Two cultures: One marriage

It happens all the time. A Caucasian woman marries a Korean man. A blond American student missionary to Japan falls in love with a girl there and brings her home to meet his parents. An Indian student in the United States ties the knot to an Ethiopian classmate.

Such cross-cultural marriages are increasing, even as barriers to such unions are decreasing in most areas of the world. But what happens in an intercultural marriage? What impact do cross-cultural environmental factors have on marriage? What about children? What effect do such marriages have on religious experience? What factors can contribute to the success of an interracial marriages?

Dynamics of interracial marriage

Genetically speaking, there are no physical impediments to interracial marriage. Therefore factors that help or hinder the success of mixed marriages as compared to within-group-marriages are not genetic, but are taught and learned by individuals living in a community. Groups and individuals “speak” through implied and usually unwritten statements that become cultural pressures—“shoulds” and “should nots”—that can affect the potential partners’ decisions before marriage and the quality of marriage afterwards.

When people arrive at a stage where they choose life partners, a number of other developmental tasks are also in process. Usually they are completing their education and preparing for a career. They are moving toward independence and adulthood, even though different cultures may attach varying meanings to such terms. They are discovering their individual roles, in terms of both gender and individual responsibility—a process that can be complicated by crossing ethnic boundaries, since different cultures have different ways of defining such roles, particularly as they interface with gender.

Each marriage partner brings to marital union a list (unwritten, of course) of what to do or not do, what to say or not say, in a marriage. These individual lists learned in different cultural or racial environments can differ so much that misunderstandings and conflicts become unavoidable. When racial or cultural differences are added to familial, regional, and class differences, the potential for problems increases. Minor cultural differences can cause major misunderstandings. Here are a few common examples:

Other potentially problematic differences include relationships with parents and in-laws, decision-making between partners, and the rearing and discipline of children.

These and other similar issues should be discussed thoroughly before marriage. Such discussions would bring out in the open the couple’s feelings and expectations, which can then be dealt with freely.

Environmental impact on marriage

Societies differ in their acceptance of mixed marriages. Cultural differences are becoming more political in many parts of the world. Although legal barriers to racial intermarriage may not exist, prejudice and discrimination continue. Such discrimination may include housing, job opportunities, work environment, jokes, staring, and crude or offensive remarks.

In a society like the United States, the greater the perceived differences between the dominant racial group and any of the other racial groups, the greater the prejudice and discrimination that group has experienced, the more negatively will the dominant society view intermarriage with members of that group.1

People who choose marital partners while away from relatives, familiar surroundings and social networks, may lack a balanced perspective in objectively evaluating physical and emotional characteristics of a cross-cultural friend and her or his compatibility in a potential union. Their emotional needs may be affected by loneliness. Their judgement may be limited by a lack of “normals” to use as frames of reference. Under these circumstances, it can be helpful to bring a potential spouse home for a prolonged visit so that he or she can observe and interact with a different home setting. “To marry an individual from another culture is to marry that culture as well. Lack of communicated interest or a partner’s assumption that a spouse is unattached to his/her culture gives rise to the gravest kind of problems.”2

This cross-cultural perspective gets complicated with the concept of acculturation—a process in which those new to a culture adopt the attitudes, values, and behaviors of the host culture. Acculturation can modify the form or intensity of the newcomer’s home culture, leading couples during courtship to easily blind themselves to cultural differences and possible problems. Those couples would tend to minimize the impact of the cultural differences since courtship tends to “accentuate the positive.”

Next to knowing the culture of the individual is knowing the structure of the individual’s family. The family interprets and transmits culture, and, for this reason, it can significantly influence and even determine family roles and responsibilities in marriage.

Many interracial marriage partners may be able to handle most problems that arise in marriage, but their children may have difficulties. Mixed-race children are often perceived as belonging to a “minority” race—the racial group represented in the marriage that has less power and status. In the United States, the offspring of a black-white marriage are usually considered black.3 In fact, any racial mixture that includes even a fraction of black blood is considered black. Therefore, mixed-race children in the United States are generally treated as if they had been born to black-black unions.

