ON THE FRONTLINE: Intercultural Couples in a Divided World

ON THE FRONTLINE: Intercultural Couples in a Divided World

Reenee Singh and Mehboob Dada

“I shall soon need a passport to travel to Central Milton Keynes”, declared my mother-in-law to me on the phone. Oblivious to the cold silence on the other end of the phone line, she carried on, “Honestly, it’s so difficult when most people don’t have English as their first language. What’s the world coming to?”

This diatribe was not unusual in the context of current public and private conversations in the UK, marked by racism and ‘othering’. Further afield there is not much cause for cheer, with the US and our friends in European countries split along lines of race, religion, class and gender.

How does this discourse impact on the relationships between intercultural couples? How does it position us, as two British Asian professionals working with couples from different cultures, races, religions or countries? How do the stories from our own (intercultural) couple relationships, interact and intersect with those of our clients? How do intercultural couples function in a post Brexit, post Trump world?

As psychotherapists, we often encounter the challenges our clients are confronted with which are a reflection of the broader socio-political contexts of their lived realities. Hare Mustin (1994), in her classic text on gendered discourses in family therapy, highlights that our consulting rooms often mirror societal discourses and prejudices. Below we will draw on clinical vignettes of intercultural couples, struggling to overcome the issues that their differences can create in our current troubled times, to demonstrate the complexities involved, that can be disabling and disempowering.

Clinical Vignette 1: Trump concerns us all
“The day that Trump was elected, we had a bitter row”’, recounted an American client Marjorie, who is in a relationship with Carlo, an Italian settled in London. Marjorie was appalled that Trump had been elected and although Carlo was also unhappy with the outcome of the elections, he could not quite see Marjorie’s perspective. A row about gendered differences erupted, with Marjorie invoking their cultural differences. How could Carlo, as an Italian man, understand and sympathise with women’s plights and positions? How could he empathise with Marjorie, an American woman, living in this day and age?

Within the consulting room, when things had calmed down between them, Carlo and Marjorie could recognise that their positions had become polarised along gendered and cultural lines. It was easy for Marjorie to see Carlo as ‘a typical, chauvinistic Italian male’ and Trump’s election victory led to her feeling unsafe and unprotected as a woman, hence relying even more on her political convictions and feminist position. For Carlo, however, Trump’s migration politics were equally prescient. Carlo reminds us that Trump being in power concerned different people in different ways – women and men, citizens and migrants, and that localised concerns had impact beyond personal and state boundaries, indeed spread all over the world. In the clinical session, what this generated was a discussion about their own positions, highlighting the culturally-located gendered roles and responsibilities of both within the relationship.

Clinical Vignette 2: ‘That area’ is my home and my identity
Yasmin and Ben sought premarital couple’s therapy, before making a decision about whether to get married or not. Yasmin is a Palestinian Arab woman and Ben is Jewish European. Yasmin’s ancestors had to flee Palestine and settle in Jordan, as a result of the conflict between Israel and the Palestine.

In the first therapy session, they described a recent incident when they were at a party together, with Ben’s friends and relatives. One of Ben’s friends talked about how the Israelis had ‘kicked the British out of Israel’. Yasmin was upset by this comment and Ben could not understand why. When they talked about the incident and what it had meant to them, Yasmin explained that she was upset, not only because it was uncomfortable to be the only outsider at a Jewish gathering, but also because Ben’s friend had named Palestine, in a way that Ben had never done. Ben referred to Palestine as ‘that area’ and described it as a ‘social construct’. Yasmin talked about how her ancestors had lost everything when they had been ‘kicked out of Palestine’. In denying the existence of Palestine, she felt denied of a home and an identity.

Although the conflict between Israel and Palestine is not new, the utterance of such invidious political views reinforce the polarisation of positions, and serve to illustrate the seemingly impossible environment and any attempt to find compromise. Instead (albeit inadvertently) such sentiments can fuel a climate of islamophobia, anti-Semitism and intolerance.

Ben and Yasmin clearly needed to move towards creating new templates of acceptance and tolerance through their interfaith relationship. Yasmin spoke poignantly about how she recognised the importance of Ben’s homeland Israel and was merely asking for a similar recognition of her own history. Ben was able to ask, in turn, for Yasmin to begin to introduce him to her family and friends as a means to facilitate better understanding and progress the couple relationship. They left the session with the agreement that he would meet her mother, facilitating a safe context in which difficult conversations about identity, home, inclusion and exclusion could take place.

Clinical Vignette 3: Double Lives
Tanvir and Anna met in France, where she worked as a teacher. Tanvir is from a Muslim South Asian background and Anna is White, English, secular, and has extensively worked and travelled abroad. The early stages of their relationship worked well, as they commuted between the UK and France. However, when Anna moved back to the UK and the couple decided to live together, Tanvir was caught in a dilemma. He felt unable to tell his family about Anna, as he feared this would distress his widowed mother, but he wanted his relationship with Anna to develop further. He felt an irresolvable choice had presented itself: Anna or his family. His ultimate decision, to commit to a cohabiting relationship, meant that he suffered considerable guilt about turning his back on his extended family, community and mosque.

As a consequence of these circumstances, Tanvir and Anna’s home together in London has become their world. The relationship feels contained, because Tanvir’s family and colleagues who live in the North of England do not know of Anna’s existence in London. Through discussion, Anna is beginning to realise that Tanvir needs time and space to tell his family about her and she is now more able to give him the space he requires to make a decision and a commitment to her. However for Tanvir, there are broader considerations about how he reconciles the different parts of his life and loves – conversations that will continue to unfold through the course of our therapeutic work.

