It is a challenge understanding every aspect of one’s own culture and background, let alone someone else’s. Yet it behooves couples to understand how each other’s upbringing has shaped their lifestyle, worldview, and decision-making. While it is more obvious that partners from different cultures have cross-cultural differences, even with couples of the same culture there is no assumption that their internalized cultural systems are the same, since one’s culture includes the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge of one’s environment. Thus, far beyond country, which people often think of when identifying a person’s culture, our internalized cultural systems are influenced by region, socioeconomic status, race, religion, education, work, and even our own parents internalized systems. Additionally, with the internet and mass media, cultural influence is no longer limited by distance and cultural boundaries are hazy, permeable, and complex. Through discussion and reflection, couples can be become mindful of all aspects of the world they grew up in, the systems that influenced them, and how they bring that into their relationships. The following exercise can help couples be more mindful of all the ways their cultural systems influence their relationship:
There are several cultural systems that influence all of us: geographic location, socioeconomic status, religious/spiritual influences, family (ancestral influences, current family dynamics), media, educational opportunities, and historical/current events/politics.
For each of the cultural systems (geographic location, SES, etc.), ask yourself these five questions about each area and then have a discussion with your partner:
- What do I believe about myself?
- What do I believe about others?
- How is my behavior influenced by this?
- What judgments do I have about myself and others?
- How does this particular cultural system influence my relationship?
For example, what do I believe about myself based on the type of media I’ve been exposed to? Perhaps you realize you are heavily influenced by the standards of beauty represented in magazines and that your confidence is closely tied to physical appearance. Now how do you think that could be influencing your relationship?
Some of these may be tough to answer, especially because you may learn something about yourself you never knew. But that doesn’t have to be a negative experience. Self-awareness is healthy, even if it may be painful. You can even have fun with this exercise and make it into a game with your partner and reward each other for the new things you learn.