Skip links

Tips from an Asian American Therapist in New York on Navigating a Multicultural Relationship

Many layers of complexity arise when two people who come from different cultures start a relationship together. There may be some differences even if you and your partner share a similar background, but the differences can strike harder when you and your partner come from very different backgrounds. Being in a multicultural relationship (this includes marriages but will use the word “relationships” to encompass both premarital and marital relationships) does not automatically mean that you do not share the same race or ethnicity as your partner, but it tends to be a big part of it.

Culture goes beyond what we wear, what language we speak, and what foods we eat; culture captures the invisible essence of our being, how we behave, our perspective of the world, our philosophy of life, and how we navigate the world. These differences can make multicultural relationships challenging, but also an opportunity for you and your partner to learn from each other and grow together.

Common Issues Experienced in Multicultural Relationships:

  1. Identity struggles/loss of identity
  2. Unsupportive families
  3. Lifestyle disagreements/differences
  4. Different ideas and priorities on social norms, family, career, friendships/community, and love
  5. Religious and/or philosophical differences

As an Asian American person in a multicultural relationship, there are times when I have the urge to express my Asian side that I know my non-Asian partner will never fully understand. There is a grief and loss of identity that you would not be able to share with your partner. This is especially true for first- and second-generation Americans who experience two (or multiple) cultures at home, and American culture outside of their homes. At home you might be able to express another part of who you are, but outside of your home, people see the “American” side of you.

Fortunately, the grief and loss of identity does not mean you will completely lose that part of your identity. You both can try to introduce each other to your worlds. Maybe it’s through your favorite movie that you watch together. Or explaining the language translations and the nuances of other languages that you both speak.

Unsupportive Families

A multiracial, gay couple embracing one another representing connection despite their differences because they received therapy on how to empower one another in their differences.

I think we’ve come a long way from even 50 years ago to today in seeing more multicultural couples over time. But there are still families who do not support multicultural relationships. Theyideally want their children to marry within their community, ethnicity, or religion. However, as the world becomes more heterogeneous, it can be tough to stay within one’s community to find a partner. A lot of the time, we cannot control who we fall in love with—and it can be someone who shares a completely different background from you.

Having family members who are against your multicultural relationship is immensely challenging, and oftentimes, threatening to your identity and having a sense of community. Here, I recommend being in individual therapy to discover your values and priorities, and suggesting family therapy to your family members. A family therapist can help you and your family work through the emotions of you being in a multicultural relationship. It can also bring transparency and clarity of why multicultural relationships can be problematic to your family members.

If family therapy is not an option, you can explore with your individual therapist what options you have and what choices may be the best for you—whether it is setting boundaries with family members, cutting off complete contact, or everything in between.

Lifestyle Disagreements/Differences

Lifestyle disagreements can lead to arguments on day-to-day routines. One partner might feel threatened by the other partner if they feel their culture is being rejected, attacked, or seen as inferior by the other partner. Some of the most common disagreements with multicultural couples are the following:

  1. Money: How is money perceived? How does each individual value money? How should money be spent? When should money not be spent? (i.e. what activities are acceptable for someone to spend money)
  2. Gender roles: this especially applies to heterosexual relationships. Are there expectations on one person because of their gender? How do you distribute chores and tasks?
  3. Eating/drinking: Does your partner have dietary restrictions because of their moral beliefs or religion? How is alcohol consumption viewed to each person? What is considered “too much” or “too little” alcohol consumption? Has alcohol played a huge role in social bonding for one partner, but not the other?

Lifestyle disagreements can be one of the most challenging in multicultural relationships since it affects everyone’s day-to-day life. What one person may think is acceptable may not be for the other. A couple’s relationship can work if there is a mutual understanding and respect for each person’s choices, even if they disagree with them.

Different Ideas on Social Norms, Family, Love, Career, & Friendships/Community

A multicultural, gay couple reading to their daughter on a couch representing that understanding cultural differences with your partner can lead to better family dyanamics.

What are your partner’s values on family, love, career, and friendships/community? How much do they prioritize community? Career? Do they support your career dreams, or are they unsupportive because they have a different set of beliefs? How much do you share the same values and priorities? What is your parenting philosophy? Does your parenting philosophy match your partner’s? What is a socially acceptable behavior in one’s culture that isn’t in another’s?

Exploring these questions with your partner can give you a better idea on what similarities and differences you have with your partner. How compatible are you based on shared values and priorities? What are some challenges that you both may face, and how much are you willing to accept their differences?

These questions apply even to monocultural couples, but there tends to be more discrepancies with multicultural couples. Couples therapy can be one way to explore all these themes in a safe space where honesty and transparency is highly encouraged. It can also be a way to evaluate what each individual is willing to accept in the relationship.

Religious and/or Philosophical Differences

Religion and spiritual practices deeply tie into one’s identity, lifestyle, values, and priorities. Two people can still love each other even if one’s philosophical outlook on life may be incompatible. However, these differing outlooks often cause conflict in the relationship. 

Family members can also be unsupportive of multicultural relationships if this means your partner’s religious or spiritual background differs from yours and your family’s. Conflicts may arise between your family and your partner (and their family) because of each family not sharing similar philosophical views. 

If you and your partner have children together, you may have had an argument on what religion you’d like your children to affiliate with, or a spiritual practice you’d like your children to continue engaging in and growing up in. 

Heated conflicts may arise, not knowing whose religion, spiritual practice, or philosophy you’d like your children to engage in. Does one parent have to sacrifice their beliefs?

A multicultural couple running and enjoying their day representing the freedom they feel after deeply connecting with one another, recognizing their difference, but also growing together.

I have no easy answer, but I invite you to ask yourself how much coming from different spiritual or philosophical backgrounds is going to deeply impact your relationship. How much does your and your partners’ spiritual backgrounds impact daily life? How much do you and your partner believe that you will be able to mutually respect each other’s beliefs? What feasible solutions and/or compromises are you and your partner willing to have in order for this relationship to work?

If you and your partner are having some issues based on multicultural differences, I highly recommend couples therapy. Individual therapy is always a great way to start if you’re looking to explore within yourself first and understand how your individual experience affects your relationship. For couples dealing with unsupportive parents, I recommend family therapy (if feasible). If this is not feasible, individual therapy is a great place where you can explore all your options in how you can respond to your unsupportive family members. 

As you can see, being in a multicultural relationship can be difficult, but it can also introduce a new world, full of new perspectives. It encourages couples to think critically about what they want, exercising their freedom of choice. In some families, exercising one’s freedom of choice can be extremely difficult, but perhaps they never knew there was a different way of being, of experiencing life. Multicultural relationships can be spaces for each partner to embrace each other’s differences, and find meaning and growth together.