Xavier and Yves have been seeing each other for four mostly blissful months. They have a great deal in common—they're homebodies who'd rather hang out together with a video and a home-cooked meal than party at the bars with their friends. They both like classical music, opera, and fine wine. Both have jobs they feel okay about that pay them reasonably well, though they know they'd probably have an easier time financially if they lived together—which each has been considering, though not out loud yet.
Yves is totally into the idea, though a little reluctant to bring it up until he feels more sure of Xavier's feelings for him. Xavier is, in fact, conflicted. He thinks he may be in love with Yves, who—despite his exotic name—is a blond, blue-eyed, fair-skinned boy from a small town in Indiana ( whose mother was a French teacher ) . But Xavier is Latino, born and raised in Puerto Rico with family still living there, and he's not sure he can get used to Yves' apparent ignorance about all things Puerto Rican.
It makes Xavier tense up when Yves makes inaccurate assumptions about Puerto Rico or when he confuses its food and culture with Mexico's. One evening, when the two of them were dreaming about a possible trip together to Europe, Xavier said he'd need to get a passport. Yves said, "You must have a passport. You needed one when you moved here from Puerto Rico." Xavier just rolled his eyes and explained again to Yves about how Puerto Rico is considered part of the U.S., but he was getting angrier. Part of Xavier's mounting resentment, he says, is, "I know everything about his culture. I've been surrounded by it my whole life. The least he can do is learn—and remember—a few little things about my culture."
It's been said that any two people who come together as a couple bring with them separate cultures—that of the families they grew up in—so every committed relationship involves an ongoing struggle for cultural dominance. The struggle can be about little things, like whether the soup ladle gets hung on a hook or placed in a drawer, or bigger things, like whether you scream at your beloved when you're pissed off or you maintain a strained silence for as long as possible.
Mixed-race or mixed-ethnicity relationships throw a few more ingredients into the mix. These couple dynamics can vary widely, depending on the personal idiosyncrasies of the individuals involved, the specific races or cultures represented, the connection ( or lack of ) to families of origin, and whether or not the couple has access to a supportive community.
Strangely enough, racial or ethnic differences may create less pressure for a same-sex couple than for an opposite-sex couple, mostly because a gay couple has already broken with tradition—their main struggle with families and communities-of-origin tends to focus on gaining acceptance as a gay man or lesbian, not on the race or nationality of their partner.
In this case, Xavier has been out to his parents for a few years, but the subject is never discussed. He knows they feel angry and disappointed, and he suspects it will be a long time before he would be comfortable bringing a lover back to Puerto Rico to meet his family. In the city he lives in now, however, Xavier has a close group of friends, some of whom are in their own mixed relationships.
All relationships are a two-way street; both partners have to work hard to keep their connection balanced and fair. But in mixed couples, especially when one hails from the dominant culture, there's an imbalance already built in.
So, when Yves forgets the things Xavier tells him about his background, it looks to Xavier like ethnocentrism ( i.e., "the world revolves around my cultural experiences and all other cultures are just less important" ) . It might be laziness or a poor memory or some personal issue, but Xavier sees it as Yves not caring enough about what Xavier tells him and being unwilling to learn about the culture that shaped him. And that hurts and angers Xavier.
According to anecdotal studies, some mixed couples, especially those who have little contact with their families-of-origin, function well by not giving much weight to the racial or cultural differences that may exist between them. The differences are acknowledged, just not considered all that important. Frankly, this sounds like a tricky approach that requires excellent denial skills.
In other well-functioning couples, the white member of the couple makes a point of learning and appreciating his or her partner's cultural background. This learning is not a completely equal proposition because the partner from the minority culture—like Xavier—already knows way too much about the dominant culture. Like the rest of us, he's swimming in it. Certainly, Xavier would want to know the particular way his lover absorbed the dominant culture ( e.g., did little Yves collect Barbie dolls or GI Joes? ) . And Xavier probably needs to be somewhat patient with the length of Yves' learning curve as he gets more acquainted with Xavier's culture. But, generally, the white partner in a mixed couple has to work a little harder to catch up. It's just part of the deal.
E-mail email@example.com . Paula Walowitz, M.A., LPC, is a counselor in private practice who works with couples and individuals. Call 773-293-3688.