When Makrem and Fatma first got in touch with me, it was clear that their relationship was fraught with tension—at least to me. Someone else might not have picked up on the signs. Given the few words that Fatma spoke, I knew who was driving the agenda in their relational journey. Not only did Fatma rarely speak, but Makrem made decisions in that joint meeting without Fatma’s acknowledgement and set a meeting day and time without her input. Yet Fatma seemed to leave the meeting in much the same way in which she entered, with a big smile on her face and a friendly tone. Her behaviour during the meeting was an indication that not all was going well under that shiny exterior.

In many cultures outside of Canada, the façade that people choose to display is often problem-free and full of satisfaction. Yet, under that glossy veneer, marital problems can exist so deep they cannot be solved simply between the two individuals themselves. When an element of culture is added to an already difficult situation, it can make the conflict more invisible and intractable. Professionals in ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) must at least be aware of potential cultural elements in situations where clients have come from or are highly influenced by other cultures. Awareness of these issues is the first step in being able to address them. What follows are some simple yet foundational thoughts concerning people living in new and different cultures.

Like monocultural situations, conflict involving parties from different cultures frequently exhibit a common element of unmet expectations. Whether spouses are from the same background, or come from differing homelands, being transplanted in a new culture means they each will inevitably adapt to that new culture to varying degrees and at a different pace from each other.

If spouses come from different cultures, the norms that they bring to their marriage in terms of roles within the marriage could be very disparate, leading to conflict over seemingly everyday scenarios. Who will do the cooking? Cleaning? Laundry? Will one spouse primarily be responsible for earning a wage for the family? Will each individual have personal autonomy? Be given a voice? Speak into a household problem? In some cultures, these questions would never be raised, as cultural norms would clearly dictate the answers. Being from the same cultural background can help to reduce potential conflict over marital expectations, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee that a marriage will be without problems concerning those expectations.

Each marriage relationship will have power dynamics, regardless of cultural origins for either partner. In some cultures, the sex of each partner will determine the power they will have within the relationship in decision making, authority in the home and roles they will take on in the marriage. These expected power dynamics can be disrupted when cultures are mixed within a marriage, or when a monocultural marriage migrates from one majority culture to another. Shifting cultural expectations on marital roles can wreak havoc on a marriage and power dynamics can be impacted when a spouse who is normally suppressed within a marriage is empowered by new cultural norms in a new environment.

This influence will shift the power status quo resulting in tension and the need for a response from both parties. Acceptance, rejection or accommodation are three usual responses to a shifting power dynamic, and the final outcome will be determined by the responses of both partners. Being aware of typical power dynamics can be helpful in exploring the subject with clients who come from cultures other than your own. Individuals coming even from the same culture may struggle with the power dynamics in their relationship, especially if their families of origin struggled with this area.

But typical relational dynamics in Canada are frequently unknown to those whose birth culture is foreign. General awareness and familiarity of Canadian cultural norms does not equal embracing of those norms. Some first generation immigrants to Canada have a strong desire to maintain their cultural roots to avoid a potential identity crisis. There are situations were individuals who are challenged by new cultural rules will hold more firmly to the values, beliefs and practices with which they were raised, even becoming more resistant to change. If one partner in a marriage wishes to assimilate to new cultural norms while the other becomes more rigid and steadfast in previous practices, the marriage will undergo inevitable stress, possibly resulting in irreparable harm to the relationship.

Regardless of cultural or national origin, each individual comes into a marriage relationship with cultural expectations. Part of those expectations will be an understanding of how much they may need to adjust to a new way of living when marrying. Cultural influences only add more layers of challenge to a new living situation, and for some, no willingness to compromise will mean the end to a relationship. The ability for an individual to shift their cultural norms changes dramatically from one individual to another. For Fatma and Makrem, they brought much of their culture with them to Canada and were not quick to assimilate typical Canadian norms into their marital relationship. Some people are embedded in their attitudes and actions, and others will change them quickly in order to be accepted into a new culture, building new relationships with people in their networks. As professionals working in a multi-cultural world, it would serve us well to better understand not only the cultures we work with, but how our clients, as new or recent immigrants, are assimilating with their new Canadian culture.

Dr. Wes Thiessen works as a Family Mediator with Resolve Legal Group in Calgary. He has more than 20 years of post-secondary teaching experience, with a PhD in Islamic History focusing on the development of Islamic Law in the formative period of Islam. Having lived most of his professional life in North Africa, Dr. Thiessen is currently registering for mediation designation with the ADR Institute of Alberta, and completing the National Family Law Arbitration Course.