Cultural expectations strike again

We get a lot of emails from people across the world that read this blog who are in or are about to be in an intercultural marriage. It has been a blessing to get to develop relationships with some of you and to hear your stories. I just want to take a moment to say thank you for reaching out. Though the combinations of cultures differ, we all pretty much face the same challenges, and I’d like to think we can find some solidarity in one another. So, I wanted to write today’s blog specifically for this particular demographic.

Facing a new challenge… again?

One of the biggest talking points for newly married cross cultural couples is cultural expectations. As I’ve been saying the past few years that I’ve been writing this blog, culture plays a big part in how Ray and I understand each other, and without earnestly seeking to understand each other’s culture, this marriage would have been over long before it even started. #truth

In our first few years of marriage, we mostly focused on cultural expectations as they related to our marriage – what he expected of me as a wife, the assignment of marital responsibilities, and the like. But as we are currently working on our third year of marriage, we’re discovering the importance of discussing cultural expectations regarding people outside of our marriage, specifically family members.

Before we got married, my husband was the man of his mother’s household, as his stepdad had died some time ago. Culturally speaking, it was his responsibility to take care of his mother and his siblings. Leave alone the fact that he had become the man of home, there is also a general cultural expectation that once a child gets on his feet financially, he should always be aware of his family’s needs and provide whenever possible. I might even go so far as to say it’s more like a rule, not just an expectation.

I’ve shared this before, but when we had our African wedding reception, we didn’t just feed each other wedding cake; we also fed cake to his mother and grandparents as a sign that we would always take care of them. I had no idea about that wedding tradition or the implications of what it meant for our marriage until later. (Side note for people marrying into other cultures… take time to learn the significance of the traditions you will perform at the wedding. They will give you great insight into your spouse’s cultural expectations. There was no rehearsal before our African wedding, so I was totally clueless about what I was supposed to do or what anything meant. To this day I wish we had done things a bit differently. This is Sam. Sam didn’t take time to learn the significance of Luhya traditions before her Kenyan wedding. Don’t be like Sam.)

The tension of transition

Once we got married, Ray encountered a lot of emotional anxiety because I was crying, “Leave and cleave, bruh!” while he was feeling the pull of cultural responsibility to his family. If you know Ray, you know he has an incredibly big heart for people and an even bigger place in his heart for his family. Even when he came to the States, I was busy focusing on how to pack my entire life into three suitcases, while he was considering foregoing packing his suitcase with clothes so that he could fill it with gifts for his family. Because he had also given a bunch of his clothes away before he came to the States, I made him get clothes for himself, but for months after that he complained about feeling like he hadn’t given his family enough.

In the beginning this issue actually caused lot of fights between us, because my perspective was that his only obligation was to me. As far as my culture is concerned, once you’re 18 you’re on your own, and once you’re married… fahgedaboutit. American parents typically don’t support their children financially after they hit those two milestones, and there is no expectation that the child should support the parents unless the parents can no longer take care of themselves. Generally speaking, what you do with your money is your business.

It took some time before we realized that the tension we were feeling was stemming from cultural differences. He just assumed that I was a miserly, selfish woman (as I’m sure many other Kenyans assumed and still assume is true of me to this day), and I just assumed that he cared about everyone else but me. There may be some truth to the fact that I’m a tight wad and my husband is overly generous, but we also were raised with different expectations about what money and marriage are supposed to look like.

Considering a compromise

As a couple, we’ve really had to work together to come up with a compromise that prioritizes our marriage while being as helpful as we possibly can to his family. For us that means if someone is requesting an amount under $10, he can give out of his discretionary fund, and he doesn’t have to tell me. That’s his prerogative. We’ve decided to do it that way simply because I have overreacted numerous times in the past.  So instead of selfishly asking him to stop giving, this was the next best happy compromise. We also have designated a fund just for requests we might receive from family, and once that fund is empty, that’s it. We don’t dig into our personal money or make ourselves broke and we don’t allow ourselves to feel guilty about it. We do what we can, and that’s that.

If there’s anything cautionary I can say about cultures similar to the Kenyan culture, it’s that I’ve seen young people really incur financial loss on account of family members needing to borrow money so frequently. If the young person doesn’t have a financial plan or doesn’t know when to say no, they can easily give what they can’t really afford to give and later on they find themselves resenting their family for putting them in a hole. As a whole, the culture can pressure people to make unwise financial decisions, which makes it difficult for anyone to get ahead, and it just perpetuates this cycle of constantly needing people to bail you out of financial problems.

But, if there’s anything encouraging I can say about cultures such as the Kenyan culture, it’s that you can rest assured that when you give to those in need, they will be there to support you when you are in need (for the most part). There have been times we’ve had to rely on the kindness of family to get us through a dry spell, when we didn’t have any work coming in or when we had exhausted our savings. Because of Ray’s connection to family, he can reach out to them, and they will do what they can to give a few dollars here and there. One of the greatest attributes of Kenyans is their giving nature.

A Word to the Wise

Now, to those of you embarking on an intercultural marriage, I would urge you and your partner to talk about this particular matter thoroughly. This has truly been a source of stress in our marriage, and considering money matters are one of the biggest reasons for divorce these days, you may want to commit to paying special attention to this area. Trust me, it can come to a head fast. Even the first week that we arrived in Kenya, after only two months of marriage, we came face to face with this issue, and we fought a lot. Seek to establish a cultural compromise for your money matters, and then tweak it along the way as your financial situation changes or even as your perspectives change.

Also, as I’ve said in other posts before, if your family is the side putting financial pressure on your marriage, you are the one responsible for being the spokesperson to share whatever you have decided as a couple. Your spouse should never feel like they have to defend decisions you made together to your family. It’s easier for you to deal with disappointment from your own family than for your spouse to deal with disappointment from their in-laws, if you know what I’m saying.

No matter what, protect the integrity and reputation of your spouse. A lot of Kenyans used to tell Ray that they thought I was controlling, but Ray has always vehemently stood up for me and asserted that we make decisions together. I can’t tell you how much that honors me as his wife and makes me love and respect him all the more. Hopefully you can learn from our mistakes and instead of fighting about money, foster love and respect in your own marriage as well.

Much love!