Family fun at the beach in winter, Lake Ontario

We are family…

My husband and I recently celebrated ten years of happy marriage. This is an achievement in itself, a testament to our ability to work together and our dedication to the commitment we made a decade ago, but as an interracial couple from completely different backgrounds (Pakistan and Ireland) this major milestone holds extra meaning for us.

Cold Shoulder

Mixed race relationships are still viewed with suspicion and distaste by many, even today. Indeed, among all the congratulations on our anniversary and well wishes from friends, our own families, both parents and siblings, were conspicuous by their silence. Although saddening, this was no surprise as neither family welcomed our marriage. Still, ten years is a long time to cling to ignorance.

Despite the rise in acceptance of interracial relationships, people tend to be less tolerant when it occurs within their own family, choosing to disown their relative rather than face their own prejudice. While these kinds of “closed families” may not overtly use racial slurs, their reticence and lack of warmth are still a hurtful indication of their views, and their behavior is enough to pass on ways of thinking that perpetuate racial borders and stereotypes.

Doorway to a whole new world

While cultural issues can lead to arguments and conflict, the same as differences of opinion can in any marriage, an intercultural marriage offers the potential for huge personal growth. At the bare minimum, it’s necessary to be considerate of each other’s background but it’s also an opportunity to broaden your own cultural understanding and attitudes. Unfortunately, these were opportunities our families chose to ignore. We also have a more varied diet and greater global awareness, oh, and our kids have stronger genes!

Making an intercultural marriage work takes dedication and strength but the core principles aren’t much different from those required for any other successful and happy marriage. You have to explore each other’s culture and values – not just the parts you like but the parts that cause you difficulty too. In your average marriage, these might be things like prior relationships, childhood, and family history.  Couples in an intercultural marriage have to add socio-cultural customs, beliefs, and key values to that pot.

I’ve got your back

It’s not about one culture overcoming another, but about finding a path through both, that you can both support. Knowing and understanding one another is essential for navigating those times when your views will differ. You can’t rely on assumptions based on a shared background – you have to develop an understanding for one another’s viewpoint in order to deal with the inevitable cultural conflict. You also need it to support your partner when they face negativity from their cultural kin, just as they will, when their turn comes to back you up.

Interracial couples need to use more energy and imagination to balance and celebrate two cultures.  They must be strong enough to endure the stares, tough enough to keep working at their cultural differences and self-assured enough to raise confident children.

Collateral damage

My husband and I have absolute confidence in our support of one another. Although there are times when the familial isolation cuts deeper (traditional “family” holidays or times when parental advice and support would be helpful) we find solace in one another’s understanding of our unusual predicament. What causes me the most pain is when I think about its effect on my three children. It pierces my heart when I wonder how they’ll process the knowledge that their extended family has little interest in them. I can only hope they don’t think for a minute it’s because of a shortcoming on their part.

As it is, they’ll grow up without the family bonds that many other children view as part of everyday life – no grandparents to spoil them, aunts and uncles to bond with and learn from. Their only points of reference for adult life are my husband and I, our friends, and their teachers. They miss out on the friendship and camaraderie of cousins and that implicit knowledge of love and support beyond immediate family.

Facing forwards

I try not to worry too much about the future, but I have to make sure I don’t shut the door on the possibility that our children might forge a path where we have failed. There may come a day when their strength and confidence opens the door of friendship and plants a seed of tolerance and inclusion.

Overall, I tend to see our situation in a positive light. We have a super-strong family bond, a vast capacity for empathy and understanding and the confidence that comes from knowing you’ve forged your own path in the big wide world, and you have the cojones to deal with whatever comes your way. No regrets, right?