How to Make Marriage Across Cultures Work


When I boarded the international flight as a naïve, newly graduated cross-cultural missions major, little did I know just how steeped in cross-cultural communication my life was to become. At the time, I was eager to spend six months serving the Lord on a college campus in Cape Town, South Africa—more than 8,000 miles away from my hometown in the Midwest.

Barely twenty-one years old, I could hardly wait to meet new people, see the sights, be exposed to new ways of doing things, and put into practice what I had learned at Bible college.

Our ‘unplanned’ love story
When I first felt myself falling for the South African man who is now my husband, I thought to myself, “No!  Stop that!  This is not why you came here. Get those thoughts out of your head!”

But apparently the Lord had other plans—we are now in our ninth year of matrimony.

Growing up in predominantly white, Dutch, middle-class suburbia, I envisioned that I would probably have blond-haired, blue-eyed offspring. I certainly never thought I’d be seeking tips on how to manage my daughter’s beautiful Afro!

Our ‘caramel’ kids love Toby Mac’s song, ‘Made for Me,’ especially when Toby sings of his wife, ‘Well I got white skin and she got brown skin, but milk and coffee’s always been a beautiful blend.’

Many people take one look at the dichotomy of our skin colors and can’t resist asking,

So what’s it like to be in a mixed race relationship?”

Some may see it as a severe handicap, perhaps even an insurmountable hurdle. After all, is it really possible for two completely different cultures to be joined as one?

In our case, we saw the challenge as an advantage. The coming together of any two individuals is bound to create some discord as expectations and assumptions go head to head in a clamor to come out on top. But because we knew from the beginning that we had vastly different worldviews, we made an extra effort to articulate our expectations.

To have unity—communicate!
Some people may assume that if their partner went to the same high school, was raised in the same town, or possessed the same culture and worldview, they would naturally do things the same way—but each individual will come to a relationship with different ways of doing things. No two families bring up their children exactly the same way, and therefore couples will have to articulate what they expect, what they are used to, and what they would like to see happen in their own marriage in order to have unity.

For us, the fact that the differences were so blatantly obvious forced us to be overly talkative about our worldviews, our upbringing, and our assumptions. We couldn’t presume that the other person would necessarily think in a similar manner regarding anything—children, extended family relations, money management, birth control, etc.

When cultures clash
On the points where our cultures have clashed, we’ve been afforded the opportunity to search the Scriptures to find a common ground. We can critique each other’s cultural presuppositions without being judgmental or offensive. We can point out blind spots, drawing out the best of each culture, and form a new version. We can then celebrate a richness of diversity in our family.

As we began the process of expressing our views on various issues, we realized that we had more in common than we thought because our world views were based on the same source—the Word of God. With Christ as our foundation, we could agree on most of the important decisions.

Why stay rooted in Jesus?
If a cross-cultural couple builds their foundation on the Rock of Jesus Christ, that house could be uprooted and re-established anywhere on the planet without the slightest hint of entering new territory. As Matthew 7:24-25 says,

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”

Sure, we think differently from each other. Most couples do. As a middle-class American, my thinking is often permeated with materialism and individualism. My husband’s African heritage has caused him to consider issues from a community perspective.

Yet, when it comes to decisions that need to be made, what makes our marriage tick is the commonality of the gospel. We can put our cultural differences aside and recognize the higher authority, our Lord and Maker. By his grace, as we strive to give up our culturally-tinted glasses and submit to His will, we can grow a marriage that transcends and supersedes any worldly barrier— racially, culturally or otherwise.



About

Kate Motaung grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan before spending ten years in Cape Town, South Africa. She and her South African husband have three children. Kate is the author of Letters to Grief and host of Five Minute Friday. She blogs at Heading Home (www.katemotaung.com) and can be found on Twitter @k8motaung. Kate's memoir is forthcoming from Discovery House (2017).


  • Barb C.

    Kate, I found this article wonderfully written and insightful. I too am in a mixed marriage as of 6 months now. I am a black woman married to a Romanian man who grew up in America. Our cultures are not quite as different, but we have our challenges as well. We also see them as opportunities and find our common ground on our Biblical principles. Thank you so much for sharing your story, and giving us insight into what we can expect, and look forward to in our years of marriage and children to come 🙂

    • http://reflectiontherapy.wordpress.com Kate

      Thanks for your feedback, Barb! Being in a cross-cultural relationship can be so rich and provide so many insights and opportunities that might not otherwise be enjoyed. May the Lord bless your marriage as you seek to serve Him as husband and wife.

