One woman’s reflection on the challenges of cultural differences in love and marriage.

irreconcilable cultural differences

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my younger self. Five years ago I walked out of the Prince Georges County District Court legally unattached from a man that I thought would be my forever. And I remember thinking, how did ten years of marriage unravel like this?

My mind went back to the day he proposed at Ruth Chris Steakhouse, February 13, 2000. At 23, my goals were like any young girl’s raised in an African household: go to college, get a degree, build a career, get married, purchase a home in a “prestigious” neighborhood,…have babies. (I must stress it all had to be done in that order, any misalignment of these goals would’ve caused me to be the topic of the community’s gossip.) So when my African-American boyfriend who I met in college, asked if I would marry him, I didn’t hesitate to say yes–even though I didn’t have butterflies of excitement fluttering inside me. Looking back now, I would tell my 23-year-old self that those were not “goals” just check marks on a list.

In trying to maintain marital bliss, I quickly realized our first year as newlyweds was going to be filled with a see-saw of emotions. It became obvious that as we experienced our marital milestones we were disjointed. We would argue over things like the morning news, (damn Fox Morning News!) To him everything, and I mean everything was race related.

We would get into spirited debates that would always leave one of us emotionally battered. Race was hardly a topic of conversation when I grew up. I knew of inequality and its existence, but at 23, I had never experienced it. He, on the other hand, saw injustice in every situation. While attending a grade school in a white suburb of Atlanta he was constantly singled out by his white teachers as a trouble maker. This made an indelible impression on him and affected how he interacted with white people.

I distinctly remember having a conversation (prior to our marriage) where we discussed what he would tell his sons about trusting “white folks”. He was adamant that he would warn his sons not to ever trust white folks, as history had taught him that they were never to be trusted. I didn’t agree.

During my marriage, I didn’t realize how much my upbringing impacted me, nor did I understand how much of a pivotal role it would play in how I interacted with my husband. I grew up in a culture that put family first and by family, I didn’t mean he and I and our three boys. What he saw as the extended family– aunts, uncles, and cousins–I deemed as sisters and brothers and representations of my mother and father. This grew to become a major issue after the boys were born and I insisted that they greet my cousins as “Aunty” and “Uncle.” It was truly a cultural clash. I stood firm on my principles and was not willing to compromise at all. This cultural etiquette is the epitome of “it takes a village to raise a child” and I believe it teaches us how to respect our elders. I wanted my kids to value that.

Another instance in which my ethnicity and or culture slapped me in the face was when, after having a caesarean delivery of our first son we were advised not to have any visitors until I was able to move around better on my own. Being the protective person that he is, he was very adamant that I rest and no one but my parents and siblings come by. This was a battle that I took up with my mother, as she had already begun to call the Aunts and Uncles announcing the arrival of her grandson.

In my culture, it is customary for family to visit the new mother and baby. As a new parent, you ideally are greeted at home by a host of family members within the first few days of giving birth. Needless to say, my husband’s mandate did not go over well with my Mom. We got into a heated argument at the hospital which left me in tears. Hormones raging and an emotional wreck, I could only feel that I was in a huge tug of war because of this cultural difference.

Not unexpectedly, our marriage ended because of our irreconcilable cultural differences. We deserved to be happy and while I truly believed that love could conquer all, our different backgrounds and cultural challenges were way too overwhelming. We agreed it wasn’t working and I chose to throw in the towel. I asked for a divorce and walked away from our marriage.

Seventeen years later my views have evolved a bit and I’ve matured a great deal. While I only date men I’m culturally compatible with now, I’ve learned a few things along the way. I’ve learned not to argue so much…to save some of that gusto for things that really matter. I’ve learned not to use, “It’s my culture” as justification. This just makes it seem like I value my culture more than the other person values theirs. I’ve learned not to be so rigid– an intercultural relationship is a merger of two cultural identities, not a compromise. Compromising causes resentment; the key is to find common ground and be flexible. I’ve learned that a relationship is more than just us…it includes our families and we must be mindful of our interactions (and non-interactions).

Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that our culture and our upbringing are a huge part of who we are even if we don’t recognize it.

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By Mariama J.

Afropolitan Voices is a collection of personal stories from Africans in the diaspora. Stories are powerful, click here to share yours.

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