Cultural Differences In A Relationship: How Do You Handle Them?

No two people are the same and there's no place where this becomes more prominent than in a relationship. A person's family upbringing, what they learned in school, their social circle, and careers all have a bearing on who they are. 

When cultural differences come into play, there's a nuance to this diversity that couples don't always think about until the initial romance wears off. Meeting someone on a foreign island or a penpal app can feel enchanting at first. The differences in your language, traditions, and social etiquette can be intriguing and add an element of novelty to it all. In fact, according to Minnesota-born blogger Alex, also known as The Mindful Mermaid, being in a relationship with her partner from Croatia was exciting. "Cross-cultural dating can feel super spontaneous, especially if you're traveling or living abroad at the time ... hearing someone speak your native language with an accent is the cutest thing," she wrote. 

But it's not all fairytales and adventures. Conflict can arise out of differences of opinion in areas like decisions on where to live or how to spend the holidays, extended family, child-rearing, and how to socialize. It can also extend to communication styles. While you might find your partner's tales about why women in some cultures never cut their hair on a Saturday amusing, you might not think too fondly of how they avoid serious conversations because their upbringing didn't encourage it. Here's how you can handle the differences.  

Remain curious, patient, and open

It helps to approach the cultural differences with a curious and open heart. Go beyond the superficial things like why they eat with their fingers or why they dress a particular way. Ask questions and be open to educating yourself through research and maybe even by visiting their family in their home country or city. As Shweta Israni wrote for Sydney Couple and Family Specialists, "Try to understand the significance of each other's special family occasions, rituals, and customs." 

Laura Fragoso Hiller, who is of Mexican origin, and her American husband differed when it came to punctuality and how they socialized. "I come from a very loud, family-oriented and proud Mexican family," she shared in a TikTok. The couple found a way to balance her husband's more traditional and conservative upbringing with her own. 

No matter how long you've been together, there's always something new about your partner's culture that's going to color how they communicate or behave. By being aware of this fact and being open to observing and understanding, you're setting a foundation to handle any future conflicts in a healthier way. Communicate openly about your own upbringing and expectations, added Israni, especially in areas like religion, family involvement, gender roles, finances, and how you want to bring up your children. Patience and compromise go a long way too. Try to find similarities beyond your different cultures and build on values you can share together as a couple. 

Avoid assuming things and criticizing your partner's culture

When cultural differences become a source of conflict, it's easy to get defensive and start pointing fingers. But try and avoid doing that as much as possible. You don't want to make your partner feel disrespected or bad about something they hold close to their hearts — their identity. 

Try not to jump to conclusions and make assumptions, either, as these can often lead to cultural stereotypes. Alex shared via Mindful Mermaid, "Most likely, you will need to work extra hard to look past your own internal biases to understand their background, circumstances, and worldview." 

If one of you has moved countries to be with the other, try not to use that in arguments. After all, a decision to move countries shouldn't have been based solely on a relationship unless you found meaning or joy in it yourself. Ophélie (French) met Federico (Italian) in the United Kingdom and shared in her blog My Foreign Half about her own experience: "Try to focus on the reasons why you decided to leave your own country and the ways in which you can become more independent in this new chapter of your life." For the partner who didn't move, empathy and understanding of how alienated your partner might be feeling from their own country can go a long way. Your relationship can last a lifetime if you both find ways to keep communicating respectfully and honestly.