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By: Dana El-Issa/Arab America Contributing Writer
Arab American intermarriages are becoming increasingly common. A 1990 U.S. Census data shows that over 80% of U.S. – born Arabs had non-Arab spouses, but intermarriages are not limited to U.S. born Arabs. The cultural assimilation of many Arab immigrants has led to intermarriages as well, especially for women.
Despite cultural assimilation, We’ve noticed that many of the Arab women who are married to non-Arab men speak their Arabic language, take pride in their heritage, and maintain many of their customs and traditions. This raises the question of how these couples navigate their cultural differences and whether that impacts their relationships. Arab America interviewed some of these Arab women and these were some of their responses.
1. It all comes down to communication
Like all relationships built on a strong foundation, the couples we interviewed told us that open communication is key to their successful marriage. “There were many times in our relationship, especially early on, when my husband was confused, sometimes even frustrated, by how we do certain things,” said Layla from Iraq who has been married to her husband Ryan for 8 years. “For example, he didn’t understand how important hospitality is in our culture. Whenever we had people over, I would cook a lot, which he thought was so unnecessary! ‘Just make one dish!’ he would beg me. He always felt like we went overboard, which I agree we do sometimes, but I had to explain to him that hospitality is a pillar of Arab ethics and culture. Our roots are steeped in tribal traditions, but it’s not just about that – it’s about generosity. It’s critical to explain the importance of these values, customs, and traditions to non-Arab partners. It’s a way of life for us. Therefore, the person who is sharing your life with you needs to understand them.”
2. Get them used to close-knit family relationships early on
“Like most Arab families, mine is very united. We act like a clan, and when we get together, you could say it’s the equivalent to an American family reunion. Everyone is invited, everyone is included. Uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.” says Hiba, a Jordanian American married to an American for 5 years. “My husband, like many Americans, was raised to be independent by the time he finished high school. He moved out to college when he was 17 and never lived with his parents again. He respects my close-knit family and loves them, but thinks we can be too involved with each other. I think non-Arab men can find our close family relationships a little over the top, sometimes even unnecessary. But I found the sooner you get them involved with your family, the sooner they get used to it and enjoy it. They appreciate our family customs and traditions and begin to understand why we place so much emphasis on them.”
3. Give them time to assimilate
Assimilating doesn’t mean giving up your own background or culture, it just means conforming to others’ customs and traditions. We may love our customs and traditions, but for an outsider to be immersed in them could be overwhelming at first. “Giving your non-Arab spouse time to assimilate is very important,” said one of the women interviewed. “It’s normal if they feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable at first. You’re entering a new world with new social rules. It’s like practicing a new language you’re learning. Don’t expect them to be fluent right off the bat. Give them time and room to practice, to make mistakes, to navigate the process.”
4. Respect, curiosity, and a bit of compromise
When discussing how she navigates cultural differences with her American husband, Meriam stressed the importance of being open and genuinely interested in the other person’s background, but at the same time understanding and accepting that each of them comes from a completely different culture. There has to be mutual respect. She says “coming from different cultures means developing a different outlook on life and experiences. To have a successful relationship, those differences should be understood and not used against each other when disagreements accrue. Simply, just understanding that we might disagree on certain practices, beliefs, customs, and opinions that are shaped by our backgrounds and cultures. Respecting those differences is the key to a successful relationship.”
Her sister Hala who recently got engaged to a non-Arab agrees. “The key thing is to choose a person with whom you have a strong connection that transcends cultural differences. If partners have the same foundational values, cultures will merely serve as a diverse way of expressing those values. As Meriam said, respect and curiosity are the most important ingredients.”