Cross-cultural marriages: Navigating the landmines

A few years ago I was asked to write a monthly column for a secular, successful, and fairly influential magazine that serves the Filipino-American community here in Phoenix. The married couple that publishes the magazine had attended a seminar that I had recently taught that focused on cross-cultural marriages. The seminar was designed to help the participants understand the many potential landmines that exist when a person from one culture marries someone from another culture and then give them some tools that might be helpful for avoiding and/or resolving conflict that was the result of cultural differences.

I titled the column “Cultural Halo-Halo”. If you don’t know what halo-halo is, I’m sure you know a Filipino that could explain what this sweet, but strange to our American tongue, concoction. If you know what it is, I’m sure you recognize why I came up with the name. I had a 500-word limit for each column so what I’ve included below was actually published in 6 different columns and I’ve extracted the bridges of review that usually took up the first paragraph of each column.

If you’re wondering why I’m posting THIS, there are two reasons. First, I’ve had a crazy-busy week which included attending the state of Arizona Refugee Resettlement conference in Tucson. Second, I received some encouraging feedback from many couples that were in cross-cultural marriages, and not just Filipinos married to Americans. So, I figure there might be usefulness on a larger scale, maybe even for pastors who might be engaged in counseling cross-cultural couples in their church, especially marriages between Americans and Asians or even Middle Easterners.

And finally, I’m assuming that it shouldn’t be too difficult for the majority of you to discover biblical principles that would either encourage or challenge these cultural traits.

Listening to the lyrics of popular songs is one of the easiest and most enjoyable methods of learning about the culture of any group of people. What people sing about is an expression of what they value, what they hold dear, and what they believe life could and would be like if it was lived in the proper way from their perspective–which has been shaped and molded by the culture in which they were born and raised. Because this is true, I’d like to examine a specific song that I’m sure you’re familiar with.

Like countless other countries over many years now, the Philippines has an unquenchable thirst for various types of American music. While my family and I lived in Cebu City from the late 1980’s through the early 1990’s, Whitney Houston topped the music charts on a regular basis in both America and the Philippines. One of her hits was so big that it was heard on hundreds of radio stations, was the backround music in department stores all over the country, was sung by hundreds of Filipino nightclub bands from northern Luzon to southern Mindanao, and was the favorite karaoke song and the most popular song performed by students in literally thousands of schools. Filipinos just couldn’t get enough of the “Greatest love of all” by Whitney Houston.

What was so interesting to me was that the song was one of the clearest expressions of the value of the “self-esteem” cultural trait that is at the pinnacle of American culture. That cultural value, sung about so wonderfully by Whitney Houston and then by literally millions of Filipinos, is in almost complete opposition to the foundational Filipino cultural trait of “assigned/acribed-esteem” and many other Filipino cultural values. Here are the lyrics of this anthem to “self-esteem,” which also reveals other American cultural values with such clarity:

“The Greatest love of all”
Performed by Whitney Houston

I believe the children are our future, Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside,
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children’s laughter remind us of how we used to be
Everybody searching for a hero, people need someone to look up to
I never found anyone to fulfill my needs, A lonely place to be
So I learned to depend on me

(CHORUS) I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadows
If I fail, if I succeed, At least I live as I believe
No matter what they take from me, They can’t take away my dignity,
Because the greatest love of all, is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all inside of me
Tthe greatest love of all, is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself, It is the greatest love of all

And if by chance, that special place that you’ve been dreaming of
Leads you to a lonely place, find your strength in love

Hopefully, I’ve been effective in giving you an understanding of the foundational cultural trait of “self-esteem” in Americans, and “assigned/acribed-esteem” in Filipinos. Over the next few columns, we’ll take a more in-depth look at this song in order to learn more about the other American cultural traits I mentioned in my last column. Many of those traits are found in the song and are the logical by-product of a “self-esteem” based culture.Let’s take a look at the first American cultural value that is expressed in this anthem to self-esteem:

I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way

Although it’s true that children are the future of any society and they should certainly be taught as well as possible, it’s uniquely American to believe that they are capable of leading the way for their people as a whole. Almost all of the world’s cultures, including Filipinos, place a high value on older people. In fact, the older a person is the more they are treasured by society as a whole and considered a source of great wisdom due to the depth of life experience they possess. The older a person is, the greater respect they are given and they are sought out for counsel when difficult decisions need to be made. As strange as it sounds to most Americans, in the majority of other cultures gray hair is not something to be avoided at all costs. In fact, to most people in other cultures, gray hair is viewed as something desirable because of the higher status and respect the group assigns to its senior citizens that possess the gray hair. The older a person is, the more they are valued because they have so much more to give to the group as a whole. In summary, in most of the world’s cultures, getting old means gaining greater significance and provides the opportunity for greater impact for the group.

