Among the most commonly occurring search terms bringing people to my website are ‘interracial marriage difficulties’, ‘challenges of intercultural marriages’, or words to that effect. I hear from countless people describing fledgling mixed race relationships that have come up short against the inflexibility of parental prejudice. The circumstances, nationalities and ‘colour distributions’ differ but they’re all essentially asking the same question: Is this going to work? Can it work? How did you know it would work?
Not only are they looking for an answer that doesn’t exist, they’re asking a question they shouldn’t have to.
In an interracial relationship the first intoxicating flush of love is tempered by gritty concerns of community exclusion, family estrangement, parental disownment and sundering of siblings. Right from the start it’s heavy going. No-one enters marriage certain they’ll divorce yet I’ll wager no-one tries harder to see into the future than interracial couples. When an intra-racial relationship bites the dust people are philosophical – ‘they gave it their best’, ‘who could have known?’, ‘that’s life’. Interracial relationships aren’t afforded the same largesse. Cue the Greek chorus of ‘I-told-you-so’s’ – “why did you obstinately proceed when we all told you it wouldn’t work?” The blame is squarely yours for dragging everyone through this. There are no mitigating circumstances. So for us the odds are reversed – while most couples acknowledge there’s a chance their relationship won’t endure, interracial couples commit because they believe, despite all the odds, there’s a chance it will. And while it might be more prosaic than romantic, it does mean you start from a position of strength.
Some of the people who write to me are optimists, you can hear it in the blithe (self) assurances that their detractors will ‘come around’ given time, that love will conquer all. Nothing wrong with that – K and I were the same. Research suggests those who balance optimism with a healthy dose of realism tend to have happier and more successful lives, and neither of us regrets giving our families the time and opportunity to be their best selves – that they weren’t up to the challenge speaks to their limitations not ours. Other correspondents are desperately trying to protect themselves. The tone of their words carries a certainty that rings hollow, claiming cognizance of probable failure while secretly dying for someone to tell them they’re mistaken.
I don’t claim to have the answers but there’s no point proceeding if you don’t think you can make it – no-one gets married to prove themselves wrong.
You both have to believe in the possible. The minute you think your future is limited, it is.
When K and I decided to be together it turns out, looking back, neither one of us gave it a lot of thought. We acknowledged the commonly held views on interracial relationships – tougher, lonelier, more likely to fail – but there’s only so much thinking you can do about the unknown and none of it’s going to give you a cast-iron guarantee. So I always say the best decision of my life was the one I gave the least thought to. He asked me, I said ‘Yes’ – let the chips fall where they will.
A couple of weeks ago, a reader asked, “How did your husband make the decision to marry you despite his father’s disapproval? Was it an easy decision for him? Were there any times you felt it wouldn’t work out because of it?”
I described how he’d been open and honest about things from the start, how you have to be brutally frank about what’s important to you at the outset. K made it clear early on he wanted a committed relationship, not a dalliance, and as our relationship deepened he cautioned me about how his family would view me, ‘us’, and how their disapproval would likely result in him being disowned, declared dead to them. To test his convictions he even called his brother, offhandedly claiming to be in a relationship with a ‘ghori’ (white girl). The resultant recrimination was confirmation enough. For my part I was completely open about my struggles with depression, self-harm and eating disorders.
I married K based on what my heart was telling me. All these years I figured he was the objective, analytical one, that he must’ve carefully calculated the logical choice – he is an engineer after all… But I had no idea what swayed his thoughts, or whether it was a difficult conclusion to reach. So I asked him the other night how he made the decision to go ahead, and thirteen years on he still manages to surprise me.
He said there was never any question – he just knew he’d found his lobster.
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
For us, any doubts about our relationship’s ability to endure were exogenous. People look at interracial couples through their own distorting racial lens, infecting others with their prejudice for the purpose of instilling fear and control. K had to overcome years of conditioning that white women are promiscuous, and dubious in their commitment, an insecurity that surfaced, after any particularly fiery argument, in the form of threats to engage a divorce lawyer, no doubt to pre-empt his imagined risk of me leaving him.
This was intensely hurtful and destabilizing but over time I recognised a pattern and instead of letting it undermine us, in calmer moments we talked it through. I pointed out he was the one displaying dubious commitment, reassured him of my unswerving loyalty, and it became a thing of the past.
The only times I had misgivings were when I grew paranoid about his relationship with his family. Although we managed to broker a truce of sorts relations were never easy, and on a deeper level I still must have felt I was courting disaster. I spent seven years under scrutiny, deflecting deterrents and, when those failed to work, thinly-disguised threats – my mother-in-law liked to remind me of K’s Islamic entitlement to four wives and ask how I’d feel when #2 came along. But the long, incomprehensible family discussions in quick-fire Punjabi were the hardest part. Present yet excluded, I was nervous they might gradually convince him he’d made a mistake. I worried I’d lose him and be left broke and homeless, denied access to our children.
Ultimately we came through those trials, and it sounds cliché but, after what felt like balancing on a knife-edge at times, they brought us closer and made us stronger. Looking back I can see his family wielded the greatest influence over whether our relationship thrived or failed and we survived because we learned to trust one another – not the calculated risk that’s so often mistaken for trust, but the kind where there’s nothing to left but to place yourself in someone else’s hands.
But for the reaction of others, an interracial marriage is no different from any other. Trust, love and respect, for yourselves and one another, can only come from within. As for the perceived hardship of learning to understand and accept another culture, how is that any different from emigrating, something thousands of people do voluntarily and successfully every year? Every family unit is a micro-culture within a larger society, with its in-jokes, traditions, pet names and private divergences from social norms. Learning to navigate and understand these microcosms-in-law is part of any marriage. Just as shared race is no assurance of marital success, by the same token, racial difference is no guarantee of incompatibility.