Married to an Alien: Can Love Conquer Culture?


“Do you do marriage counseling?”

Her question came out of left field. I had just wrapped up a half-day seminar at a client’s on cultural differences between Japanese and Americans in the workplace, and now the only Japanese person in the class was asking me privately to offer counsel to her American husband. I laughed but she was dead serious. “My husband really needs this training.”

I never did pursue a marriage-counseling career, but our brief encounter got me wondering, Could I do it? At the risk of offending all the capable, professionally certified cross-cultural marriage counselors in the world, I think I could, certainly when Japanese and Americans were involved. Add my Japanese wife to the mix and our complementary skills would be ideally suited for such a calling.

Our credentials aren’t from academia, but we don’t play according to Hoyle anyway. We’re both college graduates, albeit with no formal training in psychology or counseling, no Doctorates, don’t even have a wretched Masters degree between us. But here’s what we’ve got: we know each other’s cultures intimately; we’ve been happily married for thirty years; we lived in each other’s countries, speak each other’s languages, ask good questions and listen. And if that’s not enough, we’re entertaining as hell. Did I mention we live in Hawaii? All we need are some clients now and we’re good to go.

Cross-Cultural Blues

My fantasy gig aside, it’s not like there isn’t a need to be filled here. Haven’t been able to track down any statistics on cross-cultural divorce rates, but a quick google search shows that cross-cultural marriage counselors actually do exist, evidence the need is there.

And it makes perfect sense. In our dynamic global world, more and more people are venturing abroad, leading to more people tying cross-cultural knots, leading to more cross-cultural knots needing to be untangled, sometimes even cut loose.

Let’s face it, marriage between people of the same culture is tough enough. Throw in a language barrier and a muddy cultural minefield littered with hidden value differences, and things get infinitely more complicated.

Sadly we know of too many broken marriages between Japanese and American couples. Just how many could’ve been saved with the right knowledge and guidance is anyone’s guess. Admittedly some couples should never have gotten married in the first place. But armed with the right knowledge, an emotionally mature, open-minded couple from different cultures has a good shot at creating a lasting partnership. But they’d have to go into it with open eyes and open hearts. It helps to have a sense of humor too.

What Couples Fight About

Amazing the silly stuff married couples fight about. An international couple gets all that and a bag of chips: she eats stinky fermented beans for breakfast, he wants an Egg McMuffin; he married for romantic love, she’s in it for a steady homemaking gig; he’s an old-school disciplinarian, her parents spoil the kids rotten; English is her second language, he speaks English only and struggles enough with that; he thinks she understands everything he says, she understands only half; he loves a feisty debate, she nods her head to keep the peace—especially when she disagrees; he likes to playfully tease, she thinks he’s being mean; his parents are loud and judgmental, hers zing you with a passive-aggressive smile.

And this just scratches the surface. Throw in the crazy idiosyncrasies we all have, the potential fallout from religious differences, not to mention different cultural attitudes toward sex, money and rock-n-roll, and you’ve got a murky brew of marital juices to stew in.

Check Your Identity at the Border

On a heavier note, some folks living in their spouse’s homeland report “loss of personal identity.” Defining exactly what this means is a can of worms we won’t open today. For the sake of this discussion, reflect on how you might answer these questions:

Do you see yourself as an independent entity or fraction of society? Are you ranked in a pecking order or is everyone equal?

How does your culture expect you to behave? Is open debate the norm? Or is feigned agreement encouraged in the name of harmony?

Are male and female roles clearly defined in your spouse’s country? Are females expected to show deference? If you’re a woman, how would you choose to deal with that reality?

And what about self worth? Is it measured by “self-actualization”? Accumulation of money? Status? Approval by the collective? Motherhood? Fatherhood? Career? Other?

And finally, how do you tell right from wrong? Is it always good to tell the truth? Are polite lies expected and encouraged in the name of social harmony? Does the “real you” fight for that seat on the train, or offer it to an elderly lady?

The list goes on but you get the gist. It shouldn’t surprise that lonely spouses living abroad—regardless of gender–might feel a loss of identity. It’s not a stretch to imagine a strong, independent female from a Western country being thrust into a male-dominated culture and feeling smothered. Or the other way–a traditional Asian woman going West.

I was in a different situation and felt anything but smothered. Japan was liberating for me. And yet, over the course of ten years I wrestled with my own kind of identity issues, specifically, the challenge of sorting out which part of me was American, which part had taken on Japanese-like qualities, and which part was just me. It took an eventual move back to the motherland to “rediscover” myself. What I learned was that I never “lost” anything, certainly not my identity. What happened was my identity had expanded with the infusion of Japanese culture into my life. No regrets. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Ignorance, the Silent Killer

The most dangerous scenario in the artful dance of communication happens when both partners assume they are communicating when in fact they are not. This scenario naturally begets confusion. One symptom is the tendency of one or both parties to assign bad intentions to the other party, even when everyone’s heart is in the right place. It happens more than you think. A great example is how Japanese, who haven’t mastered the finer nuances of English, might respond to a negatively stated question such as, “Don’t you love me?”

