Jorge and Kim* came to see me a short while ago here in our Herndon office for marriage counseling. Jorge was from Colombia and Kim was also from Columbia: the one in South Carolina. Although they joked about being “from the same place”, it became clear that their backgrounds needed to come to the foreground. Kim, an Anglo-American, was embarrassed about her family’s open racism. She tried to balance it by pretending not to notice ways that Jorge was different. Jorge, whose cultural upbringing demanded family loyalty above all, tried to ingratiate himself to her family, but secretly worried that Kim was herself racist. He began to see her strong personality as an indication that she felt superior to him. Kim began to fear Jorge’s silence as sullen withdrawal from the marriage. So they fought about superiority and withdrawal. Neither knew how to get beyond their anger.
One of the great benefits of doing marriage counseling here in Northern VA (NOVA) is all the wonderful and diverse couples I have the opportunity to work with. I have over 30 years of experience as a marriage counselor and yet I still find I am incredibly grateful for ongoing courses and trainings on Cultural Sensitivity. I’ve learned to be curious about what people believe about themselves and their world, as well as how they present who they are as unique representatives of their backgrounds. It is my goal to look beyond my preconceived notions so I can encounter you and your partner in whatever crisis you are trying to manage within your marriage.
In working with couples I have also come to the realization that mistrust, prejudice and war don’t just happen between cultures. Two people who love and support each other can also end up warring with one another because of differences. Research shows what we already know is true: We humans tend to trust those who are most like us, and distrust all others. Because no two people are truly, exactly alike, we have to develop ways to balance what we trust about others with what we distrust and what we do not yet know. In working with couples I try to help you maximize what you know about each other and to do it in a way that you are curious and welcoming of the differences you find. Because research also shows that humans have a competing tendency to be fair, and even kind, to others. Your diverse marriage can promote a tendency to be fair to each other, to be kind to each other, and to find and cultivate an extraordinary love for each other, which is what Jorge and Kim were able to do.
Jorge and Kim first had to learn how to disclose their fears without making accusations. This is where an experienced marriage counselor can be a very helpful guide. They then were able to admit their hidden worries about the other. This is the deeper…and important work. Kim took the risk of looking at some lingering preconceptions about Colombians and was fascinated to find out that Jorge’s family had prejudices as well, based on Colombia’s old “Casta” system of dividing people based on racial mixture. Her eagerness to learn and appreciate this aspect of his background helped Jorge see that Kim did not look down on his culture. Jorge’s willingness to share his own embarrassment over his family’s prejudices helped Kim see that he did not want to withdraw from her and actually gave them a commonality in family background that neither had seen previously. As this process unfolded they began to truly trust each other for the first time.
Written by Thomas Overton, LPC:
*Jorge and Kim are made up names to protect identities