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Therapy with Intercultural Couples
When a therapist is able to understand empathically and to respond to each of the individuals, he/she will provide simultaneously a selfobject experience for one partner and allow the other partner to see the therapist make "empathic" sense of the partner's behavior and organization of experience. Each partner's "self object needs" to be empathically understood can be met as each discovers how his or her organizing principles may be self-limiting in significant ways.
In cases where the therapist can identify and interpret the differences in perceptions as culturally grounded, the therapist may help the partners to better understand and accept those differences. Therapy with these couples requires the therapist to develop an empathic understanding of each individual's experience. The therapist must be able to articulate his or her understanding in a way that enables each partner to more fully comprehend the experience of the other, as well as those factors that will influence each partner's individual constructions of meaning and interpretation.
The therapist must create an atmosphere of nonjudgmental curiosity and willingness to understand the other to illuminate, describe, and interpret organizing principles that are the cultural and idiosyncratic ways of interpreting and creating meaning of the other's behavior. Sustained empathic inquiry is both the stance and method in this approach to therapy with intercultural couples. The therapist must endeavor to "understand" and interpret how each of the partners might come to think, feel, believe or behave in the ways that they do.
In a paper we published in 2004, we noted that:
We are not suggesting that the cultural organizing principles are the singular or most important differences confronting the intercultural couple, but rather that the cultural organizing principles will be imbedded within the individual subjectivities of the partners. However, cultural organizing principles may be used to both illuminate differences between individuals and to help individuals understand those differences. When a therapist is able to introduce the concept of the cultural organizing principle, it may have the effect of de-pathologizing behaviors and increasing communication and understanding.
Hector and Sandra
Hector is a first-generation Chicano( n3) born into a family of ten siblings. He was the second youngest in the family constellation. Sandra is a third-generation Mexican-American with one younger sister. Although both Sandra and Hector are of Mexican descent, they had very different cultural organizing principles as a result of having been raised in different cultural surrounds. The different cultural organizing principles supported differences in values, behavior and understanding. Hector had a predominantly collectivist orientation that is consistent with the Mexican culture, whereas Sandra, being highly acculturated into the dominant American culture, had a more individualistic Eurocentric perspective. Their differently organized experiential worlds collided and precipitated multiple crises in their new marriage.
Sandra often referred to Hector as a "mama's boy." I asked her what she meant by that. She explained that "it was obvious that he had not managed to cut the proverbial umbilical cord because he insisted on seeing his mother every day!" Hector, the second-youngest child in his family, experienced himself as his mother's good little boy, her "angelito." Sandra insisted that it was time for Hector to grow up, finish college, earn his bachelor's degree, and get a full-time job. She proudly proclaimed that she had managed to separate from her own domineering mother and only visited her every three months. Although there were many factors contributing to the repetitive polarizing patterns that Hector and Sandra were experiencing, cultural value differences were omnipresent.
With a glimmer of insight into her behavior, Sandra lamented that in her relationship with Hector she was acting in many ways like her dominant mother. Sandra thus provided me with an exquisite opportunity to explore how their own relational and familial histories were influencing their marital relationship. I was able to point out to Sandra that by insisting on imposing her own, culturally grounded values of autonomy, separation and individuation, she was asserting paradoxically her power and helping Hector to stay a compliant little boy.
As noted above, because of their differences in acculturation, Sandra and Hector had two distinct ways of organizing experience. Each insisted on the correctness of his or her own perceptions. Since their respective cultural organizing principles were largely unconscious, the first therapeutic task was to shift the locus of the problem from the couple to their cultural differences (Falicov, 1995). This facilitated bringing their organizing activities to consciousness. Once their respective cultural organizing principles were brought into consciousness, they were able to reflect, negotiate and more consciously co-construct their own unique marital subculture.
The therapist's task is not to identify with or pathologize either partner's perspective. Seen from the individualistic orientation of the American culture, Hector's behavior was seen as dependent and infantile. Seen from the collectivist perspective, Hector behaves like a good and loyal son. From the collectivist perspective, Sandra's behavior is perceived as self centered and insensitive. Therapists must be aware of how their own cultural organizing principles might lead them to take sides rather than to recognize the cultural origins of each perspective.
Making empathic interpretations of cultural organizing principles is an effective method for stimulating change in an intercultural couple's relational dynamics. An intervention that simultaneously conveys therapist understanding of each partner and a more neutral or positive cultural interpretation of the event(s), enables each partner to develop a more empathic understanding of the other. We view the therapeutic encounter between couple and therapist as a complex intercultural system. When the therapist is able to enter into the intersubjective field of the couple and provide selfobject experiences for each partner, the therapist demonstrates how one can provide selfobject experiences for another by making a sincere attempt to understand each of the partners from his or her own point of view and flame of reference.
Observation of Couple Conflicts: Clinical Assessment Applications,
- Heyman, R. E. (2001). Observation of Couple Conflicts: Clinical Assessment Applications, Stubborn Truths, and Shaky Foundations. Psychol Assess., 13(1). 5-35.
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