Advice From the Trenches

What if the Norm Doesn’t Work?: One reader wonders if it’s her or her culture

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Dear C and Dr. B;

I was having a difficult time with dating and thought my own expectations were the problem … until I visited a friend living across the world, and saw how differently relationships are regarded there. They have a strong sense of family, but as far as everything else – it seems like anything goes! One woman I met was a yoga instructor who’d been married to a man from England for 15 years. They lived in different cities because they wanted different things in life, but it was an amicable agreement between the two of them, so he could keep his green card. Nobody else comments on it. The woman has a boyfriend, the man has a girlfriend, and they’re both invited to mutual friend’s weddings and events. In another house, the husband is having an affair, but the wife doesn’t care because he’s very discreet, is loving to the kids and doesn’t embarrass her in public. The wife knows who the mistress is, but pretends not to.

In the US, this would all be everybody’s business, lawyers would get involved, people would get greedy, backs would get stabbed. My friend told me that since she moved from the States, she was discovering that our social and cultural views on marriage have many variations in many other places she’s visited.

Since I got back from my trip, I’ve looked at the guys I used to date and realized they weren’t what I really wanted – they were what I was expected to want. So it makes me wonder – how much of the marital conflict and high divorce rates are due to cultural crap rather than personal or emotional issues? And what exactly is the goal of couples counseling – to make people better able to live with stuff they never wanted in the first place?

– Wendy Wonders

Dr. B says: I’ll start with your last question – what is the goal of couples counseling? What I do is to ask: “What would you like your relationship to look like 20 years from now?” and work backward from that point in order to make sure the couple is practicing the behaviors, gaining the skill set and making the decisions that will actually make that happen. This is the same goal and method used for individual counseling. All the rest, what anyone else is doing or thinks of the relationship is entirely superfluous. Your other question addresses the superfluous. 

Does culture dictate who we think we are and what we want? Yes, absolutely. Is there an I or self underneath the cultural loading that might have other needs and wants? Yes and no. We are our cultural story until we decide that it doesn’t need to represent us any longer and we can write a different story.  

Do different cultures have different cultural stories and expectations? Yes and no. Since Christianity has spread throughout the globe we have a much more limited view of “possible” than we used to, but at the same time, how each culture complies with or defies those rules and expectations differs greatly.  Europeans in general comply only superficially as they also maintain old and ingrained habits of defiance – silent, but accepted, norms like mistresses and gigolos. Woman have large social groups that support each other in their dysfunctional relations.   

America lost these extended female support networks to deal with dysfunctional relations and replaced them with Xanax and valium. In Muslim countries a wife can be killed for looking at another man but there is a class of female prostitutes that do not marry and it’s perfectly acceptable for men to have relations with them. Japan also has a female prostitute social class that is acceptable for married men to frequent.  

America has no socially accepted prostitution but certainly has non formalized prostitution. I doubt there is any place that doesn’t have crazy behavior and dysfunctional relations. Being human is messy. Most societal and religious rules are arbitrary and have nothing to do with human nature, but as people have to live together, so life and culture get interesting in dysfunctional ways. 

C says: No one is going to change the social norms of the culture they live in, at least not during their own lifetime. So if you want to adapt a different model than the one you see here, you are going to have to either a) move to another country where people are more accepting of what you want, or b) cover up your propensities in public and keep your private life private. A surprising number of the diplomats in the UN who live in countries where homosexuality is a crime punishable by death are, in fact, gay. It’s a secret that only gets publicized if they become an impediment in someone else’s larger political aspirations.

There’s actually probably a lot more alternative relationships going on in the States than you are aware of. Remember – a tacit agreement is silent. It is only known by the parties involved, and there’s very little that goes on between consenting adults that really needs to be made public.

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