International Couples: How We Surface and Soothe Your Differences

Don’t Assume That You will Always Understand Each Other… Or Even Always Want to….

One of my mentors trained with one of the greatest family therapists of all time;  Salvador Minuchin. Sal was from Argentina and had an elaborate ruse out of acting like an exaggerated sexist South American patriarch, while not claiming to understand people. He used a “dumb” posture avoiding “big English words.” family members were compelled to spell their thoughts and feelings out emphatically. What they didn’t know was that Salvador Minuchin’s English was flawless. Sal had written more than half a dozen scholarly works in perfect English. But when it came to his clinical work, Sal didn’t want to be forced into the cultural constraint of the English language. .

While International Couples enjoy the miracle of a common language, they might not enjoy having to solely rely on it either.  It might serve us all to remember that we all communicate better when we slow down, to make sure we are communicating clearly and effectively. That was Sal Minuchin’s intent with his “foreign” posture.  he forced his clients to slow down, using a whimsical, confused stance. Playing dumb was useful in requiring clients to slow down.

Failure to slow down can needlessly complicate communication for an international couple.  When they rely on a common language, intimate partners frequently think they really understand the nuances of their partner’s position. When differences of understanding arise, (and they will), another great couples therapist Ellyn Bader advises…. be Curious. Not Furious.

Play verbal golf. Slow down. Clarify your understanding. Set up your shots. Talking to your intimate partner should not be a fast paced verbal hockey game.

Know Your Cultural Fuses… and value the Use of  “Time-Outs.”


Techniques for effective communication and repair are built on the critical importance of understanding diffuse physiological arousal (DPA). If your cross-cultural battles are characterized by rising temper, an Intensive Couple Therapy Retreat will give you the skills you require to break the cycle.

Having conversations about differences that remain respectful and honest are a core skill you will take away from this Intensive. Respectful conversations can sometimes be embedded in different cultural norms. I was struck with the power of culture when I once watched a South American feminist debate her New York counterpart. “How dare you complain abut the machismo of South American men, when you American women don’t know the first thing about how machismo can be employed to engage with our men which is as respectful as it is predictable. Which is more than I would care to say about American men.” Cultural fuses are personal triggers, and are best worked out with respect and care.

Remember That Dealing With Cultural Difference is, at the end of the day, an Unsolvable Problem.

Famed marital researcher John Gottman has told us that 69% of all of the problems in a relationship are fundamentally unsolvable.

What did he mean? Gottman tells us the matters of identity, culture, and closely held values are so fundamental, that it is folly to attempt to change your partner. Cultural behavior inhabits the realm of a “managed set” of behaviors. In other words, the problem with managing differences in cultural behavior and expectation is that we turn to cultural norms to light our darkened way. Respect, the ability to exert and accept influence, and norms of power and patriarchy settle in the blended aspirations of two human hearts, learning to be accepting of differences, while embracing core values. It’s how you manage difference. Not how you solve it.

Maybe a Couples Therapy Intensive Retreat is just what you need to honor this unsolvable problem?

Call us and see.

More: How We Work with International Couples Online



About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

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