Cultural Differences: Asset or Liability

Melissa and I began dating in May of 2006. We got engaged in June, and by August of 2007, we were married. We were sure we knew each other well. After all, we studied theology and did mission work together. We were united by our deep spiritual convictions and our common goal to serve God in ministry. We did an excellent premarital course, which was key in preparing us for marriage. However, we hadn’t accounted for the cultural, familial, personality, and gender differences that would surface right away on our honeymoon. 

Let me start by saying that all human beings are unique in personality. Even two males raised in the same family, born to the same set of parents, have the potential of being in conflict. So even without major cultural, familial, and gender differences, there are likely to be relational challenges. However, when you add to personality differences the male/female gap, the potential for miscommunication only increases. If you have any questions about this, read the book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, authored by relationship counselor John Gray and published in 1992. 

What about familial differences? Every family has a unique culture. For example, in my home growing up, we never sat down together for meals. In Melissa’s home, on the other hand, family meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) were sacred. At my house, everyone just grabbed their food whenever they were hungry, sat down in front of the television, and ate. Guess what mealtime expectations Melissa and I brought to our marriage? One more familial difference. Melissa’s family loves to walk. I knew this. I also learned to enjoy a good walk while in college. I thought we were on the same page on this one (so did she)—until the first day of our honeymoon. My idea of a walk is perhaps a fifteen to twenty-minute walk (one mile). Melissa’s idea? Several hours and several miles of walking. Let’s just say there were some unspoken frustrations right off the bat. 

And I haven’t said anything yet about our cultural differences. She is French-Canadian, and I’m Brazilian. To say that the differences are much greater than the similarities would be an understatement. Though we both come from Latin backgrounds, our cultural heritages are worlds apart. Melissa is more concerned with being on time than I am. We were both brought up with different foods, different entertainment, different language, different humor, different table manners (I was irritated by her licking her fingers, and she was shocked to hear me burp), and the list goes on. 

So how has our marriage survived? Survived is not the best word. I would say our relationship has thrived now for nearly 17 years. What has been the key? By God’s grace, we have come to see our differences (cultural, personality, gender, family backgrounds) as assets rather than liabilities. Instead of resenting the fact that she’s not like me, I’ve learned to appreciate her for who she is. Rather than expect her to become Brazilian, or me to become French-Canadian, we have chosen to allow each other to express our distinctive characteristics, and this has enriched our family. This is only possible through mutual submission, empathy, and cooperation. More importantly, this is possible only by the power of God’s Spirit. We have come to see marriage as a partnership rather than a relationship in which one is inherently subordinate to the other.  We have chosen to see the best in the other and to appreciate those differences that exist between us. 

Paul’s vision for the church was that of a united, multi-ethnic family in which Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, male and female, young and old, would worship and do life together. Speaking of the church in Corinth, he said, "…the body is one and has many members… the body does not consist of one member but of many…If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?…If all were a single member, where would the body be? (1 Cor 12:12-19, ESV).  Paul not only celebrates diversity in the church, he sees it as an essential part of its carrying out God’s mission. Rather than view differences as liabilities or potential for conflict, why not see them as opportunities to enrich God’s people? Why not see them as essential ingredients for enriching God’s family? 

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