Relationship standards and communication in intercultural couples: Implications for couple education and counselling

Relationship standards and communication in intercultural couples: Implications for couple education and counselling

17 November 2015
Relationship standards and communication in intercultural couples

What do relationship educators and therapists need to understand about intercultural couple relationships in order to provide appropriate services?

One third of Australian marriages are intercultural. This means that relationship educators and therapists need to understand intercultural couple relationships and provide appropriate services.

Australians of European ancestry adopt a predominantly individualistic culture. This means that people receive social approval for being independent, expressing thoughts and feelings that differ from other people’s thoughts and feelings, and pursuing individual goals. Asian, African and Latin-American countries generally have collectivistic cultures. This means that interdependent relationships, suppression of individual thoughts and feelings for the sake of group harmony, and pursuit of group goals are socially approved.

We conducted a series of studies to find out how these cultural differences affect couple relationships. We compared Chinese, Western and intercultural Chinese-Western couples living in Australia. We focused on these groups for three reasons. Firstly, Chinese are Australia’s largest non-European migrant group. Secondly, Chinese culture is strongly collectivistic, while European Australians tend to be individualistic. Thirdly, Chinese-European inter-marriages are common.

We used a measure of relationship standards to assess what people believed made a couple relationship great. The assessed standards included romance and attraction, which are typically highly valued in Western culture. The measure also assessed family responsibility standards, such as respect for elders and maintaining harmony, which are highly valued in collectivistic cultures. Compared to Western couples, Chinese couples rated fulfilling family responsibilities as more important for a great relationship. Western couples rated intimacy and demonstration of love and caring as more important than did Chinese couples, which reflects individualistic cultural emphasis on self-expression and individual fulfilment. Intercultural couples tended to have relationship standards midway between those of Chinese and Western couples. Greater belief in the importance of romance and attraction was associated with higher relationship satisfaction across all cultural groups. However, similarity of family responsibility standards, rather than the degree to which these were seen as important, predicted high relationship satisfaction.

We video-recorded Chinese, Western and intercultural Chinese-Western couples’ communication when talking about an area of disagreement in their relationship. Many writers assert that Chinese are more indirect in their communication than Westerners. We did find that Chinese avoided talking about relationship disagreements more often than Westerners. However, when they were talking about disagreements, Chinese expressed more criticism and negative feelings, and less positive feelings, than Westerners. Across all cultural groups, greater relationship satisfaction was associated with lower rates of negative communication and higher rates of positive communication.

We conclude that love, intimacy, and positive communication are likely to be universal pillars of relationship satisfaction, which couple therapists could focus on across cultural groups. We recommend that therapists help partners explore their family responsibility standards and seek common ground. Our research also suggests that although there are cultural differences in communication, existing Western relationship education and therapy that emphasises building positive communication may be appropriate for Chinese and intercultural couples.

Read the research here:

Further reading

The feature image is by Daniel Hoherd, CC BY-NC 2.0.


I think that this is an interesting article but a bit simplistic in that it assumes culture is the root of all differences, to the exclusion of other factors such as education and socio-economic status. I am speaking of the experiences of some-one from a liberal, education middle-class Indian background married to some-one from a more conservative working class Dutch background. The way we resolved this was to ignore my in-laws expectations of women regarding education, participating in the paid workplace and gender division of housework. Not all Western cultures are equally individualistic, Southern European cultures like Italy, Greece and Spain also have a strong collectivistic ethos. So which Western cultures are referred to in the article?
Indrani Ganguly
Dear Indrani, You raise a couple of important points about the content of our article. First, you note there can be an influence of education and socio-economic background on relationship standards. I think you are correct, and if our article somehow gave the impression that we thought culture was the only relevant influence on relationship standards, that was not our intention. There are lots of influences. For example, we know how our parents relate when we are growing up has a major influence on our beliefs and expectations about relationships, as can our own dating experiences. So culture is just one of many influences. You also make the point that Western cultures are quite diverse, with some more individualistic than others. We agree. We would add that Chinese culture is also diverse; anyone who has sampled the cuisine and customs of Northern China and then travelled to Southern China can describe how customs, food and language change within that vast country. In our research we found the differences both with Chinese and Western cultures, and between those broad cultural groupings, were of interest. Kim Halford

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Danika Hiew

Dr Danika Hiew is a practising psychologist whose PhD research focused on intercultural couple relationships.

W. Kim Halford

W. Kim Halford is Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Queensland and a registered clinical psychologist.

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