East Meets West Couples Counselling 1/5: Cultural Influences
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 this new blog series, she will provide an overview of how norms and dynamics may diverge when counselling couples from these different cultures, from the role of the extended family to attitudes towards the therapist.
Romantic relationships are a fundamental part of human life. With the importance we attach to these relationships comes the equally significant, if not daunting, task of finding the ‘right one’, and the challenge of maintaining the relationship over time. These struggles bring many clients through our doors for support and guidance.
To effectively help our clients through this delicate process it is crucial we understand the greater implications culture and family can play on a person’s relationship decisions. In this blog series, I will be exploring the extent to which cultural influences and familial involvement play a part in marital partner selection and relationship quality, specifically from a Western-individualistic versus Eastern-collectivistic perspective.
Eastern and Western perspectives
Cultural ideals and standards shape people’s perspectives about themselves and others, including expectations about our romantic relationships.
From a Western perspective, we often see selecting a partner as a highly personal struggle for our clients, and focus on their individual wants and desires. But for some clients, there may be far more at stake. This intimate bond, for them, is not just about the potential to fulfil one’s own emotional and physical needs. It is also about the influence it can have on their relationship with close others, their social standing within the community, and the impact on their credibility and reputation with family members at large.
It is easy for Western therapists to misread this emphasis on others as enmeshment. We may try to help our clients untangle their needs from those of their families or wider community, believing we are helping empower them.
But we have to be careful in this approach. Our clients need to do well in their environment, not ours. If we lack this cultural understanding, we stand to unwittingly create more anxiety around this topic for our clients – or miss the point for them entirely.
Not all Western and Eastern cultures are alike. It is not my intention in this blog series to make overarching generalisations. But I will be sharing some common threads of beliefs across these two cultural frameworks – Western, individualistic versus Eastern, collectivistic cultural philosophies – relating to dating, marriage, family structures, and parental authority on children’s lives.
Self in relation to others
The main difference between the two cultural frameworks concerns the self in relation to others.
In collectivistic cultures, individuals are largely thought to have a self that is oriented within the family. Therefore, their needs and wants are often inextricably interrelated to those of other family members and can even influence the quality of relationship with a romantic partner. This is not to say that in individualistic cultures people do not experience interdependent relationships, where they might be open to the influence of close others. However, therapists should bear in mind an important distinction between collective and relational self-construal.
In the relational–interdependent self-construal, individuals define themselves through singular, close relationships such as with a friend or parent.
In the collective-interdependent self-construal, individuals define themselves through more general group orientations, rather than individual relationships.
This concept is especially important when it comes to couples, as we will be exploring in this blog series. I hope this will help to widen the cultural scope of our relationship work, shifting our focus beyond extra-dyadic factors to consider how other external influences (i.e., family structure, parental authority) can impact romantic relationships across cultures.