Psychotherapy with Intercultural Couples: A Contemporary Psychodynamic Approach

By Waldman, Ken; Rubalcava, Luis | American Journal of Psychotherapy, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Psychotherapy with Intercultural Couples: A Contemporary Psychodynamic Approach


Waldman, Ken, Rubalcava, Luis, American Journal of Psychotherapy


Although the number of intercultural marriages has dramatically increased in the last three decades, few articles have been published on the counseling of intercultural couples. The authors propose a methodology for working with these couples using intersubjectivity and self- psychology as theoretical perspectives. The role of culture in the construction of the individual's subjectivity is seen as central to understanding the psychodynamics of the intercultural couple. Two case studies are presented in order to highlight the theoretical assumptions underlying the authors' perspectives.

INTRODUCTION

We have found that working therapeutically with intercultural couples benefits from a heightened sensitivity to the role that culture plays in the construction of the psychological self and the structuring of lived experience. In a previous paper (Rubalcava & Waldman, 2004) we discussed working therapeutically with intercultural couples using a framework that integrates perspectives from interpretive anthropology with contemporary psychodynamic theories. We noted the increase in intercultural marriages, the expanding literature on this issue, (Baptiste, 1984; Biever, Bobole & North, 1998; Carter & McGoldrick, 1989; Crohn, 1998; Falicov, 1995; Ho, 1990; Ibrahim & Schroeder, 1990; Hsu, 2001; Perel, 2000; Tseng, & Streltzer, 2001) and that little has been written ". . .about the role of culture and the experience of culture in influencing the individual and couple psychodynamics in these intercultual marriages" (p. 127). A number of articles have been published about conducting psychotherapy with ethnic minorities from an analytically informed perspective (Comas-Diaz, & Jacobsen, 1999; Comas-Diaz & Minrath. 1985; Jackson & Green, 2000; Yi, 1995, 1998), but this literature lacks in an explication of how growing up within a culture structures the unconscious ways in which individuals will experience and respond to each other.

In marriage, where personal organization and the affective worlds of each of the partners will necessarily meet, conflicting unconscious cultural presumptions collide and often interfere with the couple's ability to create a harmonious relationship. These conflicts, when brought into psychotherapy, offer the opportunity to bring the role of culture in the structuring of subjective experience into a more conscious awareness. Therapists who are able to illuminate empathically the unconscious cultural differences may help the partners to heal the ruptures created by those cultural differences.

In this article we expand on the integration of contemporary psychoanalytic perspectives with interpretive anthropology to develop a more integrated approach to working with intercultural couples. Partners with the same ethnicity whose issues nevertheless revolve around unconsciously grounded cultural differences will also constitute an intercultural couple. We use constructs from intersubjectivity theory and self-psychology to illuminate the unconscious psychological organization grounded in culture that shapes the individual subjective experiences of all the individuals in the therapy. We found that bringing the unconscious cultural influences into the couple's awareness facilitates the therapist's ability to help the individuals integrate those differences and coconstruct a distinct "relational culture."1

INTERCULTURAL MARRIAGES

Ho's (1990) generic term "intercultural marriages" refers to marriage between partners from different racial, ethnic, national or religious backgrounds. The academic and professional literature, as well as the popular media, has tended to maintain this focus on race, ethnicity and religion in the discussion of intercultural unions. We suggest that the individual human experience of culture is considerably more complex, and highly significant in the construction of personal psychological organizations. We propose that the role of culture in human development is such that individuals of all cultures will tend to presume that their cultural values are representative of truth and/or the way things ought to be. …

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