East Meets West Couples Counselling 2/5: Dating
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 second part of her blog series, she looks at how attitudes to dating may vary, and the therapeutic work of helping with conflictual feelings.
Dating different partners and exploring intimacy, love and sexuality is seen as the norm in Western societies – a relevant and enriching part of an individual’s path to maturation. Within Eastern, collectivistic cultures, dating is not generally common practice and is often a sensitive topic of discussion between parents and children.
In cultures where parental authority is highly valued, children’s dating activities can appear to give them too much freedom, leading parents to fear losing control over their children’s behaviour and ties to cultural traditions. For instance Manohar reported that for many South Asian parents dating is viewed as a ‘betrayal’ of the traditional cultural establishment in favour of more Western, self-interested practices.
Geta came to see me about the guilt she felt in hiding her boyfriend from her parents. She was a 26-year-old young professional of Indian heritage. While she valued this background, she also felt very British and had an Irish boyfriend whom she had been seeing for two years.
The pair had met while doing their doctorates. They started out as friends but eventually he won her over, and now they wanted to get married.
Unfortunately, Geta was riddled with guilt and shame. Her family didn’t even know about the relationship. She had always been the dutiful daughter to her parents and felt her actions would break their hearts and disrespect family values and cohesion. However, when I asked Geta what first captivated her about her boyfriend, she said he was the first person to ask her what she wanted in life – what her hopes and dreams were, what she envisioned for herself.
Challenges of dating within an Eastern-collectivist context
Secrecy: One study of dating and sexual activity among Asian Americans found that 70 per cent of Asian-Americans dated in secrecy from their parents as a way to combat parental disapproval. Our clients may have to go to great lengths to hide their dating life from their family members. It is important we understand our clients’ fears and take what they say seriously. We may be tempted to encourage open communication with their parents because, to us, their fears seem extreme or unlikely, but this could put our clients in a more precarious situation.
Degree of seriousness: Whereas Western individualists often like the process of dating, finding it natural and fun to explore different relationships with different partners – separate from the promise of marriage – collectivists are likely to view dating as a more serious endeavour. Dating can often be viewed as a means to an end with the intention of finding the right person and getting married. The implications of dating can have far greater consequences and outcomes than Western therapists realise, and must be approached with caution and care.
Guilt / shame: Collectivist adolescents are often encouraged by family to adopt a more practical approach to relationships, observe cultural customs and place familial duties above the personal desire for romance, intimacy or sexual desire. This in turn can elicit a great deal of guilt and conflictual feelings within our clients for wanting to follow their heart while going against parental wishes and cultural values.
Whereas the onset of adolescence brings increasing freedom and autonomy in individualistic cultures, for collectivists, this developmental stage can be marked by conflict and parents’ increasing stringent rules regarding socialising, dressing and, in particular, romantic relations with peers.
We must help clients like Geta, not only to navigate through the development of their early romantic relationships, but to manage the potential internal struggles they may experience in this exploration process.