Cultural differences in gay men’s relationships are themes that come up frequently in my practice of therapy for gay male couples. If you’re in a relationship (particularly a new one) with a guy from a different ethnicity, nationality, or culture from yours, or know someone who is, you might find these tips helpful.
In addition to all the individual therapy and coaching I do, I see a number of gay male couples for counseling during the week, too. One thing I’ve noticed in all these years of doing couples therapy (26 years now) is that many of the gay male couples are somehow cross-cultural, whether it’s race, ethnicity, national origin, or even age or socio-economic status (which are really their own “cultural” consideration). I don’t think it’s because cross-cultural gay male relationships have more problems, it’s just that working with gay men in Los Angeles and West Hollywood is part of the community of Southern California which is already quite diverse and these guys are just meeting at a crossroads of the world here.
Culture can be about how your families of origin differ in terms of spirituality, family roles, holidays/traditions, food, body image, time management, values/priorities, philosophies/outlook, social/political outlook, and role of work. Every person is an amalgamation of different cultural and demographic influences, such as you may simultaneously identify as an east-coast, middle-class, Presbyterian, Democrat male of mixed Caucasian and Latino descent. Or, you may be an affluent, New Englander, Irish-American, political Independent who was raised Catholic but you now identify as Pagan. All of these variables can be shaken up and mixed between the partners to create infinite combinations of gay male couples.
But these characteristics for each of you can sometimes create an interesting and alluring harmony, or sometimes a friction or conflict. Even guys who are remarkably similar can differ, such as two middle-class, New England, Anglo guys might have very different spiritual orientations. Getting to really know and understand each other can involve discussions about how each of you has been impacted by racism, gender role stereotypes/expectations, heterosexism/homophobia, classism, looks-ism, age-ism, able-ness, abuse/neglect history, crime, natural disaster, education, and intellectual aptitudes. Gay men can sometimes be survivors of many different kinds of oppression beyond homophobia, and sometimes these can shape gay men’s outlooks even more than their sexual orientation, especially for gay men of color.
Avoiding all conflicts at all times might be an unrealistic expectation, but consider these tips to bring a mindfulness about where the pitfalls are, and how to avoid them:
- Seek to Understand
Cross-cultural relationships give us a chance to learn about the world around us by way of your partner and the customs he represents. I always say that in relationships, “shared experience breeds intimacy”, and deliberately setting up and scheduling ways to observe things like different holidays or traditions can be a great way for you and your partner to bond around your differences. If you meet each other’s families, ask about their traditions. If you speak different languages, even if you’re probably speaking one language (usually English) at home, try to learn a few words and phrases (especially the naughty ones!) in his native language. This can be very validating and (sexy, or humorous, depending on how good your pronunciation is!) to your partner. Explore foods that are native to each other’s cultures, or even just old family recipes that you can make together, or take turns. You might not understand or even like certain cultural variables, but your efforts, each to understand the other, sends a meta-message that says, “I care about you.”
- Manage and Navigate Differences
Sometimes the same cultural differences that make your partner perennially interesting, mysterious, and alluring, can also be a pain in the neck! If you’re seeing things from different points of view, in particularly decisions about how to spend time, money, or energy together or in relation to your household, family, work, and social life, you can keep a few things in mind to troubleshoot and de-escalate the situation rather than just fighting about it. The core couple skills that I help my clients with most often are learning how to enhance Commitment, Communication, and Compromise with just about any challenge or conflict.
- Seek Common Ground
While the differences between you are probably quite obvious at times, try to find common ground where you agree. Ask yourselves how you share certain similar priorities, goals, values, preferences, interests, and outlook. The core values should be in common, such as a commitment to each other’s well-being, honesty, fairness, avoiding double-standards, and meeting your responsibilities, especially to each other.
