what you say in baseball.”

Angie said, “A team?”

Nando smiled and put his arm around her.

I watched as Angie leaned into him and closed her eyes. He rested his head on hers, and they sat like that, together, for a few moments. The air in the room grew calmer as they breathed together.

I, too, breathed a little bit easier, as I hadn’t been sure how this conversation would go. Would Angie be able to recognize her blind spots and her own white privilege? Would Nando think I was lecturing his wife on his behalf, making matters worse? Would it exacerbate the rift between them? Of course, not all discussions around unrecognized racism and nationalism with cross-cultural couples will result in immediate emotional connection, but I knew I couldn’t shy away from helping them address this difficult subject. Fortunately, it seemed to motivate them to work harder between sessions, and create the kind of marriage that they both wanted.

In the year and a half we worked together, Angie and Nando came a long way. They were ultimately able to see that some conflicts that seemed to come up out of nowhere were often connected to their underlying feelings of not belonging—not only to each other, but to the same country. And although our discussion in this session wasn’t a magic balm to heal them in the face of all the racism and nationalism they’d face in the future, it helped them cultivate the empathy essential to creating the firm sense of togetherness that enabled them to tackle other issues in their marriage.

Case Commentary

By Anita Mandley

I agree with Kirsten Lind Seal that cross-cultural issues are often missed or avoided by therapists. Her making the impact of their cultural differences overt was crucial to helping this couple communicate more effectively and deepen their level of mutual understanding. It’s also clear that giving Nando permission to use his native language more often enabled him to feel more valued and narrowed the implicit power differential between him and Angie.

Seal’s awareness and attunement to the pervasive presence of microaggressions toward people of color was valuable as well. She deftly educated Angie about the microinsult that Nando experienced in the grocery store, also addressing Angie’s microinvalidation of Nando’s reactions as an immigrant man of color. Equally important was acknowledging that Angie occupied a position of privilege. These are all conversations I too would’ve had with this couple.

However, I would’ve gone further in my discussion of bias, explaining how it’s grounded in the neurobiological survival mechanism of all humans. I would’ve explained how the amygdala is activated by difference and novelty to evaluate the threat potential of people with different characteristics. Since the presence of personal bias is ego-dystonic, normalizing bias reduces the need for denial or defensiveness. If we deny the presence of bias, we’ll fail to manage it effectively, within ourselves and our relationships. Cultural competency requires being aware of and acknowledging your existing biases without judgment, shame, or despair.

In conjunction, I would’ve also pointed out that being “color blind” is not an effective response to cultural issues. Psychologist Laura Brown quotes a Native American client of hers as saying, “If you pretend not to see my color, then you do not see me, and for sure you do not see how I see you.” As all couples therapists know, there’s no more important experience in a relationship than having the felt sense of being seen exactly as you are.


Illustration © Sally Wern Comport

Kirsten Lind Seal

Kirsten Lind Seal, PhD, is a marriage and family therapist in private practice and an adjunct associate professor of MFT at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. Her research has been published in JMFT and Psychology Today, and she is a regular contributor on WCCO (CBS) TV’s Midmorning show.

Anita Mandley

Anita Mandley, MS, LCPC, practices at the Center for Contextual Change, where she focuses on clients who’ve experienced trauma.  She’s the creator of Integrative Trauma Recovery, a group therapy process for adults with complex PTSD.