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Multicultural Relationships: How Internal Family Systems Therapy Helps

A multicultural couple smiles, playfully, at each other.If you are in a multicultural marriage, you know how hard communication can be. Whether it’s about:

• In-laws: how much influence and involvement they have
• Privacy: how many people are in your house on a daily basis or at special gatherings
Women’s roles
• Conflict: hidden or overt ways of dealing with it
• Being indirect/understated versus being direct and expressive with requests, complaints
• Accommodation to others versus competition with them
• Authority: who has it and who has to follow it
• Showing affection/closeness: how much you need or show
• The individual’s needs and rights versus the family/community
• Being misunderstood or misunderstanding language or gestures
• Feeling neglected/feeling pressured
Male versus female roles
• Lack of knowledge/judgment of each other’s music, language, or culture
• Loneliness/loss when you are living in the other person’s country

Multicultural relationships can be a great, rewarding adventure. Maybe you are the adventurous type, and you love contact with another culture. Or maybe you were surprised when you found yourself committed to someone from another culture. Love happens!

Internal Family System Therapy (IFS) can help you with your multicultural couples issues.

But here’s the catch: you need to commit to doing what’s within YOUR OWN control to make the situation better. Who is within your control? Not your mate—only you.

Are you willing to focus on your own participation? Are you ready to shift from 50% responsibility to 100% responsibility? Then read on…

Here are a few basic IFS terms to help you understand the model.

Your natural state is calm, connected, courageous, clear, curious, compassionate, creative, and confident. In IFS that is called self energy. You never lose it. It’s always available to you, no matter who you are or what has happened to you in life.

Often, while growing up, our family or culture judges something about us—maybe we are too lively or they think we aren’t smart enough. Sometimes our families, even though they try their best to love us, hurt us in some way. They might not give us all the attention we need, or siblings might be very competitive, or people might get very angry and frustrated with us. These hurt feelings are often too intense to deal with, so we wall them off. We end up thinking we don’t feel judged, hurt, or neglected because we push these feelings away. We are afraid of them, because when they do get through, they are often too intense. We don’t want to feel consumed by loneliness, hurt, anger or depression—no one would like us! In IFS, these hidden hurt feelings are called exiles.

As we grow up, we develop habitual patterns so that we won’t be hurt. If people try to control us, maybe we will try to control them first, or we’ll just go along because it isn’t worth trying to fight. If we felt lonely, maybe we’ll just convince ourselves we really don’t need people. These habitual ways of keeping ourselves safe are called managers in IFS. They are busy trying to keep us safe. (For more information see Internal Family Systems, by Richard Schwartz, or Bring Yourself to Love, by Mona Barbera.)

Despite our managers’ best efforts to keep us safe, sometimes people (especially our spouses) get through our protective perimeter and hurt us. Then we need to do something fast to feel safe again. Maybe get angry, go off in a huff, give up, or retreat to a safe distance. IFS calls these quick reactions firefighters because they race out to save people from danger, just like real firefighters. Most of the problems in couple relationships come from firefighter reactions.

You are innocently going about your day, and all of a sudden your mate does something that makes you feel intensely unloved or disrespected. Even if the reaction is intense, it is still your own reaction. This is true even though you are totally focused on the wrongdoing of your mate. Your mate might have sprinkled a little salt on a wound, but that wound was there before he/she came into your life. Those feelings of unworthiness, fear, or loss of control were already long established.

Remember, you’ve been pushing your intense hurt away since childhood—you turned them into exiles, and made yourself believe you didn’t really feel so bad. That was a good thing—it was much easier to go to school and make friends if you weren’t sad all the time. Since your exiles are so far away from your awareness, you don’t know that you already feel hurt, demeaned, or disrespected. You think your mate caused it!

Firefighters to the rescue! You attack, punish, lecture, demean, control, or give in to our mate in an effort to make the hurting stop.

Now let’s get specific about multicultural relationships.

Remember, your natural state is calm, connected, courageous, clear, curious, compassionate, creative, and confident—self energy. So, if your mate from a different country or a different culture misunderstands you, you have the ability to stay present and communicate well. But, if the way you felt hurt matches your exiles—you will have a firefighter reaction, and there will be no chance of a calm, creative solution.

Let’s take the example of in-law involvement. Let’s say your partner’s culture includes in-laws involvement more than yours does. At first, when they stopped by without calling, when they gave opinions, when they assumed they would come with you on trips—it was fine. Then you started to get angry.

