Different backgrounds — should we get serious?

Originally Published: March 5, 2014
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Dear Alice,

My boyfriend and I have been together for two years. He is perfect for me, I couldn't ask for a better boyfriend, and we really love each other. The problem is that we have really different backgrounds socially and economically.

I have the more traditional family, parents married for 26 years and we're blessed enough to be financially very well off. However, his family has had lots of problems financially. In addition, his father isn’t financially responsible and he cheated on his mother. Besides that, we are different ethnicities.

My parents tell me that I can't be serious about him — they are afraid that his problems with his family will become my problems when we get married. Also, I can't communicate with his parents since they don't speak English very well. Over the past few months I've become increasingly irritated at his family. I have expressed to him that I don't know if we can really become serious because I don't want to deal with his family in the future. Am I overreacting?? I love him so much, but I feel like I can't marry him because of his background. What should I do? Am I blowing his background out of proportion in regards to a possible future together?

Dear Reader,

First off, you are not overreacting! It appears that you care a lot about your partner and that your relationship holds special meaning. Unfortunately, a relationship goes beyond what two people experience inside of their love bubble. Differences in each partner’s race or ethnicity, socioeconomic background, religious beliefs, and family beliefs can complicate a relationship and cause both partners a lot of stress. Speaking with your partner about these touchy topics can be highly beneficial to the strength and success of your relationship. It is possible to get over cultural differences by having a mutual respect for one another's backgrounds and trying your best to understand and incorporate your differences. Though it may feel awkward or uncomfortable, now could be the right time to turn up the volume on the communication.

It appears as though you have a strong relationship with your partner. If you are contemplating a marriage with someone of a different race or religion, keep in mind that despite language barriers, it is possible to find some middle ground. Each family differs in how they celebrate certain holidays, raise children, practice religion, spend (and save) their finances, and more. What might seem a ridiculous way to do something to you might be a sensible option for somebody else. In a loving and caring relationship, it is important to be open to compromise and to try to understand the families that you each come from as well.

It is commonly believed that a relationship between two people often involves a relationship with both partners’ families as well. In some cases, this entails the union of two very different families. Family can be a great support system for many, but also cause additional strain. Even if you cannot see your in-laws in a good light, it is important to realize that your spouse might love them unconditionally. If you know that meeting the in-laws will cause clashes between you and your partner, consider whether the relationship is strong enough to take this step, and whether the relationship is serious enough to make the potential problems worthwhile. To alleviate any sticky situations, it can be helpful to:

  • Maintain a level of tolerance for your partner’s family out of respect for his/her feelings. The trouble with parents is that they often want the best for their children, yet can sometimes manage to complicate everything.
  • Remember that when parents act in an offensive way, they may believe that they are acting in the best interest of their child.
  • Communicate with your partner and agree on how you will communicate when an issue arises. Will you talk about it right away? Will you include his parents or your parents in the discussion?

If there is a possibility of you and your partner splitting up as a result of differences in background, make sure to communicate this with your partner so that nobody is surprised when that time comes. In situations like these, it can be helpful for either one or both partners to speak with a professional counselor. S/he may be able to give you some constructive guidance for dealing with courtship conundrums such as these. Columbia students may contact Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside) or the Mental Health Service (CUMC) to discuss both individual and couples counseling options. In this relationship game, open-mindedness, patience, and communication are the key players!

Wishing you the best,

Alice