We know you frequently see couples having trouble, many of whom are mixed-cultural couples, and that you have written on this topic before.
1. For couples who come from distinct, separate backgrounds, what are some tips for them to make their relationship work?
Of course mutual respect and interest in the culture of one’s partner is crucial. Mutual participation in culturally significant events and enjoyment of this participation is important. Even if learning the language of the partner is a daunting task, some effort in this regards shows that one values the other’s culture. If people are flexible and loving, then there should be little trouble to make the relationship work.
2. What are some of the challenges that interracial couples face?
Here in Japan, common challenges might be broken down into, 1. the logistics of the expatriate partner’s ability to socialize, work, and thrive in the foreign culture, and 2. mutual tolerance of each other’s different cultural and language challenges when dealing with the culture of the other side.
The occupational choices available to an expatriate in Japan will necessarily be limited compared to their country of origin, except of course the ability to teach English if the expatriate is a native English speaker. Non-Japanese persons tend to be transient or eventually move to another country such that long-standing social ties are hard to maintain if one is in a foreign country.
Mutual tolerance will always be necessary because one’s ideas about the world may be colored by the culture and educational background one grew up in. Just to reiterate from the answer in question 1, flexible and loving persons will usually do well in cross-cultural relationships.
3. Can couples counseling help reconcile some of the issues these couples face?
Yes, brainstorming and coaching can help to overcome the logistic challenges noted on question 2. Some persons, however, get negative and pessimistic easily. I try to have them take the challenges at hand as a chance to do something they may not have been able to do before. For example, learn Japanese, take up a sport or martial art not available in their home country, enjoy the chance to meet expatriates from many countries, see new things etc. Of course there are always persons whose career and/or life style does not really fit into living in Japan at a specific point in time. For those persons, the flexibility they need is to accept is that they and/or their family will function better if they move back to their country of origin. They can always consider moving back to Japan at some future time when the logistics are a better fit.
If the problem a couple faces is more complex than what help coaching can provide, then the same kinds of evaluation and problems these couples face need to be addressed just as any individual or couple, be they personality problems, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, substance abuse, etc., that are common problems seen in the population as a whole. Our default position is to try keep families together, however, there are always couples who have come to see us who are really already well on the way to splitting up, for these persons we try to help this process unfold amicably.
What are some exercises or activities that couples can engage in together to better understand each others’ perspective?
Here in Japan, the answer is language and etiquette study on the part of the expatriate. Simple things like how to properly take off one’s shoes in a Japanese house, how to do simple greetings, participate in the yearly ceremonies that Japanese families tend to do together, etc. These are generally easy enough to do and can be fun in and of themselves.
Japanese persons need to be tolerant that their partner’s family and country of origin is not likely to behave or function like Japan does. As long as each side can respect each other and see that there is something to gain by the fusion of culture in the relationship, then things should go well. This is a principal that should be applicable to an international couple anyplace.
For more information on this topic, please visit the discussion with Dr. Doug Berger that appeared in Tokyo Families Magazine, seen here: http://www.tokyofamilies.net/2011/11/do-japanese-western-relationships-work/.