Unique Challenges Faced by Inter-Ethnic Marriages
Can partners with profound differences in their ancestry and cultural backgrounds still marry successfully? Won’t love find a way in the end?
In theory, yes, but in practice, it’s rarely so simple as that in inter-ethnic relationships.
Keep reading to understand some of the unique and persistent challenges that many mixed couples and cross-cultural marriage face in achieving lasting happiness.
The growth of intercultural marriage
Unquestionably, inter-ethnic marriages are growing in number. Currently, about 1 in 6 (or 17%) of all marriages feature spouses with different cultural backgrounds.
That’s up from just 3% in 1967 and 7% in 1980. In fact, since 1990, the inter-ethnic marriage rate has more or less doubled.
That’s surely a positive sign of greater tolerance and diversity in our culture. Old barriers are starting to come down, albeit slowly.
There are various factors in play that contribute towards the growth in mixed marriages in America. One is sheer demographics.
America is becoming increasingly multicultural, especially with a dramatic increase in foreign immigration since 1990.
The foreign-born share of the US population stands at 14%, its highest level since the 1900s.
That means the pool of available spouses from non-White groups, especially Hispanics and Asians, has increased dramatically, affording new opportunities for inter-ethnic marriage.
Another factor, possibly related, is the explosion of dating and marriage sites that allow people from all over the world to get to know each other and eventually to marry, even if they were born and still live in different counties.
A third factor is the weight of public opinion.
Public support for inter-racial marriage has increased sharply, especially over the past decade. This is especially true of Black-White intermarriage.
As late as 1990, nearly two thirds 63% of non-Blacks opposed the idea of these couplings. Today, that figure is down to 14%, but it is still higher than non-Black opposition to White marriages with Asians and Hispanics (9% in each case).
Sadly, opposition to Black-White pairings, a legacy of America’s long and painful history with slavery, perhaps, endures.
Sharp variation in Inter-ethnic marriage rates
It’s worth noting that some inter-ethnic pairings are significantly more common than others.
The most common, by far, is one between a White man or woman and a Hispanic spouse. About 42% of Hispanics, men, and women marry a White spouse.
The next most common is a marriage between a White man or woman and an Asian spouse (15%).
However, the nativity is also a key factor. Foreign-born Hispanics and Asians are far less likely to marry across ethnic lines than their more assimilated native-born counterparts.
The discrepancy is stark. Only 15 % of foreign-born Hispanics married across ethnic lines. Three times as many native-born Hispanics did.
Varying marital survival rates
Despite the growth in inter-ethnic marriages, there are vast discrepancies in their survival rates.
Overall, inter-ethnic marriages fail at a higher rate than same-ethnic marriages.
The rate of marital success for Whites and Hispanics and Whites and Asians are relatively high, approaching the national average. By contrast, Black-White marriages are far less successful.
Gender turns out to be a key factor in inter-ethnic marriage success.
Marriages between non-White men and White women, especially in the case of Black and Asian men, have relatively high failure rates. The success rate for Black male-White female marriages, just 25%, is the lowest of any inter-ethnic pairing.
By contrast, marriages between White men and non-White women tend to be highly successful. Some studies show that White male-Black female marriages are even more successful than marriages among Whites alone.
Reason for the success and failure
While the numbers are hard to deny, explaining divergences in marital success rates can be challenging and fraught with peril.
Do these marriages often fail because of the cultural differences in marriage or ethnic tensions inside the partnership or opposition from friends and family add to the couple’s burden? What about age, education, and income factors?
One study found that inter-ethnic partners, as a rule, shared fewer core values than did partners of the same ethnic background.
Another factor was the lack of support for their marriage from parents and relatives.
Once the lure of romance tended to weaken, these couples could find common marriage issues becoming especially sharp, owing to underlying differences in their backgrounds and life perspectives as well as disapproval from family members.
When trouble strikes, some inter-ethnic couples may fall back on their underlying ethnic differences to explain their difficulties, whether these differences are truly relevant or not.
And parents, instead of helping the troubled couple resolve its differences, might counsel divorce, seeing their children’s marital problems as confirmation of their own cultural bias.
Interestingly, while income and finances are often cited as a major source of disruption of marriages generally, they do not appear to play a major role in the dissolution of inter-ethnic marriages.
However, education level, which is sometimes linked to income, may well be a factor.
Overall, those with higher education are more likely to pursue an inter-ethnic marriage, and those marriages are also more likely to be successful.
Age may well be another critical factor in inter-ethnic marital success, as it is with couples generally.
Inter-ethnic marriages among older couples are more likely to survive, regardless of the specific ethnic and gender pairings involved. Younger inter-ethnic couples are far more prone to divorce.
Dealing with race and ethnicity openly
Many of the factors that go into marital success are the same for all married couples.
Partners should be emotionally mature and stable. They should know themselves well and be willing to learn from each other. This means they should be aware of and sensitive to cultural differences.
Happy inter ethic partners know the culture of their spouse intimately; in many cases, they have experienced it through travel and participation in cultural rituals. They may even consider themselves bi-cultural.
Awareness of racial and ethnic bias in the society at large, and even among friends and family members is another requirement for success.
Happy inter-ethnic couples do not shy away from issues of prejudice but have strategies to address it when it arises. Vestiges of prejudice, many of them unconscious, may arise in their own interactions.
Above all, inter-ethnic couples should take time to get to know each other well before marrying.
Fantasy and projection plays a role in all romances but can be especially strong in inter-ethnic pairings owing to distorted cultural images presented in history books, films, and the media.
Couples need to be clear that they are not operating on deeply-ingrained but distorted ideas about who their prospective spouse is.
Reaching across cultural differences to find a loving, long-term partnership is an exciting challenge, and for those that succeed, a most rewarding one.
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