What makes couples compatible? Do opposites attract? Or do birds of a feather flock together?
These are age-old questions. And while they aren’t bad questions, similarities and differences alone don’t determine the strength or success of a relationship. What matters even more is how those similarities and differences are acknowledged and handled.
Our background and identities in particular have significant impacts on the ways we experience the world, how we behave in it, and what we expect from it. They are highly relevant in our relationships and when we don’t treat them as such it’s only natural for defensiveness and hostility to brew.
Step one is recognizing these dynamics. Here are three ways I see identity differences impact interracial couples.
Awareness of Safety & Belonging
One of the most common things I hear from interracial couples (or, usually one person in the couple) is how one partner is excruciatingly more aware of how others, whether friends or strangers, look at the couple when in public. This happens especially a lot in relationships where one partner is white. By design, the world is a “safer” place for white people; as such they don’t have to be hypervigilant about racism, safety, and belonging in the same ways People of the Global Majority (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) do. This often means that one partner is more alert to elements of the environment that could pose a threat.
Depending on our cultural experiences, we may see romantic relationships as a traditional part of life (e.g. having a two-income household, bearing children, etc.) or we may see relationships as a home base from which to explore the world on our own terms (some tangential food for thought on that here). We may have differences in whether we see love as conditional or unconditional. Another thing I see is that within a relationship partners may expect certain kinds of support from their partner's parents or extended family that often mirrors their own experience. But while some parents help their adult children with everything, some may only help with certain things like childcare, or nothing at all.
Communication & Conflict Patterns
We generally accept the way we communicate as the “normal” way to communicate, and see other styles of communication as different or even ineffective. But “normal” is largely subjective. Some families sugar coat everything and avoid conflict at all costs, while others will call you out big time for eating their leftover Indian food without asking (It’s me. Don’t eat my leftover Indian food). What we find humorous will be different. As such, when our partners communicate with us in ways that feel unfamiliar to us, we might read them as hostile or disengaged, when what they are really trying to do is preserve the relationship in the way they learned how.
The List Goes On…But There Is Hope!
There are other things that show up in interracial relationships too. Cultural norms around being “on time,” perceptions on the value of education, microaggressions between partners, and more.
I believe the relationships we choose are opportunities to practice new behaviors and values that weren't available to us in previous relationships. While you may worry that differences, misunderstanding, or insecurity in relationships signals failure, with the right skills we can use these moments to foster deeper connection and fulfillment.
If you’re not already, subscribe so that you get alerts about my blog posts. Next week I’ll be posting a blog covering how interracial couples can talk about race and racism.
Looking for a couples therapist? I have openings for interracial couples and Queer couples who identify as "straight-passing" or newly Queer.
Photo by Dziana Hasanbekava