In contrast, as is clear from the song, American culture is incredibly “youth” focused and is very open to the idea of finding leaders as young as possible. Americans generally envy those that are younger than themselves. There’s a belief that because young people have their whole lives in front of them, they still have the ability to choose from a number of different options to obtain that which matters most–making yourself happy and thus feeling good about yourself. Americans believe that the younger you are the more freedom and options you have to do whatever will bring you pleasure and cause you to be happy with yourself and the less likely you will be to have anyone or anything restrain you from being whatever you want to be. Why would older Americans envy the young in such a way? Because that is exactly what they would do if they could reverse the passage of time and go back to their youth again.

This difference between how youth is viewed by the two different cultures is very clear when it comes to expectations for retirement age. For the Filipino, retirement means more time with the children and grandchildren and more opportunity to pass on the many things learned from a long life to those that you know and love. For the American, retirement means finally doing what you want to do such as fishing, golfing, traveling, and so forth. For the American, retirement means finally being free from a group of people, like your employer and fellow employees and maybe even your family, and finally getting to do that which pleases you. Those that have that kind of freedom– to do what they want, any time they want, are highly envied.

A little further into the song, the lyrics say this:

“Everybody’s searching for a hero, people need someone to look up to…”

This is true of people in every culture on planet earth. Every ethnic group that exists or has ever existed has its heroes. Heroes and the stories of their lives are the primary method of passing on the virtues and moral standards that sustain any and every culture. Many of the traditions found in cultures are the result of a specific act or deed done by one of the heroes of that group of people. This universal understanding of the need and value of heroes is why every Filipino child is taught about the life and service to their country of people like Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Emilio Aguinaldo, and Ninoy Aquino.

When I was growing up in Southern California in the 1960’s, all children in both public and private schools around the U.S. were taught about the heroics and great character traits of people like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Crispus Attucks, Abraham Lincoln, and even a guy named Johnny Appleseed, (not his real name.) But by the mid 1970’s, American culture’s view of heroes and their importance to society began to change. By the mid 1980’s, the extent of that change had become easily recognizable. Look at the next portion of lyrics in this song from 1986:

I never found anyone to fulfill my needs, a lonely place to be, so I learned to depend on me….

The “self-esteem” cultural value has become so pervasive that even the country’s heroes are measured by whether they can “fulfill my needs.” In this mindset, a person’s highest priority is to have their own personal needs fulfilled. What is good for the group isn’t the priority, personal needs are. So, according to this new cultural value, if the heroes that served such an impacting purpose for the culture as a whole throughout history can’t meet a specific person’s needs right now, they really aren’t heroes, and new heroes need to be found. Looking at things from this perspective–having no heroes who can meet an individual person’s understanding of their own needs, then truly, looking at things through that filter, life really is a “lonely place to be.”

According to the “self-esteem” cultural value, what should a person do when their unfulfilled needs have brought them to this seemingly terrible place of loneliness? Of course, they need to learn to “depend on me.” They must understand through a process of learning, that the answer to their self-perceived miserable condition is found within. Personal happiness and fulfillment are found in dependence upon the self, not in depending upon any other person or group. From this perspective, value is assigned to others, even heroes, by whether what they have done or said can be used to meet the needs of an individual person. If the individual determines that their own needs can’t be fulfilled by anyone else, then the self-loving thing to do is to depend on themselves to be their own hero.

The first few lines of Whitney Houston’s mega-hit, “The Greatest Love of All,” clearly express two unique aspects of American culture that can easily create conflict in a cross-cultural marriage. An overarching focus on youth and a dependence on self to find fulfillment and meaning and to cure loneliness permeates American culture. What happens when a person who has those values ingrained in them marries a person from another culture whose values in these two areas almost exactly the opposite? It’s fairly obvious–CONFLICT will abound!