Clinical Vignette 4: Multiple identities
Rubina was born in Somalia and is married to Iqbal who was born in Pakistan. Iqbal is coming to terms with his homosexuality but continues to love his wife and son. At present, therefore, the only obvious feature which the couple share is that they are both Muslim. So how do these two individuals accept and integrate the seemingly mutually exclusive identities which they live with? This vignette demonstrates the intersectionality of identities, whereby individuals struggle to negotiate their ethnicity, sexuality, and gendered identities.

Iqbal met and developed a nurturing relationship with Rubina through their workplace, and grew increasingly emotionally attached to her son: ‘I really love him like he is my own’. The family relationship developed and they decided to marry. However, as time progressed the couple relationship became unfulfilling which caused resentments from both of them, with neither party being able to sufficiently voice their concerns to each other.

For Iqbal, he had conceded to familial and cultural pressures to get married but felt burdened by how his family would accept a black African woman as his wife. Though she was Muslim, would they accept the fact that she is neither Pakistani nor Indian – not ‘someone like us’? This internalised racism, which manifests in the form of ‘Shadism’, is a significant taboo topic. Shadism expresses itself as the dislike of any colour that does not reflect one’s own, and more importantly, ‘fair and lovely’ are the ‘shades’ which are accepted as the more acceptable. For this couple, then, the factor which enabled them to come to terms with their differences was not necessarily love, but faith. Faith was glue that cemented this relationship. For Iqbal’s family, his decision to settle down and get married overrode any racial stigma.

In therapy, Rubina relationship concerns became articulated in traditionally gendered terms: ‘We both work but as a man he doesn’t support me with what I need financially to hold the family together […] I am now pregnant and he does not contribute enough’. She was growing increasingly dissatisfied with their sexual relationship and felt that they were no longer compatible. For Iqbal, the guilt and shame that he personally felt around his sexuality were exacerbated by homophobia experienced within his family, the Muslim community and also from his wife, Rubina. He perceived this as a barrier to him living ‘authentically’, as a Muslim gay man.

After five years they are in the throes of ending the relationship, a process which is facilitating a life-long journey of self-acceptance for Iqbal, and for Rubina an opportunity to reconstruct her life.

Reflections from these complexities
As therapists, we have encountered many couples where their desire to build and sustain a relationship involves a degree of compromise and assimilation. This normalising process can require moving away from what has been familiar, comfortable and reassuring. Racism, islamophobia or homophobia further compound this process and can have devastating effects on individuals, giving rise to feelings of abandonment, which can manifest as difficulties in the couple relationship

The different elements of each partner’s identities are interlinked and as such need to be discussed in the therapeutic relationship, to help nurture and create an understanding with a view to developing openness. If there is no authentic dialogue as in the case of Iqbal and Rubina, coping strategies of silence, internalization of unresolved anxieties, and feelings of isolation can restrict healing.

The four vignettes that we present here include intercultural couples who are in the process of making decisions about how best to nurture themselves, their relationships and also sustain commitment. They illustrate some of the ways that couples manage to protect each partner’s individual ethnic, religious, racial, sexual and cultural identities when these are otherwise at risk of being marginalised or rendered invisible, not only to themselves but also by wider society. Individuals’ suppression of such feelings can cause emotional distress which may lead to depression. Here the role of the therapist is crucial in facilitating the process of reflective evaluation. Systemic couple therapy has been proven to be the treatment of choice when one or both partners is depressed (Reibstein and Sherbersky, 2012) and hence we have used a model based on systemic principles in our work with intercultural couples.

However, the world of psychotherapy – regardless of the modality – is formulated upon Eurocentric paradigms which are often incomplete in their understanding of the complexities presented in working with racism, sexism, class, Islamophobia and homophobia, especially when these factors intersect. Bodies such as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) and UK Council for psychotherapy (UKCP) may compound the problem through insufficient professional expertise in and a lack of acknowledgement of the intersectional contexts of contemporary relationships. Practitioners need to work towards an ethical code of conduct which recognizes and emphasises diversity and difference. The vignettes presented here strike a chord with many of us, living as we do, in a divided world. In the current sociopolitical climate, working with intercultural and interfaith couple relationships represent a significant aspect of frontline engagement with relationships across crisis.

Mustin, R.T. (1994) Discourses in the mirrored room: a postmodern analysis of therapy. Family Process 33(1): 19-35.
Reibstein, J. and Sherbersky, H. (2012) Behavioural and empathic elements of systemic couple therapy: the Exeter model and a case study of depression. Journal of Family therapy 34(3): 271-283.


Reenee Singh is consultant Couples and Family Systemic Psychotherapist, co-director Tavistock Family Therapy and Systemic Research Centre and Founding Director, London Intercultural Couples Centre, (LICC). The Centre specialises in therapeutic and mediating services for couples and partners representing different ethnicities, genders, class, faith and sexual orientations. The complexities involved in developing relationships both with each other, with the family and wider community are areas that the LICC work with, enabling a platform for negotiating acceptance of difference among intercultural/interfaith couples negotiating this complicated transition. Mehboob Dada is an Integrative Psychotherapist who is experienced in working with asylum seekers, refugees, LGBTIQ with a specialism among gay Muslim men. He has cooperated with the London Intercultural Centre in working on research projects related to interracial relationships, sexuality and sexual relationship education with a focus on Muslim communities.