East Meets West Couples Counselling 3/6: Marriage
Couples counselling can involve different considerations when working between Western individualist and Eastern collectivist cultures. Dr Kathrine Bejanyan is a relationship therapist with a PhD in Social Psychology. In the third part of her blog series, she looks at variations in attitude to marriage and the importance of family loyalty.
Collectivist cultural values strongly stress the importance of marriage. It is not just considered to be one of the most significant milestones in a person’s life, but an important social duty, that can significantly contribute to the wellbeing and status of the entire family.
My client, Sammi, had agreed to marry a man her family had chosen for her because his family had a strong reputation in the community. Following their marriage, she had discovered he was not very interested in her, or in being married yet. He, like her, had agreed to the match for his parents’ sake. Sammi felt uncertain about the relationship, but wanted to stay for the sake of her family and find a way to make it work. Afterall, no one had ever divorced in her family, and she had younger, still unmarried siblings to think of.
How marriage may impact on family wellbeing
In collectivistic cultures, the loyalty individuals feel towards their family members often increases the importance they attribute to the ability of their romantic relationship to strengthen or weaken family ties. Given its prominent role in the social structure, marriage can also hold strong implications for the bride and grooms’ extended family network. A ‘bad’ match between couples is likely to harm the entire family’s reputation and potentially jeopardise the future marriage prospects of younger siblings. Consequently, the parents often get heavily involved in their children’s choices to secure a good match for their children and to preserve family integrity and reputation.
Often young adults from Eastern-collectivistic backgrounds are still expected to remain compliant to their parent’s wishes – even after they get married and form families of their own. The Western shift to relating with parents from the position of one adult to another does not necessarily happen, with adult children often still expected to remain compliant to their parents’ wishes over their own.
Marriage is believed to enable social harmony, endowing individuals with value and purpose within the family and society at large. In contrast to the Western, individualistic conceptualisation of marriage as a private, intimate union between two individuals, within many Eastern, collectivistic cultures marriage is considered an essential and long-standing cultural institution with some elders even believing that social order and balance is contingent upon its preservation.
Striking a balance in therapy
When a couple of Eastern, collectivistic cultural background present in therapy for relationship help, it can often be the case that, beyond the couple dyad, they are struggling with influences from extended family members. As therapists, we must keep in mind that collectivistic values reinforce a strong sense of duty and commitment towards family members. Even if we believe family members are meddling or over-involved, we have to be careful not to destabilise or corrode family relationships that our clients are counting on.
If I had been too quick to encourage Sammi to stand up for her own rights, I may unwittingly have undermined longstanding cultural norms and family relations. This could have led to her being ostracised or excluded by family members, and ultimately caused her more harm. Having first made sure that she was not living in an abusive dynamic, I worked instead to help her redefine and shift her position and resolve the conflict within the family system.