You forget that when you were growing up, your older brothers were very controlling. They borrowed what they wanted. They sat on you if you didn’t go along. You were smaller, so you couldn’t do anything. You made yourself a little clubhouse where you could get away from it all. It was so small only one person could get in! That’s all you wanted. It was safer to be alone. You learned to occupy yourself alone. You didn’t need people.

Now with all these nice in-laws around all the time, it feels bad. You don’t know why, because you succeeded pushing those awful, out of control, scared feelings from your brothers away. The feelings are now exiles—you don’t even know they exist.

Here’s the secret: If you can own those intense feelings as your own, you will find out they are from the past. When you find your exiles and acknowledge how bad they feel, they will relax.

Then you will have all the creativity, love, clarity, and courage you need to talk to your mate about the involvement of his or her in-laws. You’ll be able to stay calm when your mate gets defensive at first. You’ll be able to be clear when your mate doesn’t understand. Most important, you’ll be able to stay connected instead of distancing or getting angry.

© Copyright 2009 by Mona R. Barbera, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Tabitha

    November 27th, 2009 at 12:57 PM

    Thank you for sharing such interesting observations Mona! I myself am European and my husband is American. Our ten year relationship has been fraught with difficulties because of how differently we were raised. Life becomes easier as you develop an understanding of each others’ upbringing. We laugh now over those things rather than fight.

  • Sugarlove

    November 27th, 2009 at 1:04 PM

    Heck, even the differences between being from the North and South in this country can create a chasm between a couple.I had a short term boyfriend that was from the opposite end of the country and we couldn’t find a middle ground. We were just too different.

  • Jessi

    November 27th, 2009 at 1:22 PM

    I was in a multicultural relationship for a very long time yet my boyfreinds family never was really able to accept me. They could never see beyond the fact that I was black and they were white and in their eyes that was not something that they could ever live with on a permanent basis. They were just very closed minded and ultimately the price that was paid for that is that I lost a very dear man and a very special friend. I really do not see how people can still think this way in the 21st century but I had to learn the hard way that they do and nothing that I ever did was going to make them see things any differently.

  • Yolanda

    November 27th, 2009 at 2:05 PM

    There’s no way of knowing that if he was local whether that would have lasted longer Sugarlove. In my case we at least didn’t prolong the agony. We knew fast we were incompatible once we’d been out three times. We weren’t good together and had no spark. I thought he was exotic. It turned out he was deathly boring. I can get that from my home town boys LOL. ;)

  • woody

    November 27th, 2009 at 2:54 PM

    Well… I think a multi-cultural marriage would be a very nice thing to do, as it will help us in understanding ourselves better and can even bring the two partners much closer than a same-culture couple because they have a lot of things to share and discover with each other :)


    November 27th, 2009 at 2:58 PM

    Well…multicultural marriages are something that are only going to increase with the rapid globalization and mixing of people of different backgrounds. Yes, there are bound to be problems in such a marriage but with the right amount of understanding and good communication, this problem can in fact be turned into an advantage and the marriage can be extremely successful.

  • Terrie

    November 28th, 2009 at 5:44 PM

    Why is this such a problem for some people? What on earth are you afraid of? I for one think that you could only stand to learn new and exciting info about other cultures and that there is nothing to be scared of at all when it comes to being a part of a multicultural relationship. And I completely agree that this is only going to be more and more common as our world tends to become smaller and smaller. It is so easy to have contact with people from all over the world today, and I happen to think that that is a very good thing!

  • themuse

    November 30th, 2009 at 9:25 PM

    You need to have mutual respect for your partner’s background. I think that’s more important than understanding it. If you can show you respect it even when you don’t get it, that shows love. Isn’t love all about compromise and give and take? Making fun is the worst thing you could do. Make an effort instead and be loving.

  • Paige

    December 7th, 2009 at 6:51 PM

    No one person knows the right way of doing everything. In that position you could learn something by paying attention. How many people have the opportunity to gain an intimate and indepth knowledge of a foreign culture? Not many. Celebrate the differences. Don’t make them burdensome.

  • LaScala

    December 7th, 2009 at 8:16 PM

    It’s easy to point the finger at your partner and not yourself when there’s trouble. Stop, look and listen. I was taught that growing up for road safety. It’s just as applicable over disagreements. Using all your senses to decide what the true problem is -— right here and right now -— works wonders and is much better than yelling.

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