Here’s an example of how this happens.  Someone who has grown up in a culture focused on youth will try to build a home life that is child-centered rather than husband-wife centered. If they marry someone from their own culture, then both of them, without even thinking about it, will build a home life that is child-centered. What do I mean when I use the word “child-centered”? I mean that there is an intentional effort made to structure family life around meeting the perceived needs of the children. Those perceived needs of the children then take the place of highest priority for the parents. Keeping the children happy, challenged, excited, and prepared for the future of their choice takes precedence over everything else. Whenever there is a conflict between what is needful for the children and what might be needful for the parents in their husband/wife relationship, the needs of the children are met first. In most cases, this willingness to sacrifice, or at least not prioritize highly the husband/wife relationship, is never discussed. It just happens. It’s the outgrowth of cultural norms that have shaped both of them and it’s how almost everyone else they know structures their family.

It’s fairly easy to see that when a person who believes in building a child-centered home marries a person who believes that a home should be husband-wife centered, there are going to be problems. For a family to function properly, goals and priorities need to be understood by both husband and wife. When they are understood by both, then the sacrifices necessary to accomplish those goals and who should be making those sacrifices also need to be agreed upon. If they’re not, then trouble is definitely ahead. One person will think the husband/wife relationship should be sacrificed in certain areas, with the children’s needs ALWAYS taking the highest priority. The other person will think that the opposite. It’s a recipe for constant conflict and can lead to a disaster.

What can be done to avoid cross-cultural marriage conflict resulting from two radically different views of how a home should be “centered”? As is almost always the case in marriage conflict of any kind–the most basic answer is COMMUNICATION.

Regardless of the way your family has been “centered” so far, sit down with your husband or wife, (without the children present,) and talk about what each of you see as the highest priority for your family. What should be the greatest/highest goal of any marriage? Is it a healthy, loving, husband/wife relationship? Or, is it raising successful children? Ideally, both things should be able to be accomplished. But in reality, one will always receive the greatest amount of attention, and that’s usually based on the culture we were raised in.

And, if you think about it all, you’ll see that one will actually precede and produce the other. Specifically, if the husband/wife relationship is given precedence, healthy/well balanced children are more likely to be produced. We all know people who are now old enough and life-experienced enough that will tell us that they wish their parents would have put more time and effort into their relationship with each other rather than into them and their brothers and sisters when they were growing up.

“So I learned to depend on me“,

This is the last phrase Whitney Houston sings before launching into the chorus of the mega-hit song “The Greatest love of all.” Self-dependence and the independent mindset that it produces are viewed by the majority of Americans as some of the highest virtues of American culture. Most Americans credit these traits with being part of the essential greatness of America. The United States of America is truly the place where a proverb like, “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” is an accurate summary of a highly valued cultural trait. This trait makes perfect sense when a person understands that the pinnacle cultural virtue is self-esteem.

But what happens when a person who has been taught that self-dependence and independence are essential marries someone from a culture that teaches dependence and especially inter-dependence are essential? Clearly, major conflict is likely to arise! The reasons for the conflict can probably best be seen and understood by analyzing the thought process that a person from each culture uses in making major decisions.

For people in both cultures the first question that needs to be answered in making a major decision is, “What is it that I desire?” In other words, the person is basically considering, wanting to discover what it is that will bring them pleasure; make them happy; bring joy and satisfaction to themselves. Once that question has been answered though, the radical cultural differences become incredibly evident.

For the American, the next question will be, “How do I obtain that desire?” A massive amount of mental energy, time, and planning, will be expended in plotting the course that will make that desire, that dream, a reality. Once conclusions have been arrived at regarding these two issues, the only remaining question is whether or not the person will proceed to satisfy the desire or just give it up because the cost of achieving it is too high or actually obtaining the desire just isn’t realistic. The whole thought process revolves around considering what will pleasure to the person thinking these thoughts.