The Japanese partner, intending to say “Yes I love you,” might respond with “no,” meaning, “No, it’s not true that I do not love you.” Conversely, a Japanese partner, intending to say “No I do NOT love you,” might respond with “yes,” meaning, “Yes that’s correct, I don’t love you.” How about that for getting your signals crossed?

Now imagine all the drama such a misunderstanding could create, and multiply it by all the other unforeseen language and culture gaps that camouflage our good intentions.

Such misunderstandings quickly escalate, and before you know it spouses are sparring—over something they may actually agree on. False perceptions define their reality, and love gets lost in the confusion.

And this really underscores the power of cross-cultural knowledge in international marriages. Only by bringing hidden differences to the surface can they be acknowledged, reflected on, and worked out. Without awareness of these differences, problems not only don’t get solved, they proliferate and fester.

Can Love Conquer Culture?

It might get you through the honeymoon stage, I’ll grant you that. But over time misunderstandings and false perceptions can sour even the sweetest love. When the honeymoon’s over, you either roll up your sleeves and start working at your marriage, or get pulled into a downward spiral fueled by mutual ignorance. We all know where that ends up.

To our credit and good fortune, my wife and I spent a lot of time talking in the courting stage. It helps that neither of us is shy, that we were willing to put in the time and effort to communicate, and that I had already lived in my wife’s country for seven years and had a good grasp of her language and culture. With that backdrop, here’s what was rolling around in my head before I popped the question.

What does “marriage” really mean in Japan versus my culture? Is love part of the deal? What roles would a married international couple assume? Would she be willing to marry me as an equal partner? Or would I have to be subservient!?

What are the positives of our respective cultures? What’s important to her? What’s important to me? Could she learn to love Egg McMuffins? Could I learn to eat smelly fermented beans for breakfast?

Where would we live? Do we both want kids? How many? How would we raise them? Would they speak one language or both? Would we indulge them or use tough-love? And what if we fail and they turn out like me?

What do we expect of ourselves and each other? What are the boundaries of trust? How to show respect? How to show affection? How to disagree? How to resolve disputes? Would I have to sleep on the couch sometimes? If so, will the couch be comfortable?

It all looks so neat and tidy when it’s written down like that. The reality is our conversations were unstructured, messy, a lot messier when we were drinking wine. But we made the time to talk, to share with each other how we had been raised, nurtured, disciplined, how our parents related to each other, and how it turned us into the confused young adults that we were…okay, that I was.

But even with thirty years of marital bliss under my belt, can’t help but think that some guidance and structured conversations would’ve prevented a couple wheels from being reinvented. If I could go back in time and counsel my young bachelor self, here’s what I’d say to me:

When you tease her she thinks you’re being mean. She’ll never get your American-guy sarcastic sense of humor so back off on the teasing.

Don’t let her do the dishes, she hates it and sucks at it. (I recently fired my wife from the dish-washing duties and reassigned them to yours truly. Had I known then how happy this would make her, I’d have done it thirty years ago.)

Read “The Anatomy of Peace” by Arbinger Group!” (The book wasn’t published until 2006 so I’d have to smuggle it into the time machine. But had I read it thirty years ago, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d have been a better husband and father.)

And if my Japanese wife could go back in time and counsel her young single self on marrying a foreign barbarian, what advice would she give?

Sign up for our Intercultural Marriage Retreat in Hawaii and we’ll talk about it. 😉

For more on cross-cultural marriages check out Samurai Wife: The Myth About Subservient Japanese Women

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013


12 responses to “Married to an Alien: Can Love Conquer Culture?

  1. Aloha Tim! Definitely a need for this service. 36 years of marriage to an amazing LifePartner from Japan…plenty of lessons learned and undoubtedly still to be learned!

  2. Thanks Tim – I love this. This is my husband and me. A cross-cultural marriage is such a rich and on-going learning experience.

    • Thanks for chiming in Trish! The longer I’m married the more this topic interests me. I’ve witnessed several cross-cultural marriages fall apart just in the last few years, and wonder if any could’ve been saved with a little more knowledge and communication. Preaching to the choir here, but when an international marriage works, it can be a beautiful thing. You and Grif know what I’m talking about. 🙂

  3. The first culture to be crossed by any heterosexual couple is gender–then you can add ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc. My partner of 31 years is African American and I am European American. What a rich, rewarding, frustrating, educational experience this has been on a daily basis. Fortunately, we are both cross-cultural consultants and it has served us well…and then some. I love your article and agree that there is a total career field here waiting to be filled. Thank you for posting it.