  • http://www.ashleighslater.com Ashleigh Slater

    Kate, I love this:

    “As we began the process of expressing our views on various issues, we realized that we had more in common than we thought because our world views were based on the same source—the Word of God.”

    My husband Ted and I are twelve years apart in age. Even though we are from the same culture, we’ve heard people talk about how not having the same “cultural references” could make our marriage difficult. My response has always been that we have the same “spiritual reference” and isn’t that more important?

    Can’t wait to read your next article!

    • http://reflectiontherapy.wordpress.com Kate

      Thanks, Ashleigh. Ultimately, any difficulty in marriage can be overcome regardless of the root if both parties are willing to humble themselves and submit to the only true authority. It has been very eye-opening for both and I to remove our culturally-tinted lenses and look together at how God’s Word addresses issues.

      Thank you for your input and for the encouragement!

      • http://www.ashleighslater.com Ashleigh Slater

        Thanks for your response, Kate! I just re-read my comment and realized I meant to say:

        “…we’ve heard people talk about how not having the same ‘cultural references’ (meaning music, television, books, etc. since we were raised in different decades) could make our marriage difficult.”

  • http://thisredlipstick.blogspot.com Jerusha

    Thank you for writing this, Kate! I am going to remember this going forward! And the Toby Mac quote for my future half-n-halves too (God willing!) 🙂

    • http://reflectiontherapy.wordpress.com Kate

      Thanks for your comment, Jerusha! As you know, being in a cross-cultural relationship can be a lot of fun … including the caramel babies! 😉

  • sharon

    kate that is so true, i too am in a cross-cultural marriage for over 32 yrs and yes christ is our center and we seek him for everything. it is a hugh eye opening when you take those tinted class off -wow. because we do not lie to each other, we are able to love each unconditionally, humbly embrace our difference and work towards our own marraige that works for us. still people can’t believe how this works, but submitting ourselves to each other and to Christ has a lot to do with it . Oh I just love your carmel kids, aren’t they beautiful….heaven is multicultural you know..the world is becoming more so……loved your article.

  • sharon

    kate i too a cross-cultrual marriage for over 32yrs and christ our center, he put us together. we don’t lie to each other, we love unconditionally, humbly embrace our difference and work towards harmoney. we have challenges but we submitt ourselves to each other and to christ. i just love your caramel kids, aren’t they beautuful..heaven is muslticultural you know. the world is becoming so. Just loved your article!!

    • http://reflectiontherapy.wordpress.com Kate

      Thanks, Sharon! Praise God for His grace and faithfulness in your marriage. Thank you for taking the time to share such encouraging feedback. May the Lord continue to bless your marriage, and may it bear much fruit for His kingdom.

  • Yoliswa J

    Hi Kate

    I love this article, thank you for writing it. Even though my husband and I are both black (he’s American and I South African), we knew when we met that we were different culturally. I especially love this:

    “As we began the process of expressing our views on various issues, we realized that we had more in common than we thought because our world views were based on the same source—the Word of God.”

    Our love for Christ and each other and communication keeps us going.

    Love the article. God bless you and family

    • http://reflectiontherapy.wordpress.com Kate

      Thank you for your feedback, Yoliswa! Glad the message resonated with you as well. May the Lord continue to bless your marriage with richness and unity in Christ.

  • Leysa Lowery

    What a great article! My sister and my daughter both married black men, and another sister married an Hispanic man. Our family is full of all shades of God’s colors and we love it. It’s not always easy, but no relationship or family dynamic is ever ALWAYS easy. It’s our love that joins us all. And, I have to add, I believe in my heart of hearts that God put us all together in our family so that we could learn and open our hearts to those we may have considered so very different. Actually the differences are very small and mostly only apparent to the eye. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story! And congratulations on a happy and successful marriage!.

