Cross-cultural couple

How to navigate an interfaith or cross-cultural relationship

by Eharmony Editorial Team - August 8, 2016

Navigating your way through the dating world can be tricky at the best of times, but add in the notion of multiple cultures, faiths and nationalities, and things can soon become a little overwhelming, says the Imposter.

Those of you who know me from my blog will know that I’m a big fan of interfaith and cross-cultural relationships and frequently write about my own ‘Mooish’ life with my husband, Bob. I’m often contacted by couples asking for advice on how to navigate their way through their own ‘Chrislim’, ‘Cathew’ and ‘Jewslim/Mooish’ relationships so, with this in mind, I thought I’d offer some advice that I’ve found helpful along the way:

Stop hiding who you are

It seems rather obvious, but we’ve all fallen prey to this sentiment at one time or another. It is, after all, terribly British to shove whatever part of you is causing fuss or bother aside in favour of an easy life. However, if you are in a multi-faith, cross-cultural or mixed race couple, this can be a very dangerous thing indeed. Who you are, and the things that make you similar or different from one another, are the cornerstones of every relationship. Removing them from the equation is like removing a limb – so don’t do it!

In my own life, I’ve found that being open, vocal and proud of my culture and religion has only improved my relationship. Conversely, I’ve also seen how much hiding who I am has doomed others to complete and utter failure. In my early twenties, I had a long-term boyfriend; we had a great deal in common and were happy together but for some strange reason, I’d put up a block when it came to my religion and cultural identity.

My only rational is that I was young and just didn’t want to be different or cause a fuss. However, by doing this, I immediately put distance between us as a couple and created an environment for myself where I could never truly relax or be at peace.

My first language was Punjabi; I’ve forgotten most of it now but, occasionally, I find myself thinking in my mother tongue. With this boyfriend, however, I always stopped myself right before the words escaped my mouth and I said them aloud. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t have liked it, it’s just that the Punjabi that I did remember was locked away in a box in my chest labelled, ‘Don’t rock the boat, you’ll sound stupid. Just speak English you fool.’

Unbeknown to me, by doing this, I was shrouding who I was in a thin layer of shame. The sad reality was that, somewhere over the years, I’d learned to deprioritise my culture and my very identity as a British Pakistani Muslim woman. So, as time went on, an entire part of who I am was inadvertently edited out, and thereby erased from our life together.

When I met my husband however, I was a little older and surer of myself, and I wanted to speak Punjabi to him all day long, loudly and triumphantly, and often with my nose pressed up to his face (I’m a very strange lady).

Your traditions, your race, your religion, your language and your culture are so precious, especially when you’re part of a cross-cultural or mixed faith relationship. Own them and celebrate them; there is never a good reason to hide who you really are.

Pick your holidays

The practicalities of planning and living a life together can be incredibly hectic, especially if you’re at the stage in your relationship where wider family is involved. If you’ve already tackled meeting the parents, then I strongly urge you to pick your holidays.

My husband and I come from two religions rich in tradition, customs and observations. When living an interfaith life, you need to consider family obligation and be realistic about what you both want to commit to. Clear and open communication with your partner is paramount, and may save you a lot of heartache further down the line.

In our house, we talked about which holidays meant the most to us. For him it was Rosh Hashanah, Pesach (Passover) and Hanukah, for me it was Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adah and Christmas Day. So, for us, these holidays are our non-negotiables and we’re expected to be present at all family events therein.

So, whether your traditions are cultural – like the 4th July, Oktoberfest or Chinese New Year – or religiously focused, having a conversation about it not only validates your partner but also allows you both to talk about how you can realistically commit to certain obligations. Also, if children are on the horizon, there will be a new tradition incorporating both cultures/religions already established in your home that stays constant year to year.

People talk and may ask questions…relentlessly

If you’re like me or my readers and are embarking on a not so traditional union, you may become somewhat of a talking piece at parties. Early on in my relationship, this used to bother me beyond reproach. My life has never felt particularly extraordinary, my husband and I just feel like two geeks in love muddling through, but the reality is, it is unusual and people will talk about it.

Being quizzed on my personal life and having details of it offered up in social situations has been a difficult pill for me to swallow. I always assumed it was brazen or rude in some way, and it wasn’t until the night that I unwittingly stumbled upon my local Asian LGBT scene that I fully understood where the curiosity was coming from. When I was faced with the first openly out and proud Asian lesbian couple I’d ever met, I was positively giddy with excitement – I found them fascinating and wanted to know everything about them and their families. In fact, I believe I barraged them with questions much like, well, everyone who’s ever been excited to meet me.

It was incredibly eye opening. I wasn’t curious about these women for gossip’s sake, there was nothing salacious about it, I was just so pleased to meet them, hear about how well their lives functioned and how supportive their Asian families were. Soon after this, I decided that, when it came to other people’s curiosity about my own life, from now on I would just smile, say thank you and carry on living it.

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Family drama

Now I’m not naïve enough to assume that all interfaith and cross-cultural relationships are accepted by their respective families. The sad reality is that there are plenty of people who don’t support their loved ones’ choices. I’m often contacted by readers who either fear they might be, or already have been, extricated from their family circle.

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When it comes to disapproving relatives in your wider family, it’s important to remember that your life with your partner isn’t really about them at all, it’s about the family you’re creating together. If your relatives are too proud to see that, or are more vocal about it than you’d like, then they’ve lost the right to be around you.

People are so fearful of the unknown; but maybe their fear in situations like this is good. I don’t know about you but, I’m not sure I’d want to be around people who haven’t decided how they feel about my life choices yet. And I certainly wouldn’t want that kind of volatility near my personal life. So, remember the golden rule: be respectful but be firm, and don’t be afraid to press eject when necessary.

As for disapproving parents, if you’re dealing with racism or any other form of irreparable damage then I firmly believe in the approach above. However, the sting of discord with your parents can echo deeply and profoundly throughout your life. I’m therefore inclined to remain hopeful and advocate the ‘never say never’ approach. Your life with your partner is a precious thing and you should protect it. But allowing your parents a second chance, if they earn it, allows for a little hope to linger rather than closing things off with a burnt bridge.

Your culture, race, religion, heritage and nationality are vital components of interfaith and cross-cultural relationships. It’s important to remember to let these parts of your identity have a voice or they can get lost and subsumed altogether. Who you are is fantastic and unique and it adds value to every relationship that you are in – don’t hide it away where no one can appreciate it.