    • Donna, great point about the gender gap. After I read “Men are From Mars” I was a believer. Interestingly, even though Japan is characterized as a male-dominated culture, I find that, in general, females from my culture (America) work better with the Japanese than American males. (There are exceptions both ways, of course.) My theory is that female values are more closely aligned with Japan’s, for example, the importance of human relationships, value on harmony, communication, and all the other “soft skills” that American men tend to undervalue.

      Thanks for commenting and for the kind words. Happy holidays!

  4. Funny you though about helping the couples, Tim, because I am in a similar situation as you. Specialize in cross cultural in business, I mentioned on my (french) blog the possibility to help “mixed couple” coming from different cultures. In the French culture, I don’t know any specialize counselors and I think that giving some training for traditional psychologists to inform them about the basic notions about cultural differences. Working within the Itim International group (Hofstede Model) I am convinced we have the know-how to bring this element into the light, and they should take cultural aspect into consideration.
    The very first message would already help : your partner is unconsciously influenced by its culture, and you as well. Take the time to “sort out” what is “culture” and what is “personality”.

  5. I really enjoyed this article and, to add a bit of critical levity to this subject, I thought you might be interested in this. I hope the link works in the USA

  6. Well, you’re certainly asking all the right questions, Tim. After 35 years of marriage (she’s Japanese), I think we’ve found the answer to some of them. More later, I hope.

  7. Additional note for you TIm,
    What if I (Japanese female) feel like I AM an ALIEN (to my own ethnicity /Japanese population), then what’s your take if you have any..?

    • Ha ha, sometimes I feel that way in my culture too, Yoshimi. And after 27 years in the US, my wife has come to feel the same way about Japan as well. Not sure if I can answer your question, but my first thought is that hooking up with someone who has a broadminded international view of the world really helps. In my case it definitely helped that I had a good grasp of Japan/Japanese, otherwise it likely wouldn’t have worked. But my wife living in my culture for many years further strengthened our marriage as mutual understanding deepened with the experience. Over the years we’ve been cherry-picking what we like about each culture, and have (sort of) created an Ishiyama-Sullivan “hybrid culture,” so it’s us against the world! (I see our kids as a manifestation of this fusion.) When you find a partner who can relate on this level, hold on and never let go. That’s what I’m doing. 🙂

  8. There are two ways couples thrive: they have so much in common culturally, physically, emotionally, politically, economically and socially that friction hardly exists. Or, they maintain a win-win model of compromise.
    Almost all couples need the latter to endure and thrive, given the former is so rare. (The third model is one spouse accepts an inferior role, but I”m “culturally” disinclined to say such a couple is thriving.)
    The “cultural disagreement” model gets in the way of win-win.
    It removes agency from the parties, eg: “It’s not me being a prick, it’s just my American culture.” “I’m not the only one who behaves rudely, everyone HERE does it.” Secondly, it’s based on the premise that differences are necessarily an impediment to happiness or smooth functioning of a partnership. This is a recipe for endless conflict or divorce.
    The hardest part of maintaining win-win exchanges is uncovering what each party actually wants and needs.
    She says: Our daughter needs four juku sessions a week, three music lessons, ballet and calligraphy. So of course she can’t find 8 hours a night to sleep, but that’s the Japanese way.
    He says: She needs more sleep for her health and more free time to develop creativity and self-direction. That’s the Western way.
    If they’ve decided to accept and recognize each other’s cultures as some kind of given, then the only course is some halfway point, where one spouse is always pushing for more scheduled time and the other for more free time.
    Or, if they don’t buy into the cultural paradigm, they move to the next step, which is asking what the real needs and desires are.
    Is all the scheduled time required because you want the child to develop all skills to the maximum, or because you don’t want to be called up short among other parents who constantly brag about how much studying and learning their children are doing? Or do you just want the kid out of your hair all afternoon?
    Suppose it’s the former. And for the other spouse, the real reason is they don’t want the child’s creativity stifled. Well, then the search for the win-win begins in earnest. Maybe there’s a balance to be had that serves both needs.
    Maybe there isn’t. Maybe the distance is simply too great on that specific issue, and one party will have to compromise on their goal. In that case, define the disagreement more broadly to include planning for the child’s future in general in all aspects. Eventually, you will arrive at a point where a win-win deal emerges. The key point is that you both acknowledge that is always the goal of discussions: each party is seeking to address the needs of the other party, not to simply prevail in securing their own needs.
    I don’t know anything about business consulting, but I would guess that there, the cultural disagreements model is actually much more effective, because business relationships are much more fluid and lack the basic guarantees that a marriage commitment implies.

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