Children added to any family bring changes. Although people want and love children, they usually report less satisfaction in the marital relationship during the most demanding years of child-rearing. Parents from widely divergent cultural backgrounds may almost seem to be talking two different languages in communicating about child-rearing.

The identity development and sense of security of children from interracial marriages are supported by the parents’ positive regard for both races, by their open discussion of both heritages, and by providing positive role models, access to cultural events, etc.

Intermarriage and religion

Two biblical passages should be noted. First: “Be ye not unequally yoked” (2 Corinthians 6:14, KJV).* The context of the passage clearly forbids any alliance that might compromise the gospel. Although the verse primarily refers to mixing incompatible religious systems, it can be taken to mean marriages that unite those who serve God with those who do not.

Second: God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). What this passage emphasizes is the equality of all people. God does not recognize any division between people, be it racial, ethnic, linguistic, tribal, or national barriers. The power of the gospel must be allowed to eradicate these barriers and create a common community. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:28). God is “no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). This means that God does not distinguish between or accord status to persons on the basis of outward appearance; He makes no distinctions on the basis of social rank, knowledge, wealth, nationality, or race. Does this mean all those with the same belief system are free to intermarry?

Moses provides a good example. The leader of Israel married outside of his race—a Midianite. But Zipporah was a sincere member of the Israelite belief system, and her father was a respected, God-fearing priest. However, Moses’ sister Miriam was unhappy about his marrying “out of his race.” Jealousy caused Miriam and Aaron to focus on Moses’ marriage and to gossip about his Ethiopian wife. The Lord dramatically demonstrated His displeasure with Miriam’s attitude, and she was struck with leprosy (see Numbers 12).

The biblical position about marrying outside of one’s faith is clear: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?...Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord” (2 Corinthians 6:14, 15, 17).

This is a clear prohibition against marrying outside one’s faith. It is a warning against any association that would place Christian believers in compromising situations. Surely, such a prohibition includes the marital relationship as well.

Successful interracial marriages

Research has shown that successful interracial marriages have several factors in common. Partners in such marriages tend to marry when they are a little older than same-race partners.4 They have probably had longer courtships than same-race couples. They have demonstrated a capacity for independence—in thinking, decision-making, and living. They tend to be middle-class with better-than-average education. They have been exposed to cross-cultural experiences. After marriage, they usually live in cosmopolitan areas.

A final word

Having said all this about interracial or intercultural marriages, one final issue needs to be raised. The more factors the two partners have in common, the more likely their marriage will succeed. If you are contemplating on such a marriage, ask yourself some questions: Do we have the same faith? When Friday evening comes, where will we be—both welcoming the Sabbath or one of us watching TV? Faith, in view of what we have seen above in the biblical data, is non-negotiable. How about our social status? What about age? Do we have a culture that is close enough to permit a better understanding of each other? What about value systems and lifestyle practices? What are the goals we cherish for our children? The list can go on and on. But remember: the more common factors you two have, the more likely your marriage will succeed. Marriage is neither a rush nor a compromise; it is a reasoned decision, based on love and an eternal commitment.

Reger C. Smith (Ph.D., Michigan State University) teaches in the Social Work Department at Andrews University. He is the author of Two Cultures: One Marriage (Andrews University Press, 1996), from which this article is adapted. Dr. Smith’s address: Andrews University; Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104; U.S.A.

*Bible texts in this article are quoted from the King James Version.

Notes and references

  1. Reger C. Smith, Two Cultures: One Marriage (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1996), pp. 1-3.
  2. Beulah F. Rorhlich, “Dual-Culture Marriage and Communication,” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 12:35 (1988), p. 42.
  3. Ernest Porterfield, Black and White Mixed Marriages: An Ethnographic Study of Black- White Families (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1978), p. 3.
  4. Smith, p. 29.