    • http://reflectiontherapy.wordpress.com Kate

      Leysa, you are so right. There is such a richness in being able to have our eyes and hearts opened by the beauty of diversity. Blessings to you and your beautifully colorful extended family.

  • Beverly

    Hi.
    I really enjoyed reading this article. I am in an interracial marriage, too. I am white and my husband is black. This year makes 17 years that God has blessed us to be married. We have 2 beautiful daughter ages 12 and 21. We have faced so many obsticles regarding our marriage, but God has always seen us through each and every one of them. We are from the south and unfortunately, everyone doesn’t accept the union God made with us. Several years ago, someone said to me, “Look at what you have started!” because my brother married a black woman and now one of my neices (of my oldest brother) is married to a black man. My response was, “No, look at what God has done. He is showing each of us that color really doesn’t matter because HE made all of us.”
    Our oldest daughter, thankfully, didn’t go through a lot of discrimination as a child; unfortunately, our youngest has. Her hair is “different” than most of the kids she goes to school with because her hair is BEAUTIFUL (in my opinion), but to her it is, “too thick, too curly, too frizzy, too uncontrollable.” She wants straight hair and to be like her “friends” because then, “I will fit in and others will like me.” I try to help her understand that God has a purpose for each of us and that we are all unique. Sometimes she listens and then other times she is just overwhelmed. We are continuing to pray because we know His grace is sufficient.
    Thanks again for featuring this couple.
    Beverly

  • http://www.legacyoutreachinternational.com Golda

    This is so thrilling and encouraging. I have always said that the racial or ethnic, or any other barriers used to create distinctions among people to oppose and prevent marital unions from occurring are all expressions of the fallen human nature. And we’ve seen that God’s children who choose to submit themselves to the instructions of God’s Word and the guidance of His Holy Spirit, soon forget these distinctions and only remember them when they stop gazing at the “perfect law of liberty.”

    • http://reflectiontherapy.wordpress.com Kate

      Thanks for your feedback, Golda. It can only be God who breaks down those barriers, as you say! May we follow His example in reconciliation by considering how He gave His only son, that we might be reconciled to Him … and may we act as His ambassadors in this ministry of reconciliation, in bringing man to God.

  • Heidi

    Kate,

    What a great article! I am in a mixed marriage of 1 and 1/2 yrs and we have 3 beautiful bi-racial children. I am white and my husband is black. We thankfully have not run into much adversity with our mixed relationship but of course have endured the occasional stares. I have also been asked if my kids are naturally mine.

    • http://reflectiontherapy.wordpress.com Kate

      Hi Heidi,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I suppose it is a lifelong process in terms of responding to society, and yet by God’s grace, there can be many opportunities to give testimony to His goodness in the way we respond. Blessings to you and your precious bundles.

  • Judy

    Very good article. My husband was born in India but raised in London in the UK from about age 8 until he came to America about age 30. We are coming up to 12 years of marriage in a month. We also had the issue of being a “blended” family as I was briefly married as a young person and raising my son. My husband was raised Hindu even having converted only a few years before I met him. Your comment on communication is the key is spot on. There were ways he was raised and ways I was raised that were very different. Communicating was the key to clearing all those hurdles. However, because we did communicate we have the happiest and best marriage imaginable. My husband is so wonderful as to never say “your son” but simply OUR son….I am very blessed. I find no problem with any 2 BELIEVERS from any walk of life, color of skin or nationality being married and being successful. We have quite a few friends who fit that category. Every marriage takes a LOT of communication or it will fall apart.

    • http://reflectiontherapy.wordpress.com Kate

      You are blessed indeed, Judy! Praise God from whom all blessings flow. May He continue to enable you to keep those lines of communication open as you grow from strength to strength.

  • Tammy

    Thank you so much for writing this. I had a very strong discussion about this very topic this past week with a believer who is very much against cross cultural marriages. If only people could understand that Our Heavenly Father will see us only through the blood of Jesus or not….saved and inthe Lambs book of Life or condemned. it is who the center and foundatiin of our relationships that matters. Thank you.

  • http://reflectiontherapy.wordpress.com Kate

    How interesting that you had such a conversation just this week. Sadly, there will always be barriers as long as sin is in the world and until Christ returns. May our Lord continue to use you to speak His truth in love to those who need to hear it. Blessings to you.

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