But for the Filipino, after deciding what it is that they believe would make them happy, discovering what they really desire, their next question will be radically different. Their next question would be something like this, “How will actually obtaining what I desire affect my relationships with my family and how will it affect their status in the eyes of the larger family and their relational community?” Before proceeding with a strategic plan on how to satisfy what the believe will please them, the Filipino must wrestle with something that the American doesn’t even consider. If the Filipino has concluded that satisfying their own desire will create tension or conflict in their relationships or negatively affect the status of their family, they now have a major, tension inducing decision to make. They must decide if the trade-off is worth it! In other words, is obtaining their own desire and the satisfaction derived from doing so, of a greater value than the strain in relationships and status loss that they themselves and their family may receive? If both doing what they want and maintaining good relationships and status for their family won’t be the result of pursuing their desire, which of the two should be chosen? If they pursue their desire, will it be worth the trade-off?

In comparing the decision making processes of the two cultures, the differences between a self-dependent/independent culture, in contrast to a dependent/interdependent culture are obvious. Because this is such a major issue, we’ll explore it a little deeper level next time. For now, just knowing that these kinds of differences exist in the thinking process that leads to decisions should prove helpful for most people in cross-cultural marriages.

6 replies
  1. Jeremy Bair
    Jeremy Bair says:

    Great post! This has become a recent issue in my world that I’m finding needs to be more discussed and addressed. There’s much conflict that could be avoided if the cultural differences are discussed/communicated. I only have one issue with the post, I can’t get that lousy Whitney Houston song out of my head now!

  2. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    I really enjoyed your cultural exegesis, Jeff. This may be something of an abstract question, but do you think that the emphasis on and preference for youthfulness in America, which isn’t seen as much in Filipino culture, is due to a fear of death among Americans? Again, possibly a strange and abstract question – but are Filipinos in the Philippines more resigned to and prepared for death than the average American? Does the question make sense? Is it even answerable?

    • Jeff Jackson
      Jeff Jackson says:


      You’ve nailed one of the important and contributing factors to the youth-centeredness of our culture. In most other cultures, death is just a part of the whole of life. They’ve reconciled with it, “resigned” themselves to it because they view and live life in a much more wholistic manner.

      Our culture is very compartmentalized–we live segmented lives. I can’t count the number of people I’ve witnessed to here in America that have made a statement similar to this one: “My faith is a private part of my life that I hold very dear but I don’t like to talk about.” Heaven forbid a presidential candidate would actually state that their faith makes a difference in every area of their life. And when life is viewed through a compartmentalized grid, that segment which is the most unpleasant is put aside, not talked about until absolutely necessary, and when it does occur, it’s totally sanitized.

  3. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    re: private faith. People tell me that their faith is private, and I say, “No, it’s not.” Your faith is like your marriage – it’s very personal, but it’s not private. Marriage is personal and public – but not private. Faith is personal and public – but not private. If my marriage was private, I would keep my wife out of sight, never be seen with her, never allow her to be spoken of by me or anyone else. What would you say of the influence of my marriage on my life is this were to occur? Anyway – your post sparked my ramble.

    I appreciate your comment about our compartmentalized lives – I think it speaks volumes.

  4. Miles DeBenedictis
    Miles DeBenedictis says:


    Very thought provoking!

    I’ve been researching the similarities and differences between “Baby-Boomers” and “Millennial’s” over the last few months, and considering how our culture is going to be reshaped by Millennial’s (now the largest generation in American history) over the next 20-30 years.

    It is interesting to me that among Millennial’s there is a greater regard (or respect) for the wisdom of age, as well as a sincere desire for community and family. I’m hopeful that some of the negative aspects of American culture that you’ve identified may soften and change.

    I read an article the other day that examined the difficulties facing Millennial’s as they try to enter the workforce and Boomers as they try to exit. With the shaking of 401(k) and other retirement plans, the plans of many Boomers for retirement have also been shaken. Our “me-centered” and self-dependent culture may be turned on it’s head in a big way. I’m pulling some things together for an article on this topic… your post is a great help to that end!


  5. Donna Amis Davis
    Donna Amis Davis says:

    Jeff, Great article. I linked it on my blog, Donnaonpalawan. We see so many cross-cultural couples here, and wonder how much wisdom went into making the decision to marry cross culturally. Your insights are a great contribution to the discussion!

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