Navigating Cultural Differences in Dating

Hundreds of years ago, most of us would have found our romantic partners in the small, insular communities we grew up in — most of our life partners would be people we grew up with, or at least shared almost all key facets of life with. Today, modern dating with generations of migration and the Internet means that our romantic partner could be almost anyone else on earth — which means many of us are in relationships with people who grew up in wildly different cultural contexts.

Navigating cultural differences in a relationship can be both enriching and challenging, requiring couples to cultivate understanding and empathy. By listening, learning, and focusing on mutual respect rather than being “right,” couples can foster greater harmony and connection in their partnerships, regardless of cultural backgrounds— here’s how.

Take stock of your own cultural values and practices

2024-03-26 Blog Image 2

If you’re experiencing conflict or friction in your relationship around cultural differences, it may feel obvious that your partner is the one who’s “wrong” or needs to evolve — because after all, they’re the one who has all the cultural baggage. Especially if you grew up in a dominant American culture or the most common one in your area, it’s easy to forget that you, too, have a unique, subjective culture, and one that is not universal. Often, when conflicts arise, it’s easy to point fingers at the partner whose cultural practices seem different or unfamiliar. 

Of course, this isn’t true — everyone on earth has a culture and a cultural background, and none are objectively right or more “neutral” than the others. The one we grew up with just feels like it is. It’s essential to recognize that both partners bring unique cultural baggage to the relationship. This could be an ethnic culture — like white American Protestants in the Midwest — or another constellation of cultural identities: academic or professional role, religious affiliation, or political ideology.

To help begin conversations about cultural differences from a more even footing, take some time to take stock of your own cultural values and the impressions they left on you. Think of things from your partner’s perspective, if that helps. What are the most important aspects of shared life or relationships in the home and the community you grew up in? Quality time? Avoiding conflict? Consensus-building? Gift-giving? Sharing domestic tasks? What are major faux pas or transgressions? Being too curt? Failing to consider everyone’s needs? Being an ungrateful guest? 

Are all of these values objectively determined? Can you see why someone from outside the culture you grew up in might not find them logical or desirable? Are there aspects of your culture that you yourself find frustrating from time to time? Try to remember and maintain this attitude of perspective-taking and open-mindedness into any discussion in a cross-cultural relationship.

Listen and learn to understand the “why”

2024-03-26 Blog Image 3

If you’re feeling frustrated and disconnected from your partner around an area of cultural difference, our instinct can be to explain and justify. We want our partner to understand where we’re coming from and why they need to think about the situation differently. 

In most cases, our best bet is to move in the opposite direction of this instinct. When we’re feeling on opposite sides of a gulf from our partner and like we badly need them to understand us, it’s often a sign that we instead need to understand the other person.

When engaging in conversations about cultural differences, strive to listen and learn from your partner’s perspective. Instead of focusing solely on justifying your own viewpoint, take the time to understand the “why” behind your partner’s beliefs and practices. Ask open-ended questions and approach the discussion with a genuine curiosity to gain insight into your partner’s cultural values.

Even if the issue in question feels meaningless or nonsensical to you, it likely has some substantial meaning within the culture it originates from. For instance, people from “ask” cultures are frequently frustrated by the indirect communication strategies preferred by people from “guess” cultures — and while it’s perfectly fine to feel frustrated by that, understanding that “guess” cultures’ behaviors signify valuing social harmony may give enough context to help you work with the cultural value rather than against it.

Focus on getting both your needs met, not being “right”

2024-03-26 Blog Image 4

Disagreements around cultural values often cause us to react strongly — it makes sense, as culture is tied to our sense of self and where we came from. Even if we don’t think of ourselves as identifying strongly with our background or culture, we may be surprised to find how attacked we feel if cultural differences have become an issue in our romantic relationships.

This is completely normal — and at the same time, it’s crucial that we avoid knee-jerk defensiveness. When cultural differences come up, the goal isn’t to “win” or to prove that the way we do things is correct, actually. The goal is for you and your partner to find a solution to the current conflict that works — and to stay on the same team with each other as you do so. 

It’s crucial to shift the focus from being “right” to finding common ground and meeting each other’s needs. Disagreements stemming from cultural differences can trigger strong emotional reactions, but it’s essential to remember that the goal is not to win the argument. Instead, prioritize maintaining a sense of connection and understanding with your partner.

Your shared opponent is disconnect and misunderstanding, not each other. It doesn’t matter if your partner doesn’t come around to your way of thinking right now — or maybe ever — as long as you can come to a place of functional cooperation around the problem facing you right now.

Recommended Books:

Loving Across Borders: How to Navigate Conflict, Communication, and Cultural Differences in Your Intercultural Relationship

The Art of Crossing Cultures, 3rd Edition

The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business

For More Articles Check Out These Recent Posts:

How Do I Know if They’re “The One”?

Getting Comfortable With Rejection

Are You Limiting Yourself in Dating? Why Dating People of Different Races, Cultures, and Socio-Economic Statuses Can Lead to Your Dream Partner

Affiliate Disclaimer: Little Gay Book may earn commissions from qualifying purchases made through links on our website. These commissions help to support our work in providing valuable content to our readers. Rest assured, this does not affect the price you pay for any products or services. We only recommend products that we genuinely believe will bring value to our audience. Thank you for your support!

Take the Butch-Femme Quiz

take the Butch

Quiz me!