- Take Turns or Compromise for Things That Matter Most
Compromise is a part of relationships, but too much self-sacrifice of the things that really matter will breed resentment in you. While understanding your partner’s culture or demographic background is important, you shouldn’t feel obligated to sacrifice cherished parts of your own personal or family traditions. Cross-cultural relationships require some flexibility and negotations/compromise, but this should not force one partner to abandon core parts of his identity.
- Beware of Stereotypes
While you might be dating or even partnered/married to someone of a certain culture, he might not embody all or most of the characteristics of that culture. Stereotypes can be seductive because they are “intellectual shorthand” so that you don’t have to really think, but these can be deceiving. You have to discuss and check out your assumptions and see which “classic” characteristics of a culture fit your partner, and where he departs. He might value some cultural characteristics over others in his personal value system. Even an atheist who was raised Catholic might still like to put a Christmas tree, or a Persian guy who fled Iran might still want to celebrate Nowruz. Learn the similarities and differences in your partner in relation to his culture. Discuss expectations of each other in terms of roles, assumptions, sexual issues, finances, holidays, and time priorities.
- Give It Time
Probably the most challenging stage of cross-cultural relationships is early, when you’re still really getting to know each other, and the psychological and emotional attachment/bonding process is still taking place, basically within the first three years. You learn a lot about each other the first time you meet each other’s family of origin. Some of your in-laws might welcome you with open arms, and some might see you as a threat to their loved one or to their way of life and resist you – sometimes aggressively and with hostility. However, like with any interpersonal relationship, bonding and mutual trust comes with repeated exposure, time, conversation, and behaviors. Good manners and taking an interest in others will subtly validate them, and if you love your partner and this shows to their family of origin, eventually they really should “get it”. However, don’t allow your relationship to be disrespected by your families of origin, either. Adult relationships are entirely voluntary, and part of your commitment to each other is to put each other first, above parents or siblings. If the in-laws are not going to be at least minimally respectful in the relationship, then there is to be no relationship. Do not tolerate anti-gay bullying from others as an adult, and it’s OK for any contact with them to be predicated on mutual respect. To do otherwise is to throw your partner under the bus due to your own unresolved “apron strings” issues, and that can undermine or threaten the existence of your relationship. This goes for straight people, too, who might marry out of race or out of the religion of their family of origin. Usually, if faced with the choice of accepting their in-law or losing their loved one, people will work to overcome their prejudices. The best recipe for this understanding is simply time and contact.
- Make Future Plans
Cultural differences can intensify when it comes to big decisions like where to live, what to do about work, or raising children or even pets. Before making a big commitment like living together or getting married, discuss what the geographic issues would be if one of you got a job far away and wanted you both to move to take the job. If you adopted or had surrogate children, how would they be raised? If you live with someone, how would the issues of money be handled? What if your incomes differ greatly (I have a blog article on this, here). What if you like to spend and he’s the “saver”? What is each of your positions on alcohol or recreational drugs (more on this here and here)? What about monogamy versus non-monogamy (this is a huge issue, and I wrote about this here and here)? Cultural differences that make a person alluring in early dating can cause conflict when it comes to serious long-term life decisions in making a home together for the duration.
Part of what makes our world wonderful, and gay life in particular, is that there is so much diversity that we can learn to know and appreciate. Making a commitment to your partner includes loving him for who he is, and where he comes from that shapes his values, personality, and world outlook. Even things like past relationships or childhood trauma can be a kind of cultural difference, because past experiences, good or bad, shape the person to be who he is today. You have to have enough similarities to share the core values of being together, and enough differences so that there is always a bit of mystery to discover and keep him alluring.
If you are in a cross-cultural relationship and you’re having some friction or discomfort areas with your partner, consider getting some help for it. I work with couples in my office in Los Angeles (near West Hollywood and Beverly Hills), and also via Skype, FaceTime, or other webcam services. Call 310-339-5778 for more information or to make an appointment, or email me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com. Sometimes it takes work, but you can overcome the challenges to make way for the rewards.