Interracial Marriages - How To Navigate The Challenges

Updated September 04, 2018

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Relationships, in general, are not easy. One look at the state of the world would prove this statement true. Most have only one or two good, close friends, and even happy marriages seem to be as rare as wings upon a cat, to quote an Asian saying. Interracial marriages can come with their challenges.

How To Navigate The Challenges Of An Interracial Marriage

Interracial marriage is an increasing phenomenon around the world, including the US. For this reason, it is becoming a popular field of study because of the unique challenges these relationships can pose. However, research shows some errors in common assumptions about interracial marriages.

A 2006 study review showed the error of the commonly-held belief that interracial marriages are more difficult than intraracial marriages and relationships. The researchers found that mixed couples have the same relationships as same-race couples regarding attachment to each other, quality, conflict patterns, efficacy, and coping styles, and in this, the researchers claim to "cast doubt on the belief that interracial relationships are burdened with more problems than intraracial relationships."

Another 2007 Journal of Family Issues article, looking specifically at the quality of African-American/White marriages about sex roles and perceived unfairness in the relationship, claims that these marriages pretty much share the same issues as same-race marriages.

Challenges With The Public, Friends, And Family

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However, there is no denying that interracial couples can face unique difficulties. Most of these stem from having to live in a world that is warming up to the idea of mixed-race relationships and marriages - very slowly. It's been fifty years since Mildred and Richard Loving's legal victory shattered the race barrier in the USA when the Supreme Court confirmed that the right to marry whomever you choose was a constitutional one. However, societal prejudice, racism, and unconscious stereotypical bias still cause most of the problems interracial couples have to deal with.

Challenges you as an interracial couple may experience in public or among friends and family could include the following:

  • Negative stereotyping
  • Hurtful and insulting comments from the public
  • Open hostility, threats, discrimination and intimidation
  • Stares, slights, whispers, derogatory gestures, as if you're not there or cannot see or hear
  • Online trolling and negativity on social media; cyberbullying
  • Open rejection from family, friends, and colleagues
  • One partner being rejected by friends, family, and colleagues

Dealing With Challenging Friends, Colleagues, And Others

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Jeffrey Smith Jr., the Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Emmanuel College Boston, confirms that despite the increasing incidence of interracial marriages and relationships, many people still refuse to support them. He says that many couples simply choose not to respond to the negativity and hatred, while others prefer to confront open aggression and mistreatment. Many couples still grapple with what to do.

The choice how to deal with covert or overly aggressive treatment is yours, it seems. However, it could help to talk about social injustice, racism, and oppression, first with each other, and later with your friends and colleagues. Find out if there are any support or affinity groups in your area, and become members. This will ensure that you make friends with people who understand your situation, and with whom you can share strategies and ideas.

When you're the white partner, you can probably expect to deal with unique challenges. Your greatest challenge would be, however, to know that your experience of the world is most probably very different from your partner's. It would serve you well to keep the following in mind with regards to your partner of color:

  • You need to be willing to sensitize and educate yourself about what it means to be a person of color in a world that is still dominated and influenced by white privilege. This includes truly acknowledging that you don't know, and never will, simply because you're white.
  • Educate yourself about your partner's culture, and especially how racism or white privilege manifested in their history. Make an effort to understand where your partner and their family come from, without causing anyone discomfort with your scrutiny.
  • Broaden your intellectual horizons by studying all mediums of biographies and commentaries about racism, white privilege and the like. This exposure will not only add to your education, but it should also stimulate your imagination, which is the only real tool you have to give you but a glimpse into what the lives of people of color are like.
  • Be willing to accept the possibility that in some social situations, you will not be welcome because you're white. Sometimes, people of color need to express themselves and discuss their experiences with others who understand them from personal experience. Acknowledge that tough conversations can sometimes only be had in groups where fewer guards are up, and empathy is a given.
  • Sometimes your whiteness will be intrusive. Just step back, and let your love for your partner of color give them the space they need.
  • If they are open to it, discuss with your partner how they experience racism, racial bias, white privilege, etc.
  • Acknowledge that while you are not overtly racist, you most probably do have unconscious attitudes and mental stereotypes about race, societal norms, etc. Test your own implicit bias with an online test from Harvard University: Project Implicit. The first step to address this bias is to realize that even small, unconscious reactions and habits can be deeply hurtful to your partner, such as using racially sensitive vocabulary (for instance, calling a black partner a monkey, even as a joke or term of endearment); reflexively laughing at a racist joke; correcting your partner's grammar in social gatherings, etc.
  • Accept that you are probably going to have to be the one who makes the most cultural adjustments and compromises in the relationship at first, especially if you and your partner's backgrounds and personal histories differ a lot. If your partner has had a lot of bad experiences because of the color of their skin or their nationality, your insensitivity will only add to their trauma. If you find yourself resistant or unwilling to compromise or adjust, or if it's very difficult for you, perhaps consider couples' therapy, or reconsider the relationship.

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Dealing With Challenging Family

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The family is the first topic of importance when you start to date across the race divide, even more so if the relationship gets serious. Both need to be clear on what they're getting into regarding the other person's family's beliefs, attitudes and opinions about interracial relationships and marriage.

Stereotyping is never appropriate, but culture and religion do play a big, important role in the way families are put together. Your differences in family structure will have to be accommodated and understood as best possible by both parties, especially if one of you are rocking the family boat.

Also keep in mind that your parents probably grew up during a different time, when interracial marriage was unacceptable, and different values were upheld. It is necessary to understand their experiences and the way they see the world - acceptance, and sensitivity could go a long way towards smoothing relations with relatives.

Smith mentions that it is important to seek support and understanding especially family members, yet also to challenge their disapproval and bias. But what if they remain resistant to your marriage and openly critical of who you chose as a partner? In such a case, Smith advises, "If they refuse to accept your relationship, painful as it can be to disconnect from family, consider maintaining some distance if you think your relationship is worth fighting for." It is necessary to honor your values first, once you are sure what they are. Your relatives' attitudes may mellow with time.

But Sometimes Race Is Not The Issue

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At the start of this article, it was mentioned that interracial marriages and relationships don't differ that much from intraracial ones. This means that sometimes there are challenges simply because it's a relationship. Good communication skills are necessary for every close relationship, as are other qualities like compassion, understanding, forgiveness and having fun together.

However, if the relationship remains very challenging despite your best efforts, here are what's to look out for to know that your marriage or relationship needs serious attention:

  • You feel contempt for each other. Contempt is one of the first and best predictors of divorce, according to John Gottman.
  • You or your partner are needlessly argumentative. Always needing to be right chips away at the foundation of even the best of connections. Sometimes it's good just to agree to disagree.
  • Repetitive infidelity. Trust is one of the pillars of any lasting relationship; infidelity eats trust like termites crunch through the wood.
  • Too much secrecy. While respecting each other's boundaries, and allowing your relationship to breathe by often doing things alone, if a partner is too secretive about their whereabouts, it could cause the other to feel insecure, abandoned and suspicious. Good relationships are open and sharing.
  • Too close, private or not interested in emotional intimacy. A closed-up partner who never talks about their emotions, or is not interested in yours, can also leave you feeling lonely and excluded. Not good for relating, which needs both parties sometimes to show emotional vulnerability.
  • You're sexually incompatible. Mutually-Satisfying sex life is necessary for a meaningful, lasting connection. Make sure you're compatible in bed before exchanging vows.
  • Your partner suffers from a serious personality disorder. Disorders like narcissism, borderline personality disorder, sociopathy, etc. don't make for good marriage material. Under any circumstance. Even if a person is willing to get help, the prognosis for these disorders is poor, and it takes an enormous effort on the diagnosed person's part to relate to being able to sustain a good long-term relationship.

If you battle with challenges in your interracial marriage or recognize any of the above traits in your relationship, it may be time to seek help.

Therapeutic Intervention

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Consider personal or couples' therapy to mend your relationship with either yourself, your partner or both. At Regain, you will receive professional guidance from a qualified therapist, specifically matched to meet